Asian History in the US - Milestones, Famous Figures and Quotes
It is no secret that a good portion of the United States population is composed of immigrants. According to statistics from the United Nations, the country actually has the highest number of immigrants worldwide.
A significant chunk of this immigrant population traces their roots from over twenty Asian countries. In fact, there are currently twenty million Asian Americans living in the US. This number is only set to grow in the coming years with Asians being the fastest growing major racial/ethnic group at the moment.
Asian Americans and their culture have played and still play an essential role in US society. Here is an overview of the group’s long and eventful history in the ‘land of milk and honey.’
- Pew Research Center: Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing population
- Center For American Progress: Asian immigrants in the United States today
Milestones in US Asian History
The arrival of Asians of different nationalities in the US has been recorded since the 1700s. However, large populations of immigrants would only be noticed in the mid-1800s when thousands of Chinese nationals arrived to work in Hawaii and California.
Growing in number, the group would then be branded as the ‘Yellow Peril’ during the early twentieth century and were denied citizenship. In 1924, the passing of the Immigration Act led to a total ban against all Asian nationalities from entering the country. This law would later be repealed in the 1960s with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which made immigration of Asian nationalities easier.
The 1960s Civil Rights era also saw the rise of Asian American grassroots movements which fought for equality together with Black American groups. Activism among Asian American students in colleges all over the country was also observed.
Meanwhile, the 1980s saw the signing of a proclamation creating the Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, which is still celebrated today. After decades of campaigning, Japanese Americans wrongfully imprisoned during World War II finally received reparations and an official apology from the US government.
- Japanese American Citizens League: An Unnoticed Struggle: A concise history of Asian American civil rights issues
- Center for Educational Telecommunications: Asian American history timeline
- National Park Service: Asian American activism and civic participation: Battling for political rights and citizenship, 1917 to the present
Famous Figures and Quotes
While the first Asian immigrants who came to the US worked manual labor jobs, those who followed them were able to make a name for themselves in other fields.
There’s actress Anna May Wong, who overcame racial prejudice to become Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star. Wong was a second-generation Chinese immigrant who was born and grew up in Los Angeles. She made her on-screen debut at 14 starring in the film, ‘The Red Lantern.’
“I’m Chinese by race, and I love Chinese people and things. I love our traditions and even our ancient religions. I think there is poetry in our plural gods of the North Wind, the West Wind and the like...My only regret is the limitation upon my work, as I can only play oriental roles.”
- Anna May Wong
In the realm of sports, there is professional golfer, Tiger Woods. Born to a Thai mother and an African American father, Woods rose to prominence when he turned pro at the age of twenty and caught the attention of large brands like Nike. He currently ranks second in most major tournament wins and is considered to be one of the greatest golfers in history.
“The greatest thing about tomorrow is, I will be better than I am today. And that's how I look at my life. I will be a better golfer. I will be a better person. I will be a better father. I will be a better husband. I will be a better friend. That's the beauty of tomorrow.”
- Tiger Woods
Get to know other influential Asian American figures in history through the resources linked below.
- National Women’s History Museum: Celebrating Asian American women
- Zinn Education Project: Asian Americans and moments in people’s history
- Asian Counseling and Referral Service: Celebrating the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Asian Culture in the US
Asians took their culture with them when they came to the United States. While it’s still unclear whether there really is a distinctly Asian American culture, influences of first-generation immigrant traditions and customs can be seen in modern American society.
There are also various Asian ‘towns’ within many urban areas. It seems like there’s a Chinatown or a Little India in almost every thriving metropolis in the US. There is also the enduring popularity of various Asian cuisines, from Thai to Chinese to Japanese, which are enjoyed by almost everyone regardless of ethnicity.
However, further generations of Asian immigrants also face a struggle with reconciling their ancestors’ culture to that of American society’s which they feel the need to be accepted by.
- American Psychological Association: Is there such a thing as Asian culture? Unveiling Asian American achievement
- Brigham Young University: American Asians & Asian diversity cultural information
- Library of Congress: East Asian American traditions
- National Endowment for the Humanities: Preserving Asian-American history and culture
Landmarks and Historic Sites Across America
A testament to the long history of Asians in the US is the number of historical landmarks and sites associated with the group and their experience.
There is Chinatown located in San Francisco, California. Established in 1848, the historic place is actually the oldest of its kind to be built in North America. What’s more, it is also believed to be the biggest Chinese enclave outside of Asia, with a population of over 34,000 living in just a 20-block area.
Another important site in Asian American history is the U.S. Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island. Dubbed as the ‘Ellis Island of the West,’ it’s estimated that over a million Asian immigrants entered the country through the station.
- National Trust for Historic Preservation: Explore these West Coast Asian-American heritage sites
- National Park Foundation: Interpreting the Asian-American experience in parks
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center: Home
If you want to read more about the present-day struggles of the Asian American community, start with this White House article: Critical Issues Facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
New York University also has useful information: Asian Americans in the U.S. If you would still like to learn more, visit Ithaca College’s resources on the topic: Asian-American Experience, Issues, and Resources.