While the nation has seen a surge in bias-attacks against Asian-Americans in the past year, the hate incidents are nothing new; there’s a long history of anti-Asian bigotry.
Amy Chin, who was raised in the Bronx, is a writer, producer and advocate for Chinese-American issues. Her family history was part of a 2014-2015 exhibit at the New-York Historical Society titled “Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion.”
Her great-grandfather arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1800s and helped build the transcontinental railroad.
“Once the railroad was built and their labor, their cheap labor, they were paid less than white workers, when that was no longer needed, then they became the enemy,” Chin said. “They were vilified.”
Generations later, her own parents faced discrimination while trying to purchase a home in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx. Chin said in the 1960s, Parkchester had an all-white policy.
“When my parents bought a house in the Bronx, the neighbors wouldn’t talk to them and I knew another family nearby and they couldn’t rent a place to live,” Shin said. “Landlords wouldn’t rent to them.”
Chin has deep American roots and, like so many Asian-Americans, has been told too many times to count, “go back to your country.”
“Even families like mine that have a history of many generations in this country are portrayed as foreigners or that we don’t belong or that we don’t have a right to be here,” said Chin.
The first Asians arrived on these shores centuries ago and anti-Asian bigotry has been around for just as long. The acts of violence and harassment of the last year are just the latest chapter in the timeline of hate and discrimination.
Ava Chin – no relation to Amy Chin – is a fifth generation American and a professor at the College of Staten Island. Her family is one of the oldest Chinese-American families in New York City.
“Asian American history is a part of American history that unfortunately isn’t taught in our public schools,” said Chin.
The first Asian-American settlement was in Louisiana; it started when Filipino sailors landed there in the mid -1700s.
The California Gold Rush in the 1850s and its promise of riches led to the first wave of immigration and the first wave of discrimination. Many who didn’t strike gold went to work on the construction of the transcontinental railroad; it’s believed up to 20,000 Chinese immigrants did the back breaking and often dangerous work.
But the new settlers were soon seen as a threat, that they would drive down wages and take away jobs. There are historical accounts of Chinese settlements set on fire and of miners and workers rounded up and killed in mass lynchings. Ava Chin’s great-great grandfather was kicked out of his home while living in Boise.
“A tsunami of anti-Chinese hatred swept the country, particularly out west,” said Chin. “My great-great grandfather was very comfortable and happy living in America, but the racist tide turned and he got forced out of a home he lived in for decades.”
The railroad was seen as an engineering feat that connected the country.
“He got kicked out despite the fact that his labor and the labor of other Chinese workers like him, actually helped to unite the country,” said Chin. “My family called this period the troubles or the troubles out west and there were lynchings and murders and attacks on Chinese families and workers.”
Chin said history is repeating itself.
“This is a resurgence of that violent period, ignited by the last president and his rhetoric that many of us hoped we would never see again,” she said.
The so-called “Chinese Massacre” took place in 1871 in Los Angeles. A mainly white mob of several hundred people attacked and murdered Chinese settlers. Dozens of Chinese men and boys were killed. Some were hanged by the mob.
As the environment out west grew more and more hostile towards Asian-Americans, many headed east for safety and new opportunities. The first Chinatown on the east coast was not in Lower Manhattan, but in Belleville, New Jersey, where a memorial was recently erected to honor the early Chinese settlers. Michael Perrone is president of Belleville’s Historical Society.
“One reason they came to Belleville is because Belleville was the home of Capt. James Hervey who was a retired sea captain,” said Perrone. “Capt. Hervey was very familiar with Chinese culture and Chinese people he had traveled and traded with China, so when he retired he opened a laundry in Belleville and he traveled to San Francisco and recruited 68 young men boys to come to Belleville to work in his laundry.”
Prohibited from celebrating the Lunar New Year even in Manhattan, grand celebrations were held in Belleville.
“Belleville played a really unique place in Chinese-American history because during this era of intense discrimination Belleville was really unique,” said Perrone. “This was the place to be if you were Chinese and wanted to celebrate Chinese New Year, you came to Belleville. All the Chinese residents of New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut came to Belleville because this was the only place to be.”
Asian-Americans and their culture were welcomed with open arms in Belleville. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the country as a whole.
“If you look in the history books, you’ll see there are local town ordinances or policies were Chinese were not allowed housing or they were paid less than other workers,” said Amy Chin.
Throughout U.S history, the federal government has passed legislation that specifically targeted Asian-Americans. First there was the Page Act of 1875, which was designed to keep immigrants seen as “undesirable” out of the country. It prohibited immigration of laborers and women for “lewd and immoral purposes.” The Act was focused on women, perpetuating the sexualized stereotype Chinese women are promiscuous.
Seven years later, came better known Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed; it limited immigration based on nationality. At the time, the U.S. population of Chinese-immigrants was a mere .002%, yet Congress still passed the act. At that time, negative and false perceptions that Chinese people carried diseases, such as malaria and smallpox, were pervasive. Today’s racist rhetoric of Chinese-Americans carrying the coronavirus hearkens back to this time. The Exclusion Act would not be repealed until more than six decades later.
“Between the 1870s and 1880s, there were about 150 anti-Chinese riots in the United States,” said Perrone.
San Francisco’s Angel Island opened in 1910 and operated for decades as a place to interrogate and detain Asian immigrants for months at a time.
By 1942, the U.S. was in the throes of World War II. Nazi Germany was the enemy, as was Japan. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced Japanese-American families from their homes and into internment camps throughout the U.S.
As a child, actor George Takei spent time in three different internment camps. Audiences know him as Star Trek’s Sulu, butTakei has also become an outspoken advocate for Asian-Americans and an activist for social justice.
“They marched up, stormed onto the porch and with their fists began pounding, they carried rifles with shiny bayonets” said Takei. “My mother, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge, very heavy duffel bag in the other and tears were streaming down her cheek. That is burned into my memory. I will never forget that moment, horrible.”
Those cruel years became the subject of his book “They Called us Enemy” and a critically-acclaimed 2015 Broadway show “Allegiance.”
“They took everything from us, our homes, our bank accounts, our freedom,” said Takei. “We look different, we were accused of looking like the enemy; that was the only crime we committed.”
Over 120,000 U.S. citizens were incarcerated in camps during the war, eyed with suspicion for one reason: their Japanese heritage. They were all given controversial loyalty questionnaires asking them to pledge their allegiance to America and forswear allegiance to Japan. Many young men who answered the questionnaires were sent to serve on the frontlines in Japanese-only combat units overseas.
“They went from behind barbed wires to fight for this country and to add insult to injury, they were put in a segregated all Japanese-American unit sent to the battlefields of Europe,” Takei said. “They were literally used like cannon fodder wave after wave after wave of Japanese-American soldiers being gunned down.”
Takei said the irony is that after Pearl Harbor, many young Japanese men rushed to recruitment centers, but were turned down.
“Like all young Americans, they wanted to volunteer to fight for our country,” Takei said. “This was an act of patriotism that was answered with a slap on the face. They were denied military service and characterized as enemy alien.”
Now, desperate to get out the camps, many signed off on going to the frontlines, only to be gunned down because the U.S. military purposely put them there.
The camps were shut down when the United States, experiencing a labor shortage, needed Japanese Americans workers.
“The government assumed we had a pre-existing in-born loyalty to the emperor which was insulting. We were Americans,” said Takei.
Takei’s mother was born in California. His dad was born in Japan but immigrated to the U.S. at an early age.
In the 60s, the Immigration and Nationality Act brought a new policy aimed at reuniting families and bringing skilled labor to the U.S. Many immigrants opened businesses, such as restaurants and laundries.
Still, unfair accusations of Asian-Americans taking jobs away from white workers persisted.
The painful story of Vincent Chin unfolded in 1982 Detroit in the heart of America’s auto industry during a time when Japan was outpacing the U.S. in that market. Chin, mistaken for Japanese, was beaten to death by two white men who were angry because they were out of work. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were convicted of manslaughter but never had to serve any prison time.
The year 2020 brought a global pandemic and a pandemic of racism. Former President Donald Trump’s use of racist rhetoric about the coronavirus sowed the seeds of fervent anti-Asian American sentiment, from avoidance to verbal harassment to violent attacks.
“Why is it that Chinese-Americans who are even in this country for many generations, why are they blamed for things that happen halfway around the world,” asked Amy Chin.
Just as in the case of Vincent Chin, it is still difficult to get justice for victims, Margaret Huang, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said
“There has been a more than 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans across the country and what this reflects to us at the Southern Poverty Law Center is that this corresponds with the timing of former President Trump’s hateful narrative about the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Huang. “We need more leadership from our political leaders and our law enforcement officials talking about the importance of addressing these as hate crimes.”
Advocacy group STOP AAPI Hate has been tracking hate crimes against Asians and recently released alarming new statistics. They received 3,795 complaints nationwide between March 2020 and February of this year. The true number is likely higher, as many cases go unreported. But more and more victims are fighting back.
“We have to participate actively and be vocal and visible and participatory,” said Takei.