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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.

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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.

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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.

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Michael Patrick Cullinane

Between 1897 and 1901 the administration of Republican President William McKinley transformed US foreign policy traditions and set a course for empire through interconnected economic policies and an open aspiration to achieve greater US influence in global affairs. The primary changes he undertook as president included the arrangement of inter-imperial agreements with world powers, a willingness to use military intervention as a political solution, the establishment of a standing army, and the adoption of a “large policy” that extended American jurisdiction beyond the North American continent. Opposition to McKinley’s policies coalesced around the annexation of the Philippines and the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. Anti-imperialists challenged McKinley’s policies in many ways, but despite fierce debate, the president’s actions and advocacy for greater American power came to define US policymaking for generations to come. McKinley’s administration merits close study.

Article

Gregg A. Brazinsky

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, America’s relationship with China ran the gamut from friendship and alliance to enmity and competition. Americans have long believed in China’s potential to become an important global actor, primarily in ways that would benefit the United States. The Chinese have at times embraced, at times rejected, and at times adapted to the US agenda. While there have been some consistent themes in this relationship, Sino-American interactions unquestionably increased their breadth in the 20th century. Trade with China grew from its modest beginnings in the 19th and early 20th centuries into a critical part of the global economy by the 21st century. While Americans have often perceived China as a country that offered significant opportunities for mutual benefit, China has also been seen as a threat and rival. During the Cold War, the two competed vigorously for influence in Asia and Africa. Today we see echoes of this same competition as China continues to grow economically while expanding its influence abroad. The history of Sino-American relations illustrates a complex dichotomy of cooperation and competition; this defines the relationship today and has widespread ramifications for global politics.

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Laws barring Asians from legal immigration and naturalization in the United States began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and expanded to include all other Asian groups by 1924. Beginning in World War II, U.S. lawmakers began to dismantle the Asian exclusion regime in response to growing international pressure and scrutiny of America’s racial policies and practices. The Japanese government sought to use the U.S. Asian exclusion laws to disrupt the Sino-American alliance of World War II, causing Washington officials to recognize these laws as a growing impediment to international diplomacy and the war effort. Later, the Soviet Union and other communist powers cited U.S. exclusion policies as evidence of American racial hypocrisy during the Cold War. A diverse group of actors championed the repeal of Asian exclusion laws over the 1940s and early 1950s. They included former American missionaries to Asia, U.S. and Asian state officials, and Asian and Asian American activists. The movement argued for repeal legislation as an inexpensive way for the United States to demonstrate goodwill, counter foreign criticism, and rehabilitate America’s international image as a liberal democracy. Drawing upon the timely language and logic of geopolitics, advocates lobbied Congressional lawmakers to pass legislation ending the racial exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization eligibility, in support of U.S. diplomatic and security interests abroad.

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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.

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The Eaton sisters, Edith Maude (b. 1865–d. 1914) and Winnifred (b. 1875–d. 1954), were biracial authors who wrote under their respective pseudonyms, Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna. Raised in Montreal, Canada, by an English father and a Chinese mother, the sisters produced works that many scholars have recognized as among the first published by Asian American writers. Edith embraced her Chinese ancestry by composing newspaper articles and short stories that addressed the plight of Chinese immigrants in North America. Winnifred, on the other hand, posed as a Japanese woman and eclipsed her older sibling in popularity by writing interracial romances set in Japan. The significance of the Eaton sisters emerges from a distinct moment in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States began asserting an imperial presence in Asia and the Caribbean, while waves of immigrants entered the nation as valued industrial labor. This dual movement of overseas expansion and incoming foreign populations gave rise to a sense of superiority and anxiety within the white American mainstream. Even as U.S. statesmen and missionaries sought to extend democracy, Christianity, and trade relations abroad, they also doubted that people who came to America could assimilate themselves according to the tenets of a liberal white Protestantism. This concern became evident with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Gentleman’s Agreement (1907), legislation that thwarted Chinese and Japanese immigration efforts. The lives and writings of the Eaton sisters intersected with these broader developments. As mixed-race authors, they catered to a growing U.S. consumer interest in things Asian, acting as cultural interpreters between East and West. In doing so, however, they complicated and challenged American beliefs and attitudes about race relations, gender roles, and empire building.

Article

Chinese were one of the few immigrant groups who brought with them a deep-rooted medical tradition. Chinese herbal doctors and stores came and appeared in California as soon as the Gold Rush began. Traditional Chinese medicine had a long history and was an important part of Chinese culture. Herbal medical knowledge and therapy was popular among Chinese immigrants. Chinese herbal doctors treated American patients as well. Established herbal doctors had more white patients than Chinese patients especially after Chinese population declined due to Chinese Exclusion laws. Chinese herbal medicine attracted American patients in the late 19th and early 20th century because Western medicine could not cure many diseases and symptoms during that period. Thriving Chinese herbal medical business made some doctors of Western medicine upset. California State Board of Medical Examiners did not allow Chinese herbal doctors to practice as medical doctors and had them arrested as practitioners without doctor license. Many of Chinese herbal doctors managed to operate their medical business as merchants selling herbs. Chinese herbal doctors often defended their career in court and newspaper articles. Their profession eventually discontinued when People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and the United States passed the Trading with Enemy Economy Act in December 1950 that cut herbal medical imports from China.