Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
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.
Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
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.
Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere.
Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin.
Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.
Chrissy Yee Lau
Gambling was a central facet of life for Japanese male laborers in early 20th-century California. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, labor contractors and Chinese gambling dens offered gambling to Japanese laborers to maintain a consistent cheap labor force and large consumer pool. Many laborers approached gambling as a form of leisure, an opportunity for getting rich quickly and building a sense of community. After the Gentlemen’s Agreement was passed in 1907–1908, Japanese elites led anti-gambling campaigns aimed at Chinese gambling dens in their larger project to build the empire abroad and acquire domestic civil rights. By the 1920s, Japanese-run gambling dens became more established, but the hardships of Japanese immigrant wives prompted collaboration with the Japanese Associations of America to address gambling among married men. The larger community memory around gambling is often told from the wife or children’s perspective, recounted with pain and suffering over how gambling tore families asunder.
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.
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.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Despite its cultivated reputation as the nation’s “white spot” in the early 20th century, Southern California was in fact home to diverse and numerous communities of color, some composed of relatively new immigrants and some long predating the era of Anglo settlement and conquest. In the years following World War II, the region engaged in suburban home construction on a mass scale and became a global symbol of what Dolores Hayden called the economically democratic but racially exclusive “sitcom suburb,” from the tax-lowering mechanism of its “Lakewood plan” to the car-friendly “Googie” architecture of the San Fernando Valley. Existing suburban communities of color, such as the colonias of agricultural laborers, were engulfed by new settlements, while upwardly mobile African Americans, Latinas/Latinos, and Asian Americans sought access to the expanding suburban dream of homeownership, with varying degrees of success. The political responses to suburban diversity in metropolitan Los Angeles ranged from Anglo resistance and flight to multiracial political coalitions and the incorporation of people of color at multiple levels of local government. The ascent by a number of suburbanites of color to positions of local and regional political power from the 1960s through the 1980s sometimes exposed intra-ethnic discord and sometimes the fragility of cross-race coalition as multiple actors sought to protect property values and to pursue economic security within the competitive constraints of shrinking municipal resources, aging infrastructure, and a receding suburban fringe. As a result, political conflicts over crime, immigration, education, and inequality emerged in many Los Angeles County suburbs by the 1970s and later in the more distant corporate suburbs of Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. The suburbanization of poverty, the role of suburbs as immigrant gateways, and the emergence of “majority-minority” suburbs—all national trends by the late 1990s and the first decade of the 20th century—were evident far earlier in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, where diverse suburbanites negotiated social and economic crises and innovated political responses.