It's almost the end of May. Do you know your Asian-American history?
Most of America isn't aware that May is Asian-American Heritage Month. It's a celebration that started in 1978, when Congress urged President Jimmy Carter to declare the week of May 4th "Asian-American Heritage Week." (That date was chosen to coincide with the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad — built largely by Chinese laborers — on May 10, 1869.) More recently in 1990, following another vote by Congress, President George H.W. Bush expanded Asian-American Heritage Week to encompass the entire month of May.
Sadly, Asian-American history and heritage is rarely taught in U.S. public schools. So for those of you who've missed such curriculum, here's a list of 10 factoids you may not have known about the history of Asian-Americans in this country:
- The first Asians whose arrival in America was documented were Filipinos who escaped a Spanish galleon in 1763. They formed the first Asian-American settlement in U.S. history, in the swamps surrounding modern-day New Orleans.
- In the years between 1917 and 1965, Uncle Sam explicitly outlawed immigration to the U.S. of all Asian people. Immigration from China, for example, was banned as early as 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It wasn't until the Immigration Act of 1965 — which abolished national origins as a basis for immigration decisions — that nearly 50 years of race-based discrimination against Asian immigrants ended.
- Because of their race, Asians immigrants were denied the right to naturalize as U.S. citizens until the 1943 Magnuson Act was passed. Consequently, for nearly a century of U.S. history, Asians were barred from owning land and testifying in court by laws that specifically targeted "aliens ineligible to citizenship." Even after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, American-born children of Chinese immigrants were not regarded as American citizens until the landmark 1898 Supreme Court case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, which established that the Fourteen Amendment also applied to people of Asian descent.
- Among the earliest Asian immigrants, virtually all ethnicities worked together as physical laborers, particularly on Hawaii's sugar cane plantations. On these plantations, a unique hybrid language — pidgin — developed that contained elements of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean and English. Today, pidgin is one of the official languages of Hawaii, a state that is itself 40% Asian.
- Despite the Alien Land Law, which specifically prevented Asians from owning their own land, Japanese farmers were highly successful in the West Coast where they put into practice their knowledge of cultivating nutrient-poor soil to yield profitable harvests. By the 1920s, Japanese farmers (working their own land, or land held by white landowners that they managed) were the chief agricultural producers of many West Coast crops. In fact, the success of Japanese farmers is often cited as one of the reasons white landowners in California lobbied to support Japanese-American internment following the declaration of World War II.
- Many of the early Asian immigrants who worked as laborers on plantations and in factories were instrumental in the formation of the American labour movement, helping to organize some of the first strikes and unions throughout the country. Japanese plantation workers, for example, engaged in the first organized strike in Hawaii in 1904.
- Anti-miscegenation laws that denied marriage licenses between interracial couples specifically prohibited intermarriage between whites and Asians. For example, the 1922 Cable Act revoked the citizenship of any female U.S. citizen who married an "alien ineligible to citizenship," a phrase repeatedly used in legal documents to refer to Asians.
- Unlike Irish immigrants, who predominantly entered the United States via the Ellis Island immigration center, most Asian immigrants entered America by way of Angel Island Immigration Station. Unlike at Ellis Island, where immigrants might spend between two and five hours waiting to be processed, the Angel Island facility's unspoken goal was to limit the flow of Asian immigrants into the country. Between 1910 and 1940, many prospective Asian immigrants were detained for as long as two years at Angel Island, stymied by U.S. immigration officials hoping to find reasons to deport them. Some of the detainees wrote poems in Chinese on the walls of the Angel Island detention facility; these poems have since been translated and collected into anthologies.
- During World War II, Japanese American internees — including both Japanese immigrants and their American children — were forcibly relocated from their homes in the West Coast to remote relocation camps. Even still, several young Japanese-American men went on to successfully lobby the American government to be allowed to volunteer as soldiers in World War II, often to prove their loyalty to the United States. The 442nd infantry regiment, a segregated Asian-American unit composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, fought in Italy, France and Germany and is still the most highly decorated regiment in United States Armed Forces history.
- In 1982, a young Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was brutally clubbed to death by two white men in Detroit, Michigan. The crime was motivated, in part, by anti-Asian sentiment stemming from widespread loss of auto manufacturing jobs to Japanese competitors; Ronald Ebens, one of the attackers, was heard saying "it's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work" to Chin moments before the attack. Despite pleading guilty to second-degree murder, Chin's killers did not serve any jail time for Chin's murder, and were only fined $3,000. Vincent Chin's death served as a flashpoint that ignited the modern Asian-American political movement.
Know anyone else who might benefit from an Asian-American history lesson? Tell your friends, pass it on — and leave any other key moments you think I missed in the comments.
Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives