Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Making of the Nation

Palace in front of a blue sky
'Iolani Palace, in the capitol district of downtown Honolulu, Hawaii

Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo taken by Carol Highsmith.

By: Franklin Odo

"For Native Hawaiians, a place tells us who we are and who is our extended family. A place gives us our history, the history of our clan, and the history of our ancestors. We are able to look at a place and tie in human events that affect us and our loved ones. A place gives us a feeling of stability and of belonging to our family--those living and those who have passed on. A place gives us a sense of well-being, and of acceptance of all who have experienced that place."

Edward Kanahele, Introduction to Ancient Sites of O'ahu: A Guide to Hawaiian Archaeological Places of Interest by Van James (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1991), ix-xiii.

In the United States of America the sun first rises over the skies of Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and awakens its indigenous people, the Chamorro. Guam was acquired as a spoil of war after the Spanish American War of 1898 and the Chamorro, native to the land, became Americans with no political voice in the matter.

Similarly, Native Hawaiians, who have called the Hawaiian Islands home for almost 2,000 years, became Americans at the turn of the twentieth century without any declaration of war. The Islands became a U.S. protectorate after the Kingdom of Hawai'i was overthrown, principally by Americans. One fascinating reminder is 'Iolani Palace, the home and symbol of the former sovereign of the Kingdom of Hawai'i and the only royal residence in the United States. In addition, other Pacific Islands such as the Federated States of Micronesia have long cultural histories and historic and strategic ties to the United States.

There are now over one million people of Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian descent in the U.S. Together, Asian and Pacific Americans make up approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population-more than 20 million people-and those numbers are growing rapidly. Their ancestral roots represent more than 50 percent of the world, extending from East Asia to Southeast Asia, and from South Asia to the Pacific Islands. Their stories are noteworthy and. as part of the nation's heritage, the historic sites that reflect them are worthy of preservation and inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; some qualify for National Historic Landmark designation and inclusion in the National Park system.


Indigenous peoples have been joined in the American journey by intrepid explorers, maritime workers on ships plying the oceans in the British Empire, and Filipino seamen landing in Mexico and the Mexican Gulf when the Spanish Empire sent Manila Galleons between the Philippines and Mexico, beginning in the 16th century. Filipinos have lived in the New Orleans region since at least the 1800s. Chinese men were marrying Irish women in New York City before that city had an established Chinatown while others were working for the Hudson Bay Company in Washington and Oregon, sending furs to China in exchange for tea and porcelain. This early to mid-19th century trade with China created unprecedented wealth for entrepreneurial ship owners and traders in Boston, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island. Chinese were recruited as strikebreakers in Lowell, Massachusetts and one of them, Lue Gim Gong, eventually went to Florida and developed the orange that revolutionized the juice industry. Native Hawaiians sent by Christian missionaries in Hawai'i to be educated on the mainland went to universities including Yale in Connecticut.

Asians and Pacific Islanders have also served in the U.S. armed forces since the War of 1812 when America went to war against Great Britain. They served throughout the 19th century at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, in the American Civil War in some of its most critical and memorable battles, and in the Spanish American War. In the 20th century, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders served in World War I, and during World War II thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered for and were drafted into segregated units, earning praise and over 20 Congressional Medals of Honor for their heroism. Also during the war, Filipino Americans fought to expel Japanese invaders from the Philippines and both Chinese Americans and Korean Americans served with great distinction. And Asians and Pacific Islanders continue to serve in the military today – including Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth from Illinois who lost both legs in Iraq. Some, however, fought in different ways. First Lieutenant Ehren Watada protested American actions in the Middle East and was court-martialed for his act of conscience, refusing to deploy to Iraq when ordered to do so in 2007. The proceedings eventually ended in a mistrial. Since almost the beginning of the nation, even when denied citizenship or facing discrimination, Asians and Pacific Islanders have been part of America's journey.

Major waves of immigration from Asia began shortly after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Soon thereafter the Taiping Rebellion in China created massive death and dislocation; emigration to earn money became an important element of survival for many Chinese who arrived in the U.S. by the thousands in the 1850s and 1860s. About 20,000 Chinese comprised most of the labor force for the Central Pacific Railroad's portion of the first Transcontinental Railroad, which began construction in Sacramento, California and blasted its way over and through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the dead of winter and over the desert until it reached Promontory Summit in Utah where it joined the Union Pacific Railroad to connect the two coasts in 1869. When the celebratory photograph of the symbolic joining of the railroads with the "golden spike" was taken at what is now the National Park Service-administered Golden Spike National Historic Site, the Chinese workers were deliberately kept out of the picture.

This anti-Chinese gesture was part of a major racial movement which grew with the Depression of 1873-1879, giving rise to vicious mob actions involving lynchings and expulsions. In short order, the U.S. Congress was moved to pass the nation's first racial exclusion law, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, marking a specific group as undesirable, unable to enter the country and, if already there, ineligible to become naturalized citizens. That Act was made permanent in 1904. To fill the need for cheap labor, several hundred thousand Japanese immigrated to Hawai'i largely as sugar plantation workers and to the mainland as migrant agricultural workers, railroad laborers, fishermen, and miners. When anti-Japanese sentiment resulted in the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-8, restricting laborers from immigrating to the U.S., a new wave of Japanese women began arriving as "picture brides" whose families had arranged marriages with Japanese bachelors in the U.S. This practice took advantage of a section of the Agreement which allowed direct family members to enter the country. By 1920, Japan faced increasing pressure from the U.S. and agreed to prohibit these arrangements.

The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, designated much of Asia and the Pacific Islands as areas from which people could not enter the U.S. – except Filipinos who, from 1906, were being recruited as cheap labor both in Hawai'i and on the mainland. Employers could do so because the Philippines had been "acquired" from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish American War and subdued as a U.S. territory after nearly a decade of vicious fighting known as the Philippine American War. As American nationals, Filipinos were free to be recruited and to enter the U.S – until Congress voted, in 1936, to make the Philippines a Commonwealth for a period of ten years and then grant independence. This action came, however, with the proviso that only 50 Filipinos per year could enter the U.S. and ended the ability of cheaper Philippine goods and labor from freely entering the U.S. market. So, with modest revisions, the exclusion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remained official American policy until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Because of the severity and length, nearly a century, of the exclusion period, the immigration processing center on the West Coast was very different from Ellis Island on the East Coast in New York City. Where tens of millions of immigrants, most from Europe, passed under the welcoming visage of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island in California was in place from 1910 to 1940 largely to detain people and discourage immigration. The Chinese were a particular target especially once the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been passed, extended, and then made permanent. One response by Chinese immigrants was the invention of citizenship through assertion of birth. Any Chinese immigrant who had been born in China to a father who was a U.S. citizen could claim citizen status and would be allowed to enter the country. Immigrants whose fathers were not U.S. citizens would buy papers identifying them as children of male Chinese American citizens. Because official records were almost non-existent, largely due to the disastrous earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906, these "paper sons" and "paper daughters" would go through an interrogation process at the U.S. Immigration Station and, if they passed, would be allowed to enter the country as citizens. But the practice soon alerted officials to suspect all entering Chinese and to devise devilishly intricate questions to trick them into revealing the alleged fraud. This, in turn, led to a substantial cottage industry of "coaching books" to be memorized by those seeking entry. Would-be immigrants memorized such trivial details as the number of windows in the rear bedroom facing east or the number of stone steps in the walkway between the front door and the peach tree in the yard. As a result, well-prepared paper sons and daughters succeeded in duping immigration officials while some genuine children of real citizens were deported. Indeed, while a wide variety of national groups entered the U.S. via Angel Island, including Russians, Mexicans, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese, the most distinctive stories are of Chinese immigrants and the days, weeks, or months of grueling interrogation they endured. Some of these experiences remain as poems rendered in classical Chinese carved into the walls of Angel Island's barracks. The national refusal to admit Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on an equal basis with peoples from other regions of the globe lasted until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which ended nearly a full century of exclusion and restriction.

Early Asian Americans and Pacific Islander communities included the dwindling numbers of Chinese and Chinese Americans who famously created Chinatowns in cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City as well as in a few rural towns such as Walnut Grove, CA, and in one instance they created a whole town – Locke, CA. There were Filipino groups as well, including those who established communities largely comprised of bachelors. Much later, retired Filipino farm workers created Paolo Agbayani Village in what is now The Forty Acres National Historic Landmark, honoring Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.

Japanese immigrants experienced a different path in the first decades of the 20th century largely because they were under the protection of a growing military power. The Meiji regime in Japan, established in 1868, soon extended its sphere of influence through territorial expansion – Okinawa and Taiwan in the late 19th century; Korea and China in the 20th century, until the fateful clash with the U.S. in 1941. Japan's "concern" for her subjects overseas included demands that Japanese women be allowed to immigrate, so that families would develop and communities would be formed. One result was the emergence of Japanese Americans as the single largest ethnic group in Hawai'i as early as 1900. They were significantly present on many of the sugar and pineapple plantations that dotted the islands and were increasingly important urban dwellers in the capital, Honolulu, as well as significant towns on neighbor islands.

Because most of the early Asian immigrants arrived to join the labor force, issues dealing with the use and exploitation of workers quickly rose to critical prominence. Indeed, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had been instigated by white unions and labor organizations which alleged that the Chinese were undercutting white workers struggling for better pay and working conditions. But in most cases Asian American and Pacific Islander workers themselves sought better wages and conditions through organization, negotiation, public relations, legal action, and work stoppage or sabotage. The case of Asian workers on Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations was a classic example.

The sugar industry took off in Hawai'i after the American Civil War disrupted the shipment of Southern sugar to the more industrialized North. A burgeoning pineapple sector added to the plantation work force in the 1900s. Japanese immigrant labor formed the majority of the plantation labor force, joined by small numbers of Koreans [along with immigrants from Portugal, Puerto Rico, and a few, including European Americans and African Americans, from the American mainland] and larger groups of Filipinos. Until the arrival of organizers from the California-based International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union [ILWU] in the 1930s, the spontaneous uprisings and organized strikes on the plantations were largely based on single ethnic/nationality bonds. These strikes were broken by planters who temporarily hired workers from other groups until the perpetrators surrendered.

Partly as a result of organizing work during World War II, the ILWU began a series of successful negotiations and strikes immediately after the war. By the end of the 1950s, Hawaii's plantation labor was the highest paid agriculture work force in the world. Not coincidentally, Hawaii's political order was fundamentally altered as workers streamed into the Democratic Party ranks. This coalition of organized labor and Democratic Party control extended from about 1960 and only began to dissipate in the 21st century, a period of fifty years.

Asian Americans, particularly Filipinos, were also active on the mainland in fighting for the rights of workers. The Cannery Worker's and Farm Laborer's Union was formed in Seattle in the 1930s to protect the rights of Filipinos working in the Alaskan salmon canneries. In the late 1950s the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) was created to fight for farm workers' rights in California. Led by and primarily made up of Filipinos, the AWOC went on strike in 1965, against California grape growers. They were eventually joined by Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association in the famous Delano Grape Strike. The five-year strike was a major victory for farm laborers and resulted in the merging of the two organizations into the United Farm Workers, which became a major force in politics and civil and labor rights in the U.S.

World War II was a turning point in global history; it certainly marked vastly different social and political terrains for Hawai'i and the U.S. One of the war's distinguishing ironies or contradictions was the international crusade to liberate oppressed peoples and the domestic imposition of concentration camp conditions on Japanese Americans. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses on the West Coast and incarcerated in ten War Relocation Centers as well as dozens of other prisons, internment camps, military prisons, and holding pens, including livestock areas. In Hawai'i, only about 1,000 people of a total of nearly 160,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated after individual hearings, but none of them, in Hawai'i or on the mainland, was ever accused or charged with any wrongdoing or tried or convicted of any crime against the U.S. On August 10, 1988, nearly one-half century later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to apologize for this unconstitutional action and to provide $20,000 in reparations to more than 80,000 surviving Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during the war.

World War II also witnessed the formal end of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1943, Congress allowed current Chinese residents to apply for naturalization and permitted an annual total of 105 Chinese to enter the country – although unlike other "nationality" groups, that quota was applied to all Chinese entering from any country, not just from China. Shortly after the war ended, Filipinos and Asian Indians were allowed to naturalize as well. Later, in 1952, after the Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed by the U.S., Japan, and other Allied nations, Japanese Americans could also become naturalized. But it was the momentous Immigration Act of 1965 which forever changed the immigration dynamic, allowing Asians and Pacific Islanders to immigrate under the same conditions as aspirants from other parts of the globe. Today, the Asian American population in the U.S. is rising at a faster rate than any other "racial" group in the country.

America's war in Southeast Asia, notably in Vietnam but also in Laos and Cambodia stretching from the early 1960s until defeat and withdrawal in 1975, produced a long stream of refugees – including many who had fought for the U.S. or who had supported the effort and others who had been impoverished by the cruelties of that devastating conflict. Some were multi-lingual scholars who had been trained under French colonial regimes, others were doctors and other professionals who fled Communist rule. From Laos came not only Laotians like General Vang Pao who had commanded his troops under illegal CIA instructions but also the Hmong peoples, largely illiterate, who had assisted the war from beyond the Vietnamese borders.

In today's America, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders occupy a set of widely diverse and deeply complex niches. There are pockets of intense poverty and social dislocation, but there are successive Asian Indian American winners of national spelling contests and wildly successful entrepreneurs like Amar Bose, founder of the Bose Corporation and Vera Wang, noted American fashion designer. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders influence local and national elections and threaten to overwhelm admissions statistics for elite universities. But they are still subject to racial profiling, sometimes in the form of Sikhs with turbans or dark—skinned South Asians vilified as "terrorists." In this context, it is helpful to recall that the first person of Asian descent to be elected to the U.S. Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, an Asian Indian, from the State of California in 1954. In an age when it is more common to see Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for what they actually are—Americans of all walks of life—it is time to recognize and preserve more historic sites which tell their stories.

When the sun finally sets on U.S. territory, its last rays diminish as the horizon darkens over American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean, just on the other side of the International Date Line from Guam. On the American mainland in North America, a host of historic places awaits listing in the National Register of Historic Places and some should be designated as National Historic Landmarks or become National Parks, to educate visitors and others through the rich stories they can tell about the histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and their roles in the making of the nation.

Franklin Odo, Ph.D. is the former director of the Asian Pacific American Center at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Odo has served as a member of the Landmarks Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board and is now assisting the National Park Service in overseeing the development of an Asian American and Pacific Islander Theme Study. Dr. Odo is the author of No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i During World War II and Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai'i.


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Last updated: June 5, 2018