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Setting the Stage

Both Chinese and Japanese immigrants faced much hostility and discrimination when they came to America. Rooted in nativism and racial prejudice, the discrimination against the Chinese in California was encouraged by politicians and labor leaders. Mid-19th-century Chinese immigrants were driven out of the mining fields, but were then recruited to build railroads and to reclaim swamps. When those jobs were completed, they were expected to go back to China, but many stayed on, hoping eventually to earn enough money to retire to their native villages and live comfortably with their families.

Beginning in the 1860s, California and many of its cities passed anti-Chinese laws, and in 1882 Congress passed the first of the so-called Chinese Exclusion Acts. The first act suspended immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years, permitted laborers already in the U.S. to remain, and permitted entry of students, teachers, merchants, and government officials, but excluded the Chinese from U.S. citizenship. The act was later extended in 1888 to prohibit Chinese laborers from re-entering the U.S. after leaving. The act was made "permanent" in 1904. The Immigration Act of 1924 went even further, establishing an immigrant quota of two percent of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality resident in the U.S. in 1890 and ruled that no alien ineligible to become a citizen shall be admitted to the U.S. as an immigrant.

The Japanese also endured discrimination which was reflected in a "Gentlemen's Agreement" accepted by the Japanese and American governments in 1907. The agreement called for Japan to stop the emigration of its laborers to the U.S. by refusing to issue passports to such persons. In return, the U.S. government was to refrain from passing laws officially excluding Japanese immigrants. This arrangement, however, did allow for family unification--that is, Japanese men in America could send for their wives and children. Other men married by proxy, meaning that the women could travel to this country to meet and live with the bridegrooms they had never before seen. About 20,000 Japanese women came to America through this practice. The agreement was then suspended in 1924 by the Immigration Act which excluded immigration from Japan and practically barred all Asians from entering the United States.

During these unpredictable times, the Chinese and Japanese grouped together for companionship and survival, forming ethnic enclaves known as Chinatowns and nihonmachi's (Japan towns). For those laborers who were able to immigrate to the U.S., the Chinese benevolent societies helped them with passage to America, assisted them in finding jobs and housing, and provided recreation. The Japanese government offered similar services through Japanese officials stationed in several western American cities.

Although these Asian immigrants endured forceful discrimination, they proved among the most successful in overcoming great obstacles and making a good life for themselves in a new land. Two communities that demonstrate the experiences of early Asian immigrants and their struggle to find a place in American society are Locke and Walnut Grove, California. Located near the junction of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, these towns became a central area for immigrant agricultural workers in the Delta region.



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