History of Asian Americans

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Asian American history is the history of an ethnic and racial groups in the United States who are immigrants or descendants of persons from the continent of Asia. Spickard (2007) shows that "'Asian American' was an idea invented in the 1960s to bring together Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans for strategic political purposes. Soon other Asian-origin groups, such as Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong and South Asian Americans, were added."[1] They had arrived as unskilled workers in significant numbers 1850–1905, and largely settled in Hawaii and California. They were the subject of intense hostility on the mainland into the 1940s.[2] Since the change in the immigration laws in 1965, middle class Asians from many countries arrived in large numbers as college students, engineers and businessmen.[3] Their image of success was often portrayed with headlines of the "Model Minority".[4] For the contemporary situation see Asian American.


San Lorenzo, California. Fruit and vegetable stand on highway operated by a Filipino American.

The Chinese arrived in the U.S. in large numbers on the West Coast in the 1850s and 1860s to work in the gold mines and railroads. They encountered very strong opposition—violent as riots and physical attacks forced them out of the gold mines (citation needed). The Central Pacific railroad hired thousands, but after the line was finished in 1869 they were hounded out of many railroad towns in states such as Wyoming and Nevada. Most wound up in Chinatowns—areas of large cities which the police largely ignored. The Chinese were further alleged to be "coolies" and were said to be not suitable for becoming independent thoughtful voters because of their control by tongs. The same negative reception hit the Asians who migrated to Mexico and Canada.[5][6]

The Japanese arrived in large numbers 1890–1907, many going to Hawaii (an independent country until 1898), and others to the West Coast. Hostility was very high on the West Coast, but not especially violent. Hawaii was a multicultural society in which the Japanese experienced about the same level of distrust as other groups. Indeed, they were the largest population group by 1910, and after 1950 took political control of Hawaii. The Japanese on the West Coast of the U.S. (as well as Canada and Latin America) were interned during World War II, but very few on Hawaii at the Honouliuli Internment Camp.


According to Chan (1996), the historiography of Asians in America falls into four periods. The 1870s to the 1920s saw partisan debates over curtailing Chinese and Japanese immigration; "Yellow Peril" diatribes battled strong, missionary-based defenses of the immigrants. Studies written from the 1920s to the 1960s were dominated by social scientists, who focused on issues of assimilation and social organization, as well as the World War II internment camps. Activist revisionism marked the 1960s to the early 1980s as a new wave of Asian-American scholars rejected the dominant assimilationist paradigm, and instead turned to classical Marxism and internal colonialist models. Starting in the early 1980s there was an increased stress on human agency. Only after 1990 has there been much scholarship by professional historians.


Major milestones according to standard reference works[7] are:

16th century

  • 1587, "Luzonians" set foot in North America arrive in Morro Bay, (San Luis Obispo) California on board the Manila-built galleon ship Nuestra Senora de Esperanza under the command of Spanish Captain Pedro de Unamuno.[8][9]
  • 1595, Filipino sailors aboard a Spanish "galleon" the San Agustin which was commanded by Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno arrive on the shores of Point Reyes outside the mouth of the Bay Area. The ship was on a trip to Acapulco before it was shipwrecked on the aforementioned area.[10]

17th century

18th century

  • 1763, Filipinos established the small settlement of Saint Malo in the bayous of Louisiana, after fleeing mistreatment aboard Spanish ships. Since there were no Filipino women with them, the Manilamen, as they were known, married Cajun and Native American women.[12]
  • 1778, Chinese sailors first came to Hawaii the same year that Captain James Cook came upon the island. Many settled and married Hawaiian women.

19th century

  • 1815, Filipinos, living in Louisiana, known as, "Manilamen", who were shrimp fishermen and smugglers, working with Jean Lafitte, the Gulf of Mexico pirate chief, serve under General Andrew Jackson's American forces, in the War of 1812, as artillery gunners, at the Battle of New Orleans.
  • 1820s, Chinese (mostly merchants, sailors, and students) begin to immigrate via Sino-U.S. maritime trade.
  • 1841, Captain Whitfield, commanding an American whaler in the Pacific, rescues five shipwrecked Japanese sailors. Four disembark at Honolulu, however Manjiro Nakahama stays on board returning with Whitfield to Fairhaven, Massachusetts. After attending school in New England and adopting the name John Manjiro, he later became an interpreter for Commodore Matthew Perry.
  • 1850, seventeen survivors of a Japanese shipwreck were saved by an American freighter; In 1852, the group joins Commodore Matthew Perry to help open diplomatic relations with Japan. One of them, Joseph Heco (Hikozo Hamada) later becomes a naturalized US citizen.
  • 1854, the California Supreme Court case ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible.[13]
  • 1861-1865, Approximately, 70 Chinese and Filipinos enlist, during the American Civil War, into the Union Army and Union Navy, as well as, serving, in smaller numbers, in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America.
  • 1861 The utopian minister Thomas Lake Harris of the Brotherhood of the New Life visits England, where he meets Nagasawa Kanaye, who becomes a convert. Nagasawa returns to the US with Harris and follows him to Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, California. When Harris leaves the Californian commune, Nagasawa became the leader and remained there until his death in 1932.
  • 1862, California imposes a tax of $2.50 a month on every Chinese man
  • 1865, The Central Pacific Railroad Co. recruits Chinese workers for the transcontinental railroad from California to Utah. Many are killed or injured in the harsh conditions blasting through difficult mountain terrain.
  • 1869, A group of Japanese build the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in Gold Hill, California
  • 1869, The Fourteenth Amendment gives full citizenship to every baby born in the U.S., regardless of race.
  • 1877, Denis Kearney organizes anti-Chinese movement in San Francisco; forms Workingmen's Party of California alleging Chinese workers took lower wages, poorer conditions, and longer hours than white workers were willing to tolerate
  • 1878, Chinese are ruled ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
  • 1882, Chinese Exclusion Act is passed banning immigration of laborers from China. Students and businessmen are allowed. Large numbers of Chinese gain entry by claiming American birth.[14]
  • 1884, Philip Jason, a Korean independence activist and physician who later became an American citizen among Koreans for the first time, arrived in the United States.
  • 1886 the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming kills 28 Chinese miners.
  • 1887, Robbers kill 31 Chinese miners Snake River, Oregon.
  • 1890, In Hawaiʻi, then an independent country, sugar plantations hire large numbers of Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos; they form a majority of the population by 1898.
  • 1898 Hawaiʻi joins the U.S. as a territory. Most residents are Asian and they receive full U.S. citizenship.
  • 1898 The Philippines joins the U.S. as a territory. The residents of the Philippines become U.S. nationals but not citizens.

20th century to 1940

  • 1902, Yone Noguchi publishes The American Diary of a Japanese Girl.
  • 1903 Ahn Chang Ho, pen name Dosan, founded the Friendship Society in 1903 and the Mutual Assistant Society.
  • 1904, Seungman Rhee (이승만), comes to the U.S. to earn a B.A at George Washington University and a Ph.D from Princeton University. In 1910, he returned to Korea and became a political activist during Japanese occupation of Korea. He later became the first president of South Korea.
  • 1906 The San Francisco segregates Japanese students, but withdraws at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt and protests by the Japanese government.
  • 1907, Gentlemen's Agreement between United States and Japan that Japan would stop issuing passports for new laborers.
  • 1910, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay opens as the major station for as many as 175,000 Chinese and 60,000 Japanese immigrants between 1910 and 1940.
  • 1913, California bans Japanese immigrants ("Issei") from purchasing land; land is purchased instead in the names of U.S. born children ("Nisei") who are citizens
  • 1924, United States Immigration Act of 1924 (Oriental Exclusion Act) banned most immigration from Asia. The quota for most Asian countries is zero. Public opinion in Japan is outraged by the insult.
  • 1927, in the infamous case of Lum v. Rice the Supreme Court found that states possess the right to define a Chinese student as non-white for the purpose of segregating them in public schools.[15][16][17]
  • 1930, Anti-Filipino riot occurred in Watsonville, California.[18]
  • 1933, Filipinos are ruled ineligible for citizenship barring immigration. Roldan v. Los Angeles County found that existing California anti-miscegenation laws did not bar Filipino-white marriages, but the state quickly moved to amend the law and made it so that Filipinos could no longer marry White people.[19][20]
  • 1935, Tydings-McDuffie Act gives "Commonwealth" status to the Philippines hence allowing immigration of Filipinos; Philippines independence is scheduled for 1946


  • 1941, Japanese navy attacks Pearl Harbor; FBI arrests pro-Japanese community leaders in Hawaii and U.S.
  • 1941, Japanese army invades Philippines; Japanese residents support the invaders
  • 1941-45 Filipino resistance movement, working closely with U.S. Army, fights the Japanese invaders
  • 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 on February 19, uprooting 100,000 people of Japanese birth or descent on the west coast to be sent to Internment camps; similar actions take place in Canada.
  • 1943, Japanese soldiers from Hawaiʻi join the U.S. Army 100th Battalion arrive in Europe.
  • 1944, U.S. Army 100th Battalion merges with the all-volunteer Asian Americans of Japanese descent 442nd Regimental Combat Team
  • 1945, 442nd Regimental Combat team awarded 18,143 decorations including 9,486 Purple Heart decorations becoming the highest decorated military unit in United States history
  • 1946, the Luce–Celler Act of 1946 grants naturalization opportunities to Filipino Americans and Indian Americans (which included present-day Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) and re-established immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.
  • 1947-1989, String American interest in Asia during Cold War, especially Korea and Vietnam.[21]
  • 1947, Wataru Misaka a Japanese American was the first player of color and first American of Asian descent and the first non-Caucasian person to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA), known then as the Basketball Association of America (BAA)[22] making him the person that broke the professional basketball color barrier the same year that Baseball player Jackie Robinson broke the broke the Baseball color barrier.
  • 1948, Olympic diver Sammy Lee became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.[23]
  • 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong the first U.S. television series starring an Asian-American series lead was launched on the now defunct television network DuMont.[24] The lead actress of the series was Anna May Wong the first female Asian American movie star and the first Chinese American movie star.
  • 1956, Dalip Singh Saund (1899–1973) first Asian to be elected for Congress; he is a Sikh from California
  • 1962, Professional American Football player Roman Gabriel, was the first Asian-American to start as an NFL quarterback.
  • 1962, Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaiʻi elected for the US Senate; he wins reelection in 1968, 1974, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, 2004, and 2010
  • 1963, Rocky Fellers, a Filipino American boy band is first Asian American to hit Billboard 100."Killer Joe" reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1963, No. 1 in both New York and Los Angeles, CA.
  • 1964, Grace Lee Boggs author and social activist, met with Malcolm X and unsuccessfully attempted to convince him to run for the United States Senate.
  • 1964, Senator Hiram Fong of Hawaii becomes first Asian American to run for President of the United States, as a favorite son candidate in his state's primary. He is also the first person from Hawaii to run for President, and runs again in 1968.
  • 1965, Yuri Kochiyama human rights activist and Longtime friend to Malcolm X, on February 21, 1965 the day of his X's assassination, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, she ran to him after he was shot and held him in her arms as he lay dying.
  • 1965, Patsy T. Mink of Hawaiʻi becomes the first woman of color elected to Congress.
  • 1965, John Wing serves as Mississippi's first Chinese American mayor; he serves as mayor of Jonestown, Mississippi, through 1973.[25]
  • 1965, Luck Wing serves four terms as the Mayor of Sledge, Mississippi population 600. Wing served as mayor and significantly changed the Chinese American experience in the Mississippi Delta.[26]
  • 1966, a group of mostly Filipino farm workers go on strike against growers of table grapes in California a strike which became known as the famous Delano grape strike they were led by the famous Asian American activists and labor organizers Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong.
  • 1970s-1980's, Asians Americans created their own distinct genre of music Asian-American jazz and launched a musical movement based around it.
  • 1971, Norman Y. Mineta elected mayor of San Jose, California; becomes first Asian American mayor of a major US city; Herbert Choy nominated supreme court justice.
  • 1972, Patsy Mink co-authors and sponsors the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act and gets it effectively passed on June 23 the act was for the prohibition of gender discrimination in the U.S. education system or other federally funded institutions. In the same year, Mink also becomes the first Asian American woman to run for President of the United States, participating in the Oregon Democratic Primary.
  • 1974, George R. Ariyoshi elected governor of Hawaiʻi
  • 1976, Samuel Ichiye (S. I.) Hayakawa of California and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaiʻi elected as US Senators
  • 1978, Ellison S. Onizuka becomes the first Asian American astronaut
  • 1980s- present Since the 1980s Asian Americans have made dramatic advances as students and faculty in higher education, especially in California. There have been sharp debates regarding the existence of discrimination against high-performing Asians.[27]
  • 1980, Congress creates Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate internment of Japanese Americans; in 1983 it reports Japanese American internment was not a national security necessity
  • 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in Highland Park, Michigan near Detroit his murder became a rally point for Asian Americans. Vincent Chin's murder is often considered the beginning of a pan-ethnic Asian American movement.
  • 1988, President Ronald Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act of 1988 apologizing for Japanese American internment and provide reparations of $20,000 to each victim
  • 1992, Eugene Chung is a former American football offensive lineman who played in the National Football League from 1992 to 1997.
  • 1992, Hae Jong Kim elected Bishop of United Methodist Church; Paull Shin elected for Washington State Senate;LA Riots of April 1992.
  • 1996, Gary Locke is elected governor of Washington state. When he was elected in 1995 Locke became the first—and to date the only—Chinese American to serve as the governor of a state, holding the post for two terms.
  • 1999, Gen. Eric Shinseki becomes the first Asian American U.S. Army chief of staff.
  • 1999, David Wu is elected as Congressman for Oregon 1st District

21st century

  • 2000, Norman Y. Mineta. Democratic Congressman, appointed by President Bill Clinton as the first Asian American appointed to the U.S. Cabinet; worked as Commerce Secretary (2000–2001), Transportation Secretary (2001–2006).
  • 2000, Angela Perez Baraquio became the first Asian American, first Filipino American, and first teacher ever to have been crowned Miss America.
  • 2001, Elaine Chao was appointed by President George W. Bush as the Secretary of Labor, serving to 2009. She is the first Asian American woman to serve in the Cabinet.
  • 2002, less than a month after the death of Rep. Patsy Mink, Congress passed a resolution to rename Title IX the "Patsy Takemoto Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
  • 2003, Ignatius C. Wang is an American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 2002 to 2009.
  • 2008, Cung Le, first Asian American to win a major mma title by defeating Frank Shamrock via TKO in Strikeforce
  • 2008, Bruce Reyes-Chow, 3rd generation Filipino and Chinese American, was Elected Moderator of the 2 million member Presbyterian Church (USA)[28]
  • 2008, Tim Lincecum, a starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, is selected as an All Star for the Major League All Star Game. Lincecum, who is half-Filipino, also won the Cy Young award as the most successful pitcher in the National League in 2008. Lincecum is the first Asian American to be selected as the Cy Young winner. Lincecum also won the Cy Young again in 2009 and led the Giants to a World Series victory in 2010.
  • 2009, Steven Chu, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics, is sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Energy—thereby becoming the first person appointed to the US Cabinet after having won a Nobel Prize.[29] He is also the second Chinese American to become a member of Cabinet (after Elaine Chao.) [30]
  • 2009, Joseph Cao, a Republican, elected U.S. Representative for Louisiana's 2nd congressional district; he was defeated for reelection in 2010
  • 2009, Gary Locke is appointed by President Obama to serve as the Secretary of Commerce.
  • 2009, Dr. Jim Yong Kim is appointed as President of Dartmouth College, becoming the first Asian American president of an Ivy League School.
  • 2010, Immigration from Asia surpassed immigration from Latin America.[31] Many of these immigrants are recruited by American companies from college campuses in India, China, and South Korea.[32]
  • 2010, Daniel Inouye is sworn in as President Pro Tempore making him the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in American history.
  • 2010, Far East Movement is the second Asian American band to top the Billboard 100, second only to Rocky Fellers with its song "Like a G6". The song was number one on two separate weeks in November 2010.
  • 2010, Jeremy Lin is the first American-born Taiwanese to become an NBA player. Lin was a star basketball player for Harvard University and excelled at NBA pre-draft camps. Lin is currently a player for the Charlotte Hornets.
  • 2010, Jean Quan is elected as Mayor of Oakland, California. Quan is the first Asian American woman elected mayor of a major American city. Quan is Oakland's first Asian American mayor.[33]
  • 2010, Ed Lee is appointed as Mayor of San Francisco, California.[33]
  • 2011, Gary Locke becomes U.S. Ambassador to the People's Republic of China.[34]
  • 2013, Nina Davuluri became the second Asian American and first Indian American to be crowned as Miss America. She is the second Asian American following Angela Perez Baraquio in 2000.
  • 2015, Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana (2008—present), becomes the first Indian American to run for President of the United States, and is the first Asian American to run a nationwide campaign to seek the United States Presidency.

See also

Histories of specific ethnic/national subgroups:

Further reading

Reference books

  • Chen, Edith Wen-Chu, and Grace J. Yoo, eds. Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today (2 vol, 2009) excerpt and text search
  • Huang, Guiyou, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature (3 vol. 2008) excerpt and text search
  • Japanese American National Museum. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-To-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present (2nd ed. 2000)
  • Kim, Hyung-Chan, ed. Dictionary of Asian American History (1986) 629pp; online edition
  • Lee, Jonathan H.X. and Kathleen M. Nadeau, eds. Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife (3 vol. 2010)
  • Ng, Franklin. The Asian American Encyclopedia (6 vol., 1995)
  • Oh, Seiwoong, ed.. Encyclopedia of Asian-American Literature (2007)
  • Schultz, Jeffrey D., et al. eds. Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: Volume 1: African Americans and Asian Americans (2000) excerpt and text search

Surveys by scholars

  • Barth Gunther. Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850–1870 (1964).
  • Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (1991)
  • Fuchs, Lawrence H. Hawaii Pono: An Ethnic and Political History (1997)
  • Okihiro, Gary Y. The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (2001) online edition
  • Okihiro, Gary Y. Margins and mainstreams: Asians in American history and culture (University of Washington Press, 2014)
  • Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835–1920 (1983)


  • Chan, Sucheng. "The changing contours of Asian-American historiography," Rethinking History, March 2007, Vol. 11 Issue 1, pp. 125–147,
  • Chan, Sucheng. "Asian American historiography," Pacific Historical Review, Aug 1996, Vol. 65#3 pp. 363–99
  • Espiritu, Augusto. "Transnationalism and Filipino American Historiography," Journal of Asian American Studies, June 2008, Vol. 11#2 pp. 171–184,
  • Friday, Chris. "Asian American Labor and Historical Interpretation," Labor History, Fall 1994, Vol. 35#4 pp. 524–546,
  • Gregory, Peter N. "Describing the Elephant: Buddhism in American," Religion and American Culture, Summer 2001, Vol. 11#2 pp. 233–63
  • Kim, Lili M. "Doing Korean American History in the Twenty-First Century," Journal of Asian American Studies, June 2008, Vol. 11@2 pp 199–209
  • Lai, Him Mark. "Chinese American Studies: A Historical Survey". Chinese America: History and Perspectives. 1995: 11–29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lee, Erika, "Orientalisms in the Americas: A Hemispheric Approach to Asian American History," Journal of Asian American Studies vol 8#3 (2005) pp 235–256. Notes that 30-40% of the Chinese and Japanese immigrants before 1941 went to Latin America, especially Brazil, and many others went to Canada.
  • Ngai, Mae M. "Asian American History--Reflections on the De-centering of the Field," Journal of American Ethnic History, Summer 2006, Vol. 25#4 pp 97–108
  • Okihiro, Gary Y. The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Okihiro, Gary Y. Common Ground: Reimagining American History (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Tamura, Eillen H. "Historiographical Essay," History of Education Quarterly, Spring 2001, Vol. 41#1 pp. 58–71
  • Tamura, Eillen H. "Using the Past to Inform the Future: An Historiography of Hawaii's Asian and Pacific Islanders," Amerasia Journal, 2000, Vol. 26#1 pp. 55–85


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