Although they were not the first Asians to arrive to the United States (a minor population of Filipinos arrived in America with Spanish explorers in the late 16th century), the Chinese were the first to immigrate to the United States in a large population. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, it attracted many people throughout and outside the country in search of a fortune. Gold seekers from China traveled to America in pursuit of gold. So many had arrived the soon enough, Chinese workers had become about a fifth of the entire population in gold mining areas.
After the gold rush and the immediate increase of Chinese foreigners, there was not much positive response from fellow white Americans. Chinese Americans began to face much discrimination and violence as white Americans feared that they would take their jobs. Racial tensions increased to a greater degree after the Civil War, when the debate on race equality began. Anti-Chinese movements, such as the Workingman’s Party of California, were created to protect white Americans from having their jobs taken from the Chinese.
As the need to travel across the country soon grew, there was an idea to build a Transcontinental Railroad. The Western Pacific, the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies all agreed to build separate railroads across America, and then connect them to form the Transcontinental Railroad. When these companies began building, they looked to hire cheap labor in the form of immigrants. Many Asian Americans helped with this project, but despite all their hard work to better America’s transportation system, they were still violently discriminated against.
During the late nineteenth century, there was remarkable growth in America’s industrial economy. While this led to improvements in living standards for middle class workers, immigrants were faced with deteriorating respect with heightened ethnical tensions. Asian workers were forced into factories for long hours at a time, only to go home to a filthy crowded tenement. The Chinese were still the most hated Asian group. The government even passed laws to prevent any more Chinese from coming into America. These prevention laws were also created against other Asian groups. In the early 20th century, Punjabi migrants from India came to America to find work. Due to protests from white workers, Congress put a stop to immigration from India.
Although Progressivism in the United States helped advance science and technology, economic development, and social justice, much of the laws passed during this era did not progress Asian American acceptance. Political tensions were high between Japan and the United States which led to a lot of discussions between the two countries on the topic of immigration.
As America’s industrial power expanded, the country decided to try to create an empire through imperialism like the European countries. After a successful campaign in Latin America, the United States tried to increase its influence to include Asia. The state of Hawaii was annexed into the country. Then came a long, violent war in the Philippines. At first, the American Army and Filipino commanders worked together to fight off Spanish rule. But once the Filipinos realized that Americans were going to stay and assert dominance in their country, the Filipinos began fighting off the Americans. The United States eventually were able to control the state, and it was not until July 4, 1946 that the Philippines gained independence.
Like all other Americans, Asian-Americans experienced difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression. Unemployment went up as high as 50% in Chinatowns in California. Those that were employed were paid low wages in low level jobs and were faced by the pressure from unemployed white Americans. White Americans actively campaigned against the employment of Asians. Riots arose in California where white Americans beat and drove out Filipino workers.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Army, Japanese Americans faced a lot of discrimination. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established internment camps all throughout the country to house Japanese Americans in order to silence public unrest.
Asian Americans found themselves more influenced by the changing culture of America and more involved in political affairs. They participated in the strikes of the New Left, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. It was the first time Asians of different nationalities came together to form resistance to the discrimination of their own people.
The late 20th century was a milestone for Asian American activism. Riding on the previous feelings of the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, and the Chicano movement Asian Americans began their own movement looking for equal rights as American citizens. They were a more prominent force and had a more active role in the local community and on the national stage. The movement called for racial equality, social justice, and political empowerment.