Asian American History Lessons

If you've been following me on this blog or on twitter (or ye gods in real life!) then you know that I'm a history buff and a history major. So today I'm giving you a mini history lesson about two events that happened in US history involving Asian Americans. Unfortunately these are not happy events. In fact these are two events the US is probably ashamed of. Therefore you probably have not learned too much about events in school if at all. In my school, we barely ever talked about the Japanese Internment camps, all we talked about was Pearl Harbor. I learned more about it books I read myself. I'm very sad to hear that there are some Americans who grew up in the US and are baby boomer adults and NEVER heard about this.

As for the Chinese Exclusion Act....pfff. I didn't even know about it until I got into college so I doubt may other people have either. Since I discovered it though, I've done a bunch of research on it, and have written three papers about the subject. After reading the views that some of these politicians had about Chinese Americans it made me feel disgusted. It's a subject I would actually like to focus more on.

How much did you know about these two events BEFORE you read about them on here?

The Chinese Exclusion Act (I would have used one of my actual papers, but it's about 15 pages and you would be bored lol)

(source: Wikipedia and Open Collections Act from Harvard University)

The Chinese came to America in larger numbers during the 1848 California Gold Rush and in the 1860s when the Central Pacific Railroad recruited large labor gangs to build its portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Large-scale immigration continued into the late 1800s, with 123,201 Chinese recorded as arriving between 1871 and 1880, and 61,711 arriving between 1881 and 1890.

At first, when surface gold was plentiful, the Chinese were well tolerated and well-received.As gold became harder to find and competition increased, animosity to the Chinese and other foreigners increased. After being forcibly driven from the mines, most Chinese settled in enclaves in cities, mainly San Francisco, and took up low end wage labor such as restaurant work and laundry. With the post Civil War economy in decline by the 1870s, anti-Chinese animosity became politicized by labor leader Dennis Kearney and his Workingman's Partyas well as by California Governor John Bigler, both of whom blamed Chinese "coolies" for depressed wage levels. Another significant anti-Chinese group organized in California during this same era was the Supreme Order of Caucasians with some 64 chapters statewide.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. It was enacted in response to economic fears, especially on the West Coast, where native-born Americans attributed unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior. The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law on May 6, 1882, by President Chester A. Arthur, effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens. Through the Geary Act of 1892, the law was extended for another ten years before becoming permanent in 1902.

After the Gold Rush of 1849, the Chinese were drawn to the West Coast as a center of economic opportunity where, for example, they helped build the first transcontinental railroad by working on the Central Pacific from 1864 to 1869. The Chinese Exclusion Act foreshadowed the immigration-restriction acts of the 1920s, culminating in the National Origins Act of 1929, which capped overall immigration to the United States at 150,000 per year and barred Asian immigration.

The law was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 during World War II, when China was an ally in the war against imperial Japan. Nevertheless, the 1943 act still allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year, reflecting persisting prejudice against the Chinese in American immigration policy. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated previous national-origins policy, that large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States was allowed to begin again after a hiatus of over 80 years.

Recommended Reading:
At America's Gates by Erika Lee
Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against the Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer
The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

Japanese Internment

(source: Infoplease)

On February 19, 1942, soon after the beginning of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The evacuation order commenced the round-up of 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage to one of 10 internment camps—officially called "relocation centers"—in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Why Were the Camps Established?

Roosevelt's executive order was fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment among farmers who competed against Japanese labor, politicians who sided with anti-Japanese constituencies, and the general public, whose frenzy was heightened by the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. More than 2/3 of the Japanese who were interned in the spring of 1942 were citizens of the United States.

Conditions in the U.S. Camps

The U.S. internment camps were overcrowded and provided poor living conditions. According to a 1943 report published by the War Relocation Authority (the administering agency), Japanese Americans were housed in "tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Coal was hard to come by, and internees slept under as many blankets as they were alloted. Food was rationed out at an expense of 48 cents per internee, and served by fellow internees in a mess hall of 250-300 people.

Leadership positions within the camps were only offered to the Nisei, or American-born, Japanese. The older generation, or the Issei, were forced to watch as the government promoted their children and ignored them.

Eventually the government allowed internees to leave the concentration camps if they enlisted in the U.S. Army. This offer was not well received. Only 1,200 internees chose to do so.

Legal Challenges to Internment

Two important legal cases were brought against the United States concerning the internment. The landmark cases were Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), and Korematsu v. United States (1944). The defendants argued their fifth amendment rights were violated by the U.S. government because of their ancestry. In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the U.S. government.

Closure of the Camps

In 1944, two and a half years after signing Executive Order 9066, fourth-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt rescinded the order. The last internment camp was closed by the end of 1945.

Government Apologies and Reparations

Forced into confinement by the United States, 5,766 Nisei ultimately renounced their American citizenship. In 1968, nearly two dozen years after the camps were closed, the government began reparations to Japanese Americans for property they had lost.

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed legislation which awarded formal payments of $20,000 each to the surviving internees: 60,000 in all. This same year, formal apologies were also issued by the government of Canada to Japanese Canadian survivors, who were each repaid the sum of $21,000 Canadian dollars.

Other Groups in the Camps

While Japanese-Americans comprised the overwhelming majority of those in the camps, thousands of Americans of German, Italian, and other European descent were also forced to relocate there. Many more were classified as "enemy aliens" and subject to increased restrictions. As of 2004, the U.S. Government has made no formal apology or reparations to those affected.

Recommended Reading:

Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camp by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald

Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese Internment Experience

Desert Exile by Yoshiko Uchida


  1. We learned about both events in both middle school and high school. These events were skipped over in my college history classes though.

    I didn't know the extent of the Chinese Exclusion Act before I read this post though. I didn't realize how many years immigration was so limited.

    Re: Internment Camps... I learned the most about these in middle school. I had a history teacher that was adamant that we learn history from every view point, not just the view point of the victor, provided there were other sources available for information. For that I am very grateful. He had a friend who had been in an internment camp come and talk to us about the experience. The thing that stuck with me the most about that visit was that he wasn't bitter at all. He felt that he was pitching in for the war effort by relocating with his family so that people could be monitored more easily in the camps. I know that not everyone felt the same way, and he expressed that in his visit as well. It just really stuck with me that he was so forgiving about the whole situation. My hubbie and I also visited Hart Mountain in Wyoming when we were dating. There were awful stories there, very unfortunate and horrifying accounts. And now I've written a book... sorry.

  2. I knew about the Japanese Internment Camps, but I don't think I've heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thanks for the history lesson.

  3. I did know about both, but I'm also a history buff/history major. Also I partly learned about them through my reading. I believe both were mentioned in high school and expanded upon in college. Of course, I was also clued into the existence of the Chinese Exclusion Act by Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and learned more about the Internment Camps in "When the Emperor Was Divine." More recently I read more about these events in "Water Ghosts" and "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," respectively.


Post a Comment

Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving your thoughts. Comments on posts that are older than 14 days are moderated so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up automatically.

Popular posts from this blog

BBAW Registration Post

The Nancy Drew Challenge

New Blog!