Substantial numbers of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants moved into suburbs across the United States after World War II, bringing distinctive everyday lifeways, identities, worldviews, family types, and community norms that remade much of American suburbia. Although Asian Americans were excluded from suburbs on racial grounds since the late 19th century, American Cold War objectives in Asia and the Pacific and domestic American civil rights struggles afforded Asian Americans increased access to suburban housing in the 1950s, especially Chinese and Japanese Americans. Following passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, new groups of Asian Americans, particularly Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and South Asian Indian, joined Chinese and Japanese Americans in settling in earnest into all kinds of suburban neighborhoods. At the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Asians resided in the suburbs, which also became the preferred gateway communities for new immigrants who often bypassed urban cores and moved straight to the suburbs when they arrived.
Entrance into highly racialized postwar suburbs defined by white middle-class norms and segregated white privilege did not, however, mean that Asian Americans gained entry or assimilated into whiteness. While many certainly aspired to and reinforced long-standing white suburban ideals, others revamped, contested, and outright fractured dominant notions of the suburban good life. By the 1980s Asian Americans of various ethnic and national backgrounds had transformed the sights, sounds, and smells of suburban landscapes throughout the country. They made claims on suburban space and asserted a “right to the suburb” through a range of social and cultural practices, often in physical places, especially shopping plazas, grocery stores, restaurants, religious centers, and schools. Yet as Asian Americans tried to become full-fledged participants in suburban culture and life, their presence, ethnic expressions, and ways of life sparked tensions with other mostly white suburbanites that led to heated debates over immigration, race, multiculturalism, and assimilation in American society.
The history of post-World War II Asian American suburban cultures highlights suburbia as a principal setting for Asian American experiences and the making of Asian American identity during the second half of the 20th century. More broadly, the Asian American experience reveals how control over the suburban ideal and the making of suburban space in the United States was and remains a contested, layered process. It also underscores the racial and ethnic diversification of metropolitan America and how pressing social, political, economic, and cultural issues in US society played out increasingly on the suburban stage. Moreover, Asian Americans built communities and social networks precisely the moment in which the authentic “American” community was supposedly in decline, providing a powerful counterpunch to those who lament nonwhite populations, particularly immigrants, for fracturing an otherwise unified American culture or sense of togetherness.
Many Asian American neighborhoods faced displacement after World War II because of urban renewal or redevelopment under the 1949 Housing Act. In the name of blight removal and slum clearance this Act allowed local elites to procure federal money to seize land designated as blighted, clear it of its structures, and sell this land to private developers—in the process displacing thousands of residents, small businesses, and community institutions. San Francisco’s Fillmore District, a multiracial neighborhood that housed the city’s largest Japanese American and African American communities, experienced this postwar redevelopment. Like many Asian American neighborhoods that shared space with other communities of color, the Fillmore formed at the intersection of class inequality and racism, and it was this intersection of structural factors that led to substandard urban conditions. Rather than recognize the root causes of urban decline, San Francisco urban and regional elites argued that the Fillmore was among the city’s most blighted neighborhoods and advocated for the neighborhood’s destruction in the name of the public good. They also targeted the Fillmore because their postwar plans for remaking the city’s political economy envisioned the Fillmore as (1) a space to house white- collar workers in the postwar economy and (2) as an Asian-themed space for tourism that connected the city symbolically and economically to Japan, an important U.S. postwar ally. For over four decades these elite-directed plans for the Fillmore displaced more than 20,000 residents in two phases, severely damaging the community. The Fillmore’s redevelopment, then, provides a window into other cases of redevelopment and aids further investigations of the connection between Asian Americans and urban crisis. It also sheds light on the deeper history of displacement in the Asian American experience and contextualizes contemporary gentrification in Asian American neighborhoods.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, living primarily on the West Coast of the continental United States. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing formal apologies and checks for $20,000 to those still alive who had been unjustly imprisoned during WWII. In the interim period, nearly a half century, there were enormous shifts in memories of the events, mainstream accounts, and internal ethnic accountabilities. To be sure, there were significant acts of resistance, from the beginning of mass forced removal to the Supreme Court decisions toward the end of the war. But for a quarter of a century, between 1945 and approximately 1970, there was little to threaten a master narrative that posited Japanese Americans, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), as a once-embattled ethnic/racial minority that had transcended its victimized past to become America’s treasured model minority. The fact that the Japanese American community began effective mobilization for government apology and reparations in the 1970s only confirmed its emergence as a bona fide part of the American body politic. But where the earlier narrative extolled the memories of Japanese American war heroes and leaders of the JACL, memory making changed dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s. In the years since Reagan’s affirmation that “here we admit a wrong,” Japanese Americans have unleashed a torrent of memorials, museums, and monuments honoring those who fought the injustices and who swore they would resist current or future attempts to scapegoat other groups in the name of national security.
Kelly N. Fong
The Sacramento Delta is an agricultural region in northern California with deep historic significance for Asian Americans. Asian American laborers were instrumental to the development of Sacramento Delta, transforming the swampy peat bog into one of the richest agricultural areas in California. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers constructed levees, dikes, and ditches along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers before breaking the fertile soil to grow fruit and vegetables including pears and asparagus. Asian Americans continued a permanent and transient presence in the Sacramento Delta on farms as migrant farm laborers, permanent farmworkers, and overseers, and in the small delta towns such as Isleton that emerged as merchants, restaurant operators, boardinghouse operators, and other business owners catering to the local community.
After World War II, Okinawa was placed under U.S. military rule and administratively separated from mainland Japan. This occupation lasted from 1945 to 1972, and in these decades Okinawa became the “Keystone of the Pacific,” a leading strategic site in U.S. military expansionism in Asia and the Pacific. U.S. rule during this Cold War period was characterized by violence and coercion, resulting in an especially staggering scale of sexual violence against Okinawan women by U.S. military personnel. At the same time, the occupation also facilitated numerous cultural encounters between the occupiers and the occupied, leading to a flourishing cross-cultural grassroots exchange. A movement to establish American-style domestic science (i.e., home economics) in the occupied territory became a particularly important feature of this exchange, one that mobilized an assortment of women—home economists, military wives, club women, university students, homemakers—from the United States, Okinawa, and mainland Japan. The postwar domestic science movement turned Okinawa into a vibrant theater of Cold War cultural performance where women of diverse backgrounds collaborated to promote modern homemaking and build friendship across racial and national divides. As these women took their commitment to domesticity and multiculturalism into the larger terrain of the Pacific, they articulated the complex intertwining that occurred among women, domesticity, the military, and empire.
The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.
The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.
Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.
Buddhist history in the United States traces to the mid-19th century, when early scholars and spiritual pioneers first introduced the subject to Americans, followed soon by the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Interest in Buddhism was significant during the late Victorian era, but practice was almost completely confined to Asian immigrants, who faced severe white prejudice and legal discrimination. The Japanese were the first to establish robust, long-lasting temple networks, though they, too, faced persecution, culminating in the 1942 incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, a severe blow to American Buddhism. Outside the Japanese American community, Buddhism grew slowly in the earlier decades of the 20th century, but it began to take off in the 1960s, aided soon by the lifting of onerous immigration laws and the return of large-scale Asian immigration. By the end of the 20th century American Buddhism had become extremely diverse and complex, with clear evidence of permanence in Asian American and other communities.
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images.
Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.