Revised: December 13, 2014

We’ve asked Tim Tseng, a historian and pastor, to guide us Asian American evangelicals through the intersections of Asia America, Asian American Studies and the Asian American Movement and Asian American Christians.  This is one interview of five related to Asian America and Asian American Christians.


How Asian Americans came to America


For those short on time, or who are unsure about starting a thick book, can you give us a ridiculously short crash course on Asian American history?  Particularly on our immigration waves?


One generation of historians of the Asian American experience have completed their task, and what we have is a pretty good accounting. But we might have to wait for another generation of scholars to re-engage and write more nuanced and specific histories that take religion seriously.

As for the short history, the first wave of Asian Americans were Chinese as you know who arrived in the 1850s. They were free agents who came at enormous cost and risk. They were not indentured servants, they were not coolies. These were young people from China, who heard about the Gold Rush, and came to America to strike it rich as miners and prospectors. Many also worked in a variety of industries including the development of California’s agricultural economy. In fact, they transformed California’s swampy terrain in the Sacramento Delta into some of the world’s richest arable land. During this time, the Chinese community was not centralized in Chinatowns. In fact, there was no real Chinatown then, although some Chinese merchants opened stores and catered to the Chinese. But there was no real Chinatown in America until the late 1870s.

There was a historical precedent to this pattern in Hawaii [which was not yet a state]. The Chinese went to Hawaii in the 1830s and 1840s, also as “free agents.” People in the Guangdong (Canton) area and the Chinese diaspora knew about going to Hawaii or the United States to get better paying jobs.

From the Chinese perspective, these migrants were just very adventurous folks who lived on the fringes of China. They were responsible for creating Chinese diasporic communities that extended itself to Hawaii, and North America and Latin America and Australia and Southeast Asia.

In 1860s and 1870s, American industrialists began to import Chinese laborers en masse. And that’s when the stereotype of the Chinese started to change from independent entrepreneurs to laborers. At the same time that this was happening, mines were starting to run dry. And then they were driven off. When the transcontinental railroad was completed it not only created a surplus of Chinese labor, but depressed the economy in the West as inexpensive goods from the East and Midwest now flooded the Western states. White migrants began to chase the Chinese out of mining and farming communities. In the 1870s, we witness the first powerful wave of anti-Chinese hostility spearheaded by an emergent White labor movement. Some smaller Chinese communities in the Mountain States were actually eradicated and many Chinese were massacred. When the hostility reached the Chinatown community in Los Angeles, it triggered an American Protestant Missionary outcry. But from that point forward, the push to ban Chinese immigration became very powerful and overwhelmed Protestant opposition. That’s why the Exclusion Act (1882) was passed and Chinese labor immigration was stopped.


Can we back up and talk about Chinatowns?  The Chinese were forced to live in Chinatowns?

In the 1870s and before, the Chinatowns were not really ghettos. They were basically neighborhoods that were centers of life for the Chinese. When anti-Chinese hostility occurred, these small Chinese communities were almost wiped out. But by the time you get to the Exclusion Act in 1882, the little Chinese neighborhoods were consolidated into Chinatowns in bigger cities such as San Francisco. It was there in the 1880s and the 1890s that Chinatown became associated with a ghettos. Some say these were the first ghettos in America.

[Before being sequestered in Chinatowns,] the Chinese also tilled the soil, fertilized it, and constructed a framework for the growth of California’s agricultural industry. They were driven off the land by white people, who needed laborers to develop the land that they took over. The Chinese Exclusion Acts prevented Chinese from coming at this point, so the U.S. government (and the kingdom of Hawaii as well), on behalf of plantation owners and farm land owners, made deals with the Japanese government to import Japanese farm workers. Thus, Japanese farm workers filled the vacuum vacated by the Chinese.


So that’s how the Japanese came?

Yes, and the Japanese became very prevalent in the agricultural industry. Eventually, they became so industrious, that they started to take ownership of these properties. That’s when more legislation was passed in an attempt to prevent the Japanese from owning land. For example, the Alien Land Act (1913) in California prohibited those ineligible for U.S. citizenship (namely Asians) from buying property. So the Japanese of course found other ways of making it work for them; they’d find white friends who would buy the farmland in their names, or they’d buy it in their children’s names (who were born in the U.S. and were therefore citizens). Eventually the Japanese American community managed to control a significant amount of the agricultural industry by the middle of the twentieth century.


This happened when Chinese were being excluded from entering the US.

Yes, and the Chinese were being forced into Chinatown.

The Japanese were not yet excluded. In 1880s and 1890s, the Japanese population was growing because corporations were importing their labor, especially the farming industry. The Chinese were forced to be domestics. Some were merchants. But overwhelming, they were identified as working class people. They were locked into Chinatown, they couldn’t really escape it, but they tried to maintain their male-dominant communities to the best of their abilities.

Of course, agitation against the Japanese was inevitable. So when that happened, the Japanese government and the American government held a Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907. Japan agreed not to send anymore laborers, but they would allowed to bring their wives to the U.S. This opened the doors to “picture brides.” Because of anti-miscegenation and immigration exclusion laws, the largely male Chinese population could not marry white women. But because the Japanese were allowed to bring wives from Japan, the Japanese American community’s trajectory led to the development of families, while the Chinese community’s trajectory retained its bachelor society status until well into the twentieth century (though a very few Chinese merchants were able to raise families).

[The coming of the Filipinos] 

Once Japanese migrations was restricted, another labor shortage emerged. So the next wave of Asians who come would be the Filipinos. Part of the reason for this was because Filipinos were considered subjects of an American colony. So they came, and became the next laboring class working in the cannery industries in the Pacific Northwest and in the agricultural industries all over California.

[All Asians excluded]

In the 1920s, there was another very strong anti-immigrant movement in America. By 1924, all Asians were banned, including Indians, Chinese, Japanese—but not Filipinos since they were American subjects  So when that loophole was discovered, another movement to exclude the Filipinos succeeded in 1934. The U.S. gave the Philippines independence which removed American status from the Filipinos. They now could be considered aliens.

Every other Asian group that came, like the Koreans, were very, very small. The Koreans were considered subjects of the Japanese empire at the time. To parse out their history is even more complicated.  Indians were super small. The Punjabi population in the Central Valley [of California] married Mexicans.


Who did the Chinese marry, if they didn’t have wives?

That was a complicated story. Many who married white women were able to get away with it for a while. Then laws against interracial marriage were passed. It became a very difficult situation. A normalization of sex ratios did not occur until after World War II when the War Brides Act allowed Chinese women to join their spouses, and when the small second generation that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s married. Compared to the Japanese, it was really pretty horrendous to not have “normal” families.


In 1924, things shut down?

Click to enlarge. Source: Population Reference Bureau

Right, not just for Asians, but any immigration. Even European immigrants were cut off—or really drastically reduced to a quota. Asians were completely banned.

And then after World War II and in 1952, laws were passed that boosted up the number of immigrants from Europe, especially political refugees from Nazi Germany. Thus, the European immigration quota was raised.

Then in 1965, Asians were allowed to have the same quota as Europeans.  20,000 a year.  I think that is how immigration history worked out. Prior to 1965, exemptions for students and religious workers were allowed. But the 1965 Immigration Act [aka Hart-Cellar Act] opened up the doors for the normal application process within a 20,000 quota. It opened up the family reunion criteria, so not only were these exempt classes allowed to come, but anyone who lived in the United States and had a family member in Asia, could bring them.


Were any other Asians allowed to come before 1965?  

Students were permitted to come to the States even before 1965. So there was a trickle of Asian students who came—very small, but enough of a number in the late ‘50s, and early ‘60s.  And from that group, some people have traced the beginnings of the Chinese Bible Study groups. Religious workers were exempt too, so you could come on a Religious Workers visa. So even before 1965, there were some openings for Asian immigrants to come to the States. Usually professional class, educated, students or clergy. I think that’s what my dad came on…a student/clergy visa in the early 60s.


Post 1965, who mostly came?  

The initial wave would have been family reunion immigrants. The first wave were mostly working class Cantonese who were trying to reunite their families, bring their uncles and aunts over to the States.


Why did they come?  Work mainly?

American was still very open, there were much more opportunities here. Not to mention political reasons. Everyone was afraid what Communist China would do. This was also in the era of the Cultural Revolution.


Who else came after 1965?

Among the Chinese, it started up with Hong Kong, and then Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. And then normalization with the People’s Republic opened up the doors for at least students from China.  This was the early ‘80s. And by the time you get to the ‘90s, after Tiananmen Square (1989), it opened up even more. So there was a Hong Kong working class wave, Taiwanese, then Chinese students, then a variety of Chinese. Fujian became the source of the next wave from China. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, another wave of wealthier Chinese to come to North America. One of the reasons why real estate on the West Coast has bumped up is because all this Hong Kong money is buying up property and hiking up the cost of living here. Chinese immigration is an ongoing process where different waves of Chinese people keep coming. And this has dramatically changed the nature of the Chinese church in America.


What about the Koreans?

The first Koreans came to the States in 1900. They were in Hawaii around that time, but mostly as laborers who worked alongside the Japanese. I don’t know much about them except that they formed small communities. Many were student activists who were engaged in anti-Japanese activism in the 1910s and 1920s.

Post World War II, when Korea gains its independence, there probably was a wave of Koreans, and when the epic Korean War took place, there were many, many refugees. I hear stories of Korean nurses brought back by American GIs. 1950s was the economic development of South Korea and more students coming to the United States.


According to “Between 1951 and 1964, approximately 6,500 brides, 6,300 adopted children, and 6,000 students came to this country. The number of Koreans who have immigrated to this country as adopted children, or brides of Americans, since the Korean War is more than 100,000 for each respective group.”

It wouldn’t be until 1969 when we start to see more Koreans come. Students and workers. I really don’t know much about. I really don’t know what happened to the Korean community between World War II and 1970.


This article by Edward Taechan Chang and others continues: “After 1965, students-turned professionals were able to apply for permanent residence visas in the United States under provisions of the Hart-Cellar Act. Since 1970, close relatives of permanent residents or citizens have comprised an overwhelming majority of the Korean immigrants coming to America. A total of 778,899 Korean immigrants were admitted to the U.S. between 1941 and 1998. Korean immigration peaked during the 1980s and annual admittance has steadily declined since 1987.” 

[12/13/2014 correction: South Korean immigration did not peak in 1987. According the Migration Policy Institute, it’s held steady since 2006.]

1970s and ’80s—yes, you start to see large families develop.


And their immigration slowed down, right?  A lot of them have also gone back.  

I think we’re also seeing reverse migration among Taiwanese, Koreans and some Southeast Asians.


Japanese?  It doesn’t seem like they came back.

Their migration stopped in 1907. Some migrants came before World War II, but after World War II—no. They haven’t had much immigration for a long long time. Most of their population growth was just natural.


Southeast Asians came as refugees because the Vietnam War and other wars around that, right?

Yes, although there are stories about prior to the war, where students and political leaders came to the States. So they had families here with several generations in the States. But the majority is really refugee.

Lot more recently, there’ve been Burmese refugees, in the last 10 years.


I want to say that with those people who came as students from Southeast Asia—they were mostly Chinese?

Probably so, because within Southeast Asia, Chinese are pretty much the economic elite. They are wealthier, so they had greater mobility. And some of them are ethnically Chinese, like Hmong are actually Chinese. Among the Vietnamese, there’s a large percentage who are ethnically Chinese.



The Filipinos—many stayed in America after the 1930s.


According to“U.S. military bases in the Philippines heavily recruited Filipinos for enlisted positions and civilian jobs. Many enlisted Filipinos were sent to bases in the U.S., and then stayed. San Diego’s Filipino community is a direct outgrowth of the Naval base there. More recently, economic opportunities have lured Filipinos to states like Nevada. In cities like Reno and Las Vegas, Filipinos occupy jobs within the tourism industry as employees in hotels, shops and restaurants, and in the health care industry, primarily as nurses.”

Yes, there was a big wave that came during the anti-[Ferdinand] Marcos movement in the 1980s.


Again “In 1980, the Philippines replaced China and Japan as the Asian country sending the largest number of immigrants to the United States. By the 1990s, the Philippines sent more immigrants than any country except Mexico.”

They didn’t really grow until after Marcos.



Asian Indians were definitely 1980s and 1990s. There was a plan to recruit high tech workers from India. I think I heard, that just like the Filipinos, many of the first were nurses in the 80s. There was a nurses shortage in America, so nurses were brought over from the Philippines and India. Sort of established a foothold. And then the next wave (2000s) among the Indians was a high tech wave.


Anyone else?

I think those are the most significant pockets of Asians that we know today.

Pakistani Muslims, Indonesia…they are more recent. All of these, I think there are political and economic dynamics happening in their home country, and I think they make some kind of arrangement to give them freer access to the United States.



This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.


See also:

Hyphen Magazine on emerging Asian American communities

Asia Society’s synopsis of Asian American history


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