Growing up in a mostly white Midwest town, I rarely saw other Asian Americans that weren’t my blood relatives—not in real life, on TV, in books, or at school. In a world before America’s Best Dance Crew and Ken Jeong, any Asian spotting was cause for great excitement.
That’s why I remember clearly the first time I noticed a yellow face in an American history textbook—a chapter on the Transcontinental Railroad and Chinese railroad workers. Our only other appearance was in the chapter on Japanese internment during World War II, so I felt vindicated by the positive light in which the railroad workers were painted.
The laborers, we were told, struggled through terribly harsh winters, performed some of the most dangerous tasks, and did so on some of the roughest terrain. This was no bastardized, emasculated Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. These Asians were classically, ruggedly American.
This week, the U.S. Department of Labor is honoring Chinese railroad workers by inducting them into the Labor Hall of Fame, the first Asian Americans to receive the distinction. As the statement reads:
It is fitting that these brave workers who helped bridge and build our country together while advocating for safe working conditions and fairer wages will be the first Asian Americans inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor. Those are, after all, the values of this department.
Unsurprisingly, neither textbook nor statement mentions what happened next.
ON MAY 10, 1869, the Last Spike was driven to connect east and west portions of the Transcontinental Railroad. Just 13 years later, on May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, which effectively barred the Chinese from entering the country and prevented them from achieving citizenship. Thus began a period of systematic discrimination against Asian immigrants.
Ironically, it was the completion of the railroad that cemented this fate.
The racial landscape of early California was completely different than today, says John S.W. Park, professor of Asian American Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara and author of several books on Asian immigration. The first settlers came as part of the 1840s gold rush. Many were European immigrants—Italians, Irish, other Central Europeans who were not considered “white” on the East Coast. In order to assert their own whiteness in this new land, they defined themselves in opposition to the Chinese, who had also come to mine for gold.
During the pre-railroad era, California’s miners were mostly isolated. Both whites and Asians settled in the foothills of the Sierras, and white sentiment toward the Chinese was pretty ambivalent considering the “every man for himself” attitude of pioneers. When the railroad barons came looking for workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, Irishmen were their first choice. But when the Irish agitated for higher wages, management brought in Chinese laborers, who would work for less. Soon, the Chinese were 80 percent of the workforce.
From the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress)
Once the railroad was finished, thus opening the American West to an influx of settlers, Park explains, it became much cheaper for people from the East Coast and Midwest to get to California. “Over the next decade," he says, "the population of California would nearly double.”
As the state’s population grew, many early settlers (lower-class whites) opposed slavery—not on human rights grounds, but because they knew slavery would make it hard for them to compete economically. If new wealthy settlers from the East ("capitalists," as they called them) could buy slaves, then lower-class whites without slaves would be left behind. So all blacks—slaves and freemen—were banned from California. American Indians were also unwelcome. (Landed Mexicans could claim whiteness and pass into citizenship at this time. It’s only later that poor Mexicans come to California and are considered non-white immigrants.)
Without blacks, though, whites feared that Asians would become the slaves of California, Park says, and indeed, “As Asians come to the U.S., it does seem as though white capitalists are taking advantage of Chinese labor, exploiting the Chinese in ways that they would not exploit white people.”
This mounting anti-Chinese sentiment eventually led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first major law restricting immigration to the U.S. It effectively barred Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese from becoming citizens. While the law was originally written as a 10-year ban, it was just the first of a series of laws meant to limit immigration and to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” From that point on, Asian immigration was limited to a slow trickle until 1965.
A series of other laws were also enacted throughout the state to oppress the Chinese population. It’s striking how overtly racist they were, Park says:
Meanwhile California has re-written their constitution in 1879. Article 19 of the constitution is simply titled, “Chinese.” It says that California companies should never hire Chinese people, that Chinese people should be discouraged from migrating, that they are definitely non-white. They list a set of rules that is just about Chinese people and how much they don’t like Chinese people. It’s so racist. It’s right there. There was no hiding how you feel.
While Asians once participated in central areas of the American economy (mining, fishing), those who remained were pushed into low-paying jobs and forced to live in Chinatowns—urban ghettos patrolled by anti-Chinese gangs, far from the colorful tourist traps they are now. During this time, it’s not uncommon for white mobs to attack and kill Chinese people on the street, Park adds. “There isn’t a town west of the Mississippi that doesn’t have an anti-Chinese riot.”
“Between 1882 and 1965, Chinese history is very sad," Park says. "It’s the story of a very marginalized ethnic group. Lots of men die by themselves, separated from families for decades. It’s the history of an immigrant group who was so important to a state’s economy, and was rejected on a national level.”
ASIANS CERTAINLY WEREN'T THE only ethnic group to face violence and discrimination in early-20th-century America—after all, this was Jim Crow era—but few Americans are taught about the rampant anti-Chinese sentiment during that time. After reading about that golden moment of Chinese American triumph at the railroads, I naively assumed Chinese and Asian immigrants had proven their mettle and were slowly accepted into American culture. It wasn't until I took a college course on Asian immigration that I learned the ugly truth.
Modern history makes it easy to rewrite the Asian immigrant narrative. In 1965, when many immigration restrictions in the U.S. were lifted, the floodgates opened for Asians of all nationalities to enter the country. Many of them were well-educated and became economically successful. Our history of oppression is increasingly removed—temporally and conceptually—from the yellow faces you see in popular media, filling top universities, and winning breakdance competitions.
Now that Asian Americans are, on average, doing economically better than other ethnic groups, the earlier, darker history of Asian immigrants is easily obscured. As Park says, “What happened to the Chinese—you see these patterns over and over again—you see how you push people to the edges of society.” With May being Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, it’s an opportunity to reflect on which parts of our history are lauded and which parts are buried from public view.