The first major wave of Asian immigrants arrived at American shores in the mid-1800s and Asian Americans have since played a key role in U.S. history, while also facing discrimination and exclusion.
A diverse population, the nation’s 20 million-plus Asian Americans have roots in more than 20 countries in Asia and India, according to the Pew Research Center, with Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese making up 85 percent of today’s Asian American population. Here’s a look at some of the notable milestones throughout Asian American history.
Gold Rush Lures New Wave of Immigrants
May 7, 1843: A 14-year-old fisherman named Manjiro becomes the first official U.S. Japanese immigrant after being adopted by American Capt. William Whitfield who rescued the boy and his crew after a shipwreck 300 miles from Japan's coast. Years later, Manjiro returned to his home country, where he was named a samurai and worked as a political emissary with the West.
1849: Following the discovery of gold in California, Chinese miners head to California seeking riches, with 25,000 arriving by 1851, according to the Library of Congress. With uncertain work and hostile locals, not to mention a language barrier, many Chinese laborers (including more than 10,000 with the Central Pacific Railroad alone) take dangerous work, for little pay, building the transcontinental railroad, which is completed on May 10, 1869.
Page Act, Chinese Exclusion Act Restrict Immigration
March 3, 1875: The Page Act of 1875 is enacted, prohibiting the recruitment of laborers from “China, Japan or any Oriental country” who were not brought to the United States of their own will or who were brought for “lewd and immoral purposes.” The law explicitly bars “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” The act, based on stereotypes and scapegoating, is enforced by invasive and humiliating interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station outside San Francisco. It effectively blocks Chinese women from entering the country and stifles the ability of Chinese American men to start families in America.
May 6, 1882: Facing hostile, and often violent treatment from locals, Chinese immigrants are targeted by Congress with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by President Chester Arthur. The act bans Chinese workers from entering the country and excludes Chinese immigrants from American citizenship. Every 10 years, Congress extends its provision until 1943, when World War II labor shortage pressure and increased anti-Japanese sentiment leads to its demise and Chinese immigrants are allowed to become naturalized citizens.
March 3, 1885: In the case Tape v. Hurley, California's Supreme Court rules that the state entitles "all children" access to public education. The case centers on Mamie Tape, then 8, an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants whose family sued the San Francisco Board of Education for denying her admission because of her race.
White Coal Miners Target Chinese Workers
September 2, 1885: Angered that they’re taking away “white” jobs, white coal miners attack Chinese laborers in the Wyoming territory during what comes to be known as the Rock Springs Massacre. Twenty-eight Chinese are killed, with 15 more injured by the mob, which also looted and set fire to all of the homes in the area’s Chinatown. Federal troops are brought in to return Chinese miners, who had fled, to Rock Springs, and Congress eventually agrees to compensate the workers for their losses.
May 27-28, 1887: Seven white horse thieves ambush a group of Chinese miners who had set up camp along the Snake River in Oregon, murdering all 34 men and mutilating their bodies before dumping them in the river. Three members of the gang stand trial in the Hells Canyon Massacre, with one testifying for the state, and all are found not guilty by an all-white jury.
January 21, 1910: The immigration station Angel Island opens in California’s San Francisco Bay, serving as the country’s major port of entry for Asian immigrants, with some 100,000 Chinese and 70,000 Japanese being processed through the station over the next 30 years. Known as the “Ellis Island of the West” and located 6 miles off San Francisco’s coast, the island was a military reserve during the Civil War. Immigrants without proper documentation were quarantined there for days to years in a “prison-like environment,” according to the National Parks Service. Closed in 1940, it’s now a California state park.
February 5, 1917: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1917, which includes an "Asiatic Barred Zone," banning Chinese, Asian Indians, Burmese, Thai, Maylays and others. Japan is not on the list of those excluded, as prohibitions against immigrants from that country are already in place, nor is the Philippines, as it is a U.S. territory.
December 7, 1941: The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing Japanese immigrants or those with Japanese ancestry had taken part in planning the attack, issues an executive order that forces more than 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into internment camps.
According to the National Archives, approximately 70,000 of those targeted are U.S. citizens, and no charges are made against any of them. Most lose their homes, businesses and belongings, and are held until the war ends. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signs a law apologizing for the civil liberty injustice with the order to pay $20,000 to each person who had been incarcerated.
Asian-American Firsts in Congress
January 3, 1957: Dalip Saund of California is sworn in as a U.S. Representative, becoming the first Asian-American, first Indian American and first Sikh to serve in Congress. An immigrant from India, he became an American citizen in 1949, eventually earning a Ph.D. and being elected as a judge before serving three terms in the House. According to the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, he was vocal on issues such as communism and civil rights, including desegregation. “The problem of man’s injustice to man is a world problem," he said in response to the case in Little Rock, Arkansas. "Let one who is innocent and pure throw the first stone.”
August 24, 1959: Born in Honolulu the son of poor Chinese immigrants, Hiram L. Fong is sworn in as Hawaii's first U.S. Senator, becoming the first Asian American elected to the chamber. The only Republican senator ever elected from the state, he defended President Richard Nixon's Vietnam policies, and, according to the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, saw himself as an Asian American spokesman. “I feel sometimes they think I am their senator,” he once said. “I try to interpret America to them and to interpret them to America.”
January 4, 1965: U.S. Representative Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii is sworn in as the first Asian American woman, and first woman of color, to serve in Congress. A supporter of women’s and civil rights and an advocate for education, children and labor unions, Mink opposed the Vietnam War, supported Head Start and the Women's Educational Equity Act and was a co-author and sponsor of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, outlawing sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal funding. She also co-founds the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 1994.
Advances in Labor Rights
September 8, 1965: Facing the threat of pay cuts and demanding improved working conditions, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, made up mostly of Filipino farmworkers, begins the five-year-long Delano Grape strike in California that prompts a global grape boycott. Led by Filipino-American Larry Itliong, the workers are soon joined by Cesar Chavez and Latino workers, and the two unions ultimately join to form United Farm Workers.
October 3, 1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act into law. Also known as the Hart-Celler Act, it puts an end to immigration policies based on ethnicity and race and quota systems, resulting in a wave of Asian immigrants who had been barred from entry.
August 19, 1973: Martial arts movie Enter the Dragon premieres, three weeks after its action star, Bruce Lee, dies from an allergic reaction to pain medication in Hong Kong. In his first starring role in a Hollywood film, the box office hit cements Lee, born in 1940 in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, as a film icon.
March 28, 1979: President Jimmy Carter proclaims a week in May is to be designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, which would be continued by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1990, Bush broadens the observance to cover the month of May and, in 1992, Congress passes a law permanently designating May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. May is chosen in honor of the first official Japanese immigrant's arrival in the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and because May 10, 1869, marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
June 23, 1982: Four days after being held down and beaten in the head with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit, Vincent Chin dies. The Chinese American and his friends were confronted during his bachelor party by Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, who, according to witnesses, blamed their unemployment on the rise of Japanese car imports. Ebens and Nitz, convicted of manslaughter in a plea deal, were sentenced to three years probation and a $3,000 fine with no jail time. The verdict—called “a license to kill for $3,000, provided you have a steady job or are a student and the victim is Chinese,'' according to Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council—leads to protests and outrage in the Asian American community.
June 24, 1982: More than 20,000 garment workers, most of whom are female immigrants from China and Hong Kong, rally in New York’s Chinatown after labor union negotiations stall. A second rally is held the next month, with a one-day strike taking place July 15, the largest in the history of Chinatown that ends with employers accepting the union’s contract demands.
Asian Americans in Architecture, Film
November 13, 1982: The Vietnam War Memorial is dedicated in Washington, D.C. Designed by Maya Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, the simple, black-granite wall is inscribed with 57,939 names of Americans killed in the conflict. Lin, as an architecture student at Yale, bested more than 1,400 entries in a national competition to design the memorial in a unanimous decision by the jurors. At first considered controversial, it quickly becomes a powerful symbol of honor and sacrifice.
October 2018: Director Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians breaks box office records, becoming North America's highest-earning romantic comedy in a decade. It's also the first Hollywood studio movie since 1993's Joy Luck Club starring an "all-Westernized Asian American cast," according to the Hollywood Reporter. Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, the film, made for $30 million, has grossed more than $238 million.
July 21, 2000: President Bill Clinton swears in Norman Mineta as the U.S. secretary of commerce, making him the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet. Mineta, a Japanese American who had been sent to a World War II internment camp in 1942, was the first Asian American mayor of a major city, San Jose, Calif., served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1999 and, in 2001, was named transportation secretary under George W. Bush. Bush also appoints Elaine Chao secretary of labor, the first female Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet. President Donald Trump names her secretary of transportation in 2017.
January 20. 2021: Kamala D. Harris is sworn in as the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president of the United States. Serving with President Joe Biden, the former U.S. senator from California is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father and is sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Sotomayor, the court's first female Latina justice. In 2019, Harris, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard became the first Asian Americans to run for president on the Democrat ticket (Gabbard has Pacific Islander heritage).
- Key facts about Asian origin groups in the U.S., Pew Research Center
- Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress: First Arrivals, First Reactions, U.S. House of Representatives
- Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History, Library of Congress
- U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, National Park Service
- Grapes Of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led A Farmworker Revolution, NPR
- Japanese-American Internment During World War II, National Archives
- Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Library of Congress