May Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month


Even in a multicultural, polyglot city like Los Angeles (which has the largest population of Asian-Americans(1.4 million) in the country and where the percentage of the population which is Asian-American is roughly twice that which is black) most discussions of race appear continue to be framed in the outmoded, bipolar terms of  black and white.  For example, whereas a lot of people and many organizations honor Black History Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is by comparison almost completely unrecognized except by some Asian-American organization and individuals.

The centuries-long struggle and strife of blacks in America is well-documented and worth honoring — many have suggested that Black Americans invented the Civil Rights Movement (some Native Americans might take issue with that). Asians, like other non-whites, have also been subjected to legal segregation, racist violence, widespread discrimination and harassment. So why is it that the Asian-American experience is so… obscure? I hadn’t even heard of its existence until I was hipped to it by reknowned Asian-American rights activist, Ngoc-thu Thi Nguyen.


According to polls, 23% of Americans are admittedly “uncomfortable” voting for an Asian-American to be President of the United States. This is in contrast to 15% compared with an African-American candidate and 14% compared with a (presumably non-Asian) female candidate. Just as many Americans used to fear that Catholics ultimate allegiance was to the pope, a lot of Asians are suspected and viewed of holding allegiances the Asian countries of their ancestors, a view which fuels the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype.


Asian-Americans are typically descended from more recent immigrants than the white or black population. Last year, coming up with movies to showcase for APA Heritage Month resulted in the suggestion of Chinese Kung Fu movies the distinction between Asians in Asia and Asians in America remains a lot harder for non-Asians than distinguishing African-Americans from Africans or white people from Europeanspartly because America loves imported Asian movies and Korean dramas but Hollywood continues to be incredibly uncomfortable with Asian-American leads or ensembles. To date there’ve only been a handful ofAsian-American television series. Even more troubling to me is the fact that many Asian-Americans born in America speak of “American food” and “Americans” as something separate and exclusive of themselves.


America’s understanding and discussion of racial issues has almost always been overwhelmingly and frustratingly bipolar.  Look at the focus of most conversations about the current Democratic Party elections despite the fact that Asian-Americans are second only to Jews in their per capita political donations. This simple and distorted view exists despite the fact that other groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, have always been central to our country’s history. The conversation has always been and remains, still, “black and white.”


Asians are often paternalistically referred to as the “model minority” — a special minority position that seems to involve the allowance of systematic marginalization. It’s like saying “here’s a gold star for not rocking the boat. We wish all minorities were so well-behaved.” It suggests that (even though Asian immigration is growing at the highest percentage of any racial group) the fact that Asian-Americans are the least likely racial group to report crimes against themselves is to be commended. And even though rare modern instances of blackface provoke outrage, yellowface (whether literal or metaphorically practiced by Asian-American actors reduced to playing into stereotypes) is still not a big deal.


I have to assume that the term “model minority” doesn’t  apply to all Asian-Americans, right? As a whole,Southeast Asian people including Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Filipinos and Hmong in the United States are, socio-economically speaking, much more aligned with Native Americans, Blacks, and Latinos. Anecdotally speaking, they seem less likely to be fetishized by both pop culture (appearing in advertisments, films and TV less often than East Asians) and non-Asian exoticists struck with so-called “Yellow Fever.” And what of South Asians? For whatever reason, if one speaks of Asian-Americans of South Asian ancestral origin as being Asian-Americans (which they, of course, are), many non-Asians will react with confusion or even attempt to correct you. Anyway, enough of my musings on race… here’s a brief history of Asian-American Immigration to the Americas.





A group of proto-Asian hunters walks from Northern Asia to the Americas on a land bridge.

Inupiaq dancer                    Yupik girl                      Inuit girls                   Alutiiq dancer                  Aleut boy


The last great wave of prehistoric migration from northern Asia to the Americas. These settlers go on to develop into the Inupiaq, Yupik, Inuit, Alutiiq, and Aleut peoples (among others).


The (now “American”) islands of Hawai’i are settled by the Austronesian Polynesians.


The first Chinese and Filipinos reach Mexico on ships of the Manila galleon.

Saint Malo


1763 – First recorded settlement of Filipinos in the USA when, to avoid Spanish imprisonment, they jump ship in New Orleans and hide in the bayou before building a settlement at Saint Malo.

1790 – First recorded arrival of an Asian Indian in the United States who was employed as a maritime worker.



1840s – Gold is discovered in California and Chinese begin arriving in substantial numbers as prospectors. Three Chinese students enroll in New York schools. Five shipwrecked Japanese sailors are rescued by Americans. Four settle in Honolulu, the fifth, Jon Manjiro becomes an interpreter for Comodore Matthew Perry.


1850s – Yung Wing, one of the three Chinese enrollees in New York schools, graduates from Yale in 1854 and becomes the first Chinese to graduate from a U.S. college. Over 20,000 Chinese immigrate to California.California imposes Foreign Miner’s Tax which it uses primarily against Chinese miners. In the case of thePeople v. Hall, the court rules that Chinese-Americans cannot give testimony against whites overturning the murder conviction of George Hall who’d murdered a Chinese man and been convicted based on the testimony of a Chinese. Seventeen shipwrecked Japanese become the first from their nation to reach California. One of the crew, Joseph Heco, becomes the first naturalized Japanese-American and goes on to publish the first Japanese language newspaper in the U.S. California passes a law preventing the entry of Chinese and other “Mongolians.” Chinese-Americans are banned from attending San Francisco public schools.

Chinese Railroad Workers

1860s – California imposes a tax of $2.50 a month on Chinese-Americans. The US and China sign the Burlingame-Seward Treaty which legally recognizes the rights of Chinese citizens to immigrate to the US.The Central Pacific Railroad Co. recruits Chinese workers after not being able to find enough among the Irish-American population. 2,000 Chinese railroad workers stage a week long strike. American merchant Eugene Van Reed illegally transports 149 Japanese laborers to Hawaii.


1870s – In Texas, Chinese railroad workers sue their employer for failing to pay their wages. A mob of white Angelenos loot Chinese-owned homes and businesses, killing 19. Chinese-American communities are burned to the ground while at the same time, California cities ban Chinese from living in white neighborhoods. California’s Civil Procedure Code drops the ban on Chinese court testimony. Congress passes the Page Law, which bars entry of Chinese, Japanese, and “Mongolian”  contract laborers, felons and prostitutes. San Francisco passes discriminatory laws such as the Queue Ordinance which bans wearing queues and the Sidewalk Ordinance which bans using poles to carry loads. The case, In re Ah Yup rules that Chinese are ineligible for naturalized citizenship. California’s second constitution prevents municipalities and corporations from employing Chinese. California state legislature passes law which requires all Chinese to be moved outside city limits but U.S. circuit overturns it on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

              The Tape Family                                                    A Cartoon From Wasp Magazine

1880s – The U.S. and China sign a treaty which allows the US to place limits on Chinese immigration. Section 69 of California’s Civil Code prohibits marriages between whites and “Mongolians, Negroes, mulattoes and persons of mixed blood” which aims to limit growth of the Chinese population since women are largely restricted from immigrating and Asian men aren’t allowed to marry whites. The Chinese Exclusion Law suspends Chinese from immigrating to the US for 10 years. Chinese-born couple Joseph and Mary Tape in the case Tape v. Hurley sue the San Francisco school board to enroll their daughter Mamie in a public school. San Francisco responds by building the segregated “Oriental School.”  In Wyoming, the Rock Springs Massacre ends with 28 Chinese murdered and 75 homes destroyed resulting from Chinese protests over being paid less than their white co-workers. In Snake River, Washington 31 Chinese miners are massacred. Residents of Tacoma, Seattle, and other cities forcibly expel the Chinese. In the Yick Wo v. Hopkins case, the laundryman wins with the court declaring that law with unequal impact on different groups is discriminatory. The Scott Act renders 20,000 Chinese reentry certificates null and void. The courts decide in Chae Chan Ping v. U.S. upholds constitutionality of the Chinese exclusion laws.

                                                                                                                         Wong Kim Ark

1890s – The Geary Law renews exclusion of Chinese laborers for another ten years and requires all Chinese to register. It is challenged in the case Fong Yue Ting v. U.S. The result upholds constitutionality of Geary Law. More attempts are made to expel Chinese from towns in southern California. Saito, a Japanese, applies for U.S. citizenship but is refused on the basis that he is neither white nor black. In the case of Lem Moon Sing v. U.S. the court rules that district courts can no longer review Chinese habeas corpus petitions for landing in the US. In 1896, Shinsei Kaneko becomes the first naturalized Japanese Californian. The Kingdom of Hawai’i is toppled by Hawai’ians of American ancestry. In a bubonic plague scare in Honolulu, Chinatown is burnt down. The case of Wong Kim Ark v. U.S. concludes that Chinese born in America cannot be stripped of their citizenship. The Philippines becomes a protectorate of the US and Hawaii is annexed.

                    Korean Plantation Workers in Hawaii                        “THE YELLOW TERROR IN ALL HIS GLORY”


1900s – A Bubonic plague scare grips San Francisco. The city responds by cordoning and quarantining Chinatown. The Chinese Exclusion Act is extended first, for another ten years and then, indefinitely. InBoston, 250 Chinese are arrested in a police raid conducted without warrants. 7,000 Koreans arrive in Hawaii as strikebreakers against Japanese-Hawaiians who conduct their first organized strike. 1,500 Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers strike together in OxnardThe San Francisco School Board moves to segregate Japanese students. The Asiatic Exclusion League formed in San Francisco. Yone Noguchi publishes The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, the first Japanese-American novel. Section 60 of California’s Civil Code is amended to forbid marriage between whites and “Mongolians.” Japanese scientists studying the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake are stoned. The US and Japan agree to halt emigration of Japanese to the US. President Theodore Roosevelt signs Executive Order 589 which prohibits Japanese with passports from Hawaii, Mexico, or Canada from re-emigrating to the U.S. The first group of Filipino laborers arrives in Hawaii. Asian Indians are driven out of Bellingham, WashingtonJapanese-Americans form Japanese Association of AmericaAsian Indians are driven out ofLive Oak, CaliforniaKorean-Americans form Korean Nationalist AssociationJokichi Takamine, a Japanese-American chemist, isolates adrenaline. 7,000 Japanese plantation workers strike major plantations on Oahu for four months.

                         Detainees at Angel Island                                                              Pablo Manlapit

1910s – The California government takes measures to restrict Indians from coming to the state. The Angel Island Immigration Station opens. Billed as the “Ellis Island of the West” it is known among Immigration officials as the “Guardian of the Western Gate” and serves mainly as a detention center for hopeful Asian-Americans although some 19,000 “picture brides” are processed. In Hawaii, Pablo Manlapit forms Filipino Higher Wages Association and the Filipino Unemployed AssociationJapanese-Americans form the Federation of Japanese Labor. California and Arizona pass  alien land laws prohibiting “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (i.e. non-Filipino Asians) from buying land or leasing it for longer than three years. Korean farmers are driven out of Hemet.  Japanese form the Central Japanese Association of Southern California. In the northwest, Sikhs establish the Hindustani AssociationIn California, Sikhs form the Ghandar Party and begin publishing their own newspaper. Japanese form the Northwest Japanese Association of America in Seattle.

                            Sessue Hayakawa                                                                  Marion Wong

In silent cinema, Sessue Hayakawa plays the villain in Cecil B. Demille‘s “yellow peril” film, The Cheat which made him the first Asian-American film star. Later in the decade he stars in The Dragon Painter and The Tong Man. In 1916, American-born Oakland resident Marion Wong made the first Asian-American film The Curse of Quon Gwon. Asians who served in World War I receive the right to become citizens.

            Bhagat Singh Thind                                                Anna May Wong in Toll of the Sea

1920s – 10,000 Japanese and Filipino plantation workers go on strike. Japan stops issuing passports to picture brides in response to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in the US. Japanese farmers are driven out of Turlock, California. Hilario Moncando founds the Filipino Federation of AmericaWashington, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Louisiana pass alien land laws. Terrace v. Thompson and Porterfield v. Webb challenges the constitutionality of these laws in Washington and California, respectively. Filipino farmers are chased out of Yakima Valley, Oregon. In Hawaii, 1,600 Filipino plantation workers strike for eight months. In the case of Takao Ozawa v. US, Japanese are declared ineligible for U.S. citizenship since they, though white-skinned, are not Caucasian. In the US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Indians are declared ineligible for naturalization since they, though Caucasian, are determined to be “not white.” The Cable Act threatens any woman who marries “an alien ineligible to citizenship” with loss of her citizenship.Webb v. O’Brien rules against sharecropping on the grounds that it effectively allows Japanese to possess and use land. Frick v. Webb forbids aliens “ineligible to citizenship” (non-Filipino Asians) from owning stocks in corporations formed for farming. The Immigration Act denies entry to virtually all Asians.

In film, Anna May Wong stars in Toll of the Sea which is also noteworthy as the first film shot in the two color Technicolor process. She goes on to act in Thief of Bagdad and Old San Francisco (which, with its depictions of Chinese immigrants as opium-addicted white slavers causes riots in San Francisco’s Chinatown). Most of her roles were either as destructive dragon ladies or childlike china-dolls, the predominant stereotypes that remain for Asian-American actresses to this day. The following year she moved to Europe, feeling her career was held back by racism in the US film. Anna May Wong explained her reasons for leaving Hollywood, explaining, “I was tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that on the screen the Chinese are nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain -murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization so many times older than that of the West? We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show those on the screen?” In England she starred in Picadilly, which is widely considered her best film. 


 Filipino Farmers Near Watsonville                            Keye Luke and Warner Oland (as Charlie Chan)

1930s – Anti-Filipino riots in Watsonville, California. The Tydings-McDuffie Act reduces Filipino immigration to 50 a year while outlining the Philippines’ path to independence. In Salinas, Filipino lettuce workers strike.

Asian-themed movies
continue to rely mostly on white actors in yellowface with actual Asians relegated to extra roles. Shanghai Express (with Anna May Wong in a speaking role), the Mr. Moto series, the Fu Manchu series, The Charlie Chan series (starring lifetime yellowface actor Warner Oland), The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and The Good Earth are notable examples.
For Wuthering Heights, star Merle Oberon concocts a phony story about her parents to conceal being Indian and, with lighting and makeup, is made to look as white as possible.


1940s – After declaring war against Japan, 2,000 Japanese-American community leaders are rounded up for internment.  Eventually, over 100,000 Americans with Japanese ancestry are interned in camps. Incidents occur at the Poston, Manzanar and Topaz relocation centers. Franklin Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 allowing the secretary of war to exclude Japanese Americans from “designated military areas.” Congress follows up by passing Public Law 503 which imposes penal sanctions on anyone refusing to carry out Executive Order 9066. Japanese-American troops from Hawaii serve in Europe as the all-volunteer 422nd Regimental Combat Team. Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion laws, granting the right of naturalization and an immigration quota of a whopping 105 Chinese per year. The Luce-Celler Bill grants naturalization rights to small numbers of Indians and Filipions. Wing F. Ong becomes the first Asian American to be elected to state office in the Arizona House of Representatives. The Philippines become independent and U.S. citizenship is offered to all Filipinos living in the United States. An Amendment to 1945 War Brides Act allows Chinese-American veterans to bring brides into the U.S. After the formation of the People’s Republic of China, 5,000 American Chinese are granted refugee status.

                  Dalip Singh Saund

1950s – 
A clause in the McCarran-Walter Act grants the right of naturalization to a small number of Japanese. California repeals its alien land laws.
Indian-American Dalip Singh Saund  is elected to Congress.

In film, The Conqueror, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Japanese War Bride Asian women are depicted in interracial relationships as trophies of war for white American soldiers. On TV, the Anna May Wong vehicle, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, becomes the first American television series to star an Asian.


Gidra – Issue No. 1                Yellow Peril-Black Panther Solidarity                     Daniel Inouye

1960s – Daniel K. Inouye becomes U.S. senator and Spark Matsunaga becomes U.S. congressman, representing Hawaii. Patsy Takemoto Mink becomes first Asian American woman to serve in Congress,  also representating Hawaii. Immigration Law abolishes “national origins” as a basis for allocating immigration quotas to various countries. Asian students strike at San Francisco State University and the University of California Berkley to demand the establishment of ethnic studies programs. Filipino farm workers organize the  grape boycott  and are joined by Mexicans. The Asian-American movement grows. For the first time since Pre-Colombian times, most Asians in America are born in the U.S. and are no longer seperated by mutually unintelligible languages, instead united in an emerging pan-Asian identity. Gidra, the first Asian-American newspaper, begins being published.

In film, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Mickey Rooney, in his words, “does the Jap thing”. Bruce Lee plays masked-sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet and, in doing so, becomes the first Asian male to not be either portrayed on the screen either as an asexual coolie nor an evil, improbably-clawed genius. After him, Asian men often play karate-chopping sidekicks who, while they may save the day, nearly always see the leading man get the girl. George Takei is cast as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. NBC, the station which airs Star Trek allows an Asian character only since he’s not Chinese. Roles are created for Asian characters on Hawaii Five-0 after protests from Asian-American activists.

      International Women’s Day – San Francisco                  Van Troi Anti-Imperialist Brigade – New York City

1970s – March Fong Eu is elected as California’s secretary of state. More than 130,000 refugees arrive from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. President Gerald Ford rescinds Executive Order 9066, 34 years after WWII. The National Convention of the Japanese American Citizens League adopts resolution calling for redress and reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans. San Francisco begins evicting Asians from residential hotels. Asian American Heritage Week is declared and a resolution is signed by President Jimmy Carter.

Third World Liberation Front – Berkeley                             Yellow Brotherhood – Los Angeles

On TV, Mr. T & Tina, starring Pat Morita, becomes the second television show to star Asian Americans. Bruce Lee’s idea for a show called Kung Fu gets the go-ahead with one catch- that Bruce not play the title character but that the part go to a Caucasian because, according to Warner Brothers, “The American public won’t sit for a Chinaman appearing in their living rooms every week.” A disgusted Bruce Lee moves to Hong Kong and becomes an international star.


Vincent Chin                                                     China Chow and Mark Wahlberg

1980s – The Congressionally-created Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civiliansholds hearings and concludes that the internment was a “grave injustice” and that Executive Order 9066 resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Surviving internees are paid $20,000 in reparations.

Vincent Chin
, a Chinese-American, is beaten to death with a baseball bat by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who are angry about the popularity of Japanese cars. They are sentenced to two years probation and each fined a mere $3,700. Chinese-American Ming Hai “Jim ” Loo is killed by Robert and Lloyd Ray Piche.

After calling a group of Asians at a pool hall “gooks” and “chinks” the Piches followed the victim out of the bar and beat him to death. The brothers’ excuse was that they’d lost another brother in the Viet Nam war. Not wanting to see another injustice along the lines of Vincent Chin, Asian-Americans mobilize and form the Jim Loo American Justice Coalition to represent Loo’s parents. Robert Piche receives a 37 year sentence.

Marky Mark yells, “Vietnam fucking shit” before randomly attacking and breaking a wooden rod across Thanh Lam‘s head, knocking him unconscious. He then punches bystander Hoa Trinh, causing blindness in one eye. Wahlberg was arrested and made unsolicited remarks about “slant-eyed gooks” to the police. Mark serves 45 days in jail which he refers to as “a turning point” and denies his attacks were racially motivated. To prove it, he briefly dates a hapa, British actress China Chow.

Ellison Onizuka becomes the first Asian to go to space. He dies the following year in the Challenger Disaster.

1982’s Chan is Missing, directed by Wayne Wang becomes one of the first major American film productions to depict Asian-Americans in non-stereotypical roles. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Asians roles are largely limited to fortune-cookie mystics like The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi and GremlinsMr. Wing, but a new stereotype is also created- the studious, frequently awkward, over-achieving braniac as exemplified by Long Duck Dong (Sixteen Candles), Data Wang (The Goonies) and Vinh Kelly (Gleaming the Cube).


1990s – Monterey Park, California becomes the first U.S. city with an Asian majority. President George H.W. Bush approves a resolution expanding Asian American Heritage Week to an entire month. 
Following the Rodney King verdict, riots erupt in South Central L.A. 40% of the looted stores are Korean-owned.

Taiwanese-American microbiologist Kao Kuan-Chung is shot and killed by Santa Rosa police officerJack Shields. The victim was standing in his driveway holding a six-foot long stick. Two officers presume he, being Asian, was a martial arts expert and open fire. The victim’s wife attempts to administer first aid but the officers threaten her and place handcuffs on the the dying man who dies before ambulances arrive. The courts rule that the cops’ actions are “justifiable self-defense.”

On TV, after Lucy Liu auditions for the role of Nelle Porter on “Ally McBeal”, series writers create a new character just for her, the dragon lady, Ling Woo. 
Connie Chung becomes the first Asian-American to anchor the nightly news.



2000s – John McCain tells reporters, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” If the word “nigger” had been used in a similar manner, McCain’s career (and possibly his life) would’ve ended — especially after he stubbornly refuses to apologize.

Balbir Singh Sodhi
, a Sikh gas station attendant, is shot five times and killed by Frank Roque in Los Angeles in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. He is picked up after boasting at a bar “They’re investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street.”

University of California employee Dr. Wen Ho Lee is shackled and imprisoned for nine months on suspicion of trading nuclear secrets to China after accompanying his nephew on a trip to Taiwan. After charges are dismissed, he sues for $1.6 million to be paid by the U.S. government and five media organizations.

Miss Jones, a DJ on Hot 97 in New York plays a song called “USA for Indonesia” which includes lyrics referring to Asians as “chinks” and “bitches.” Fellow DJ, Korean-American Miss Info, lambasts the song on air and co-author of the song, Todd Lynn mutters, “I’m going to start shooting Asians.” Following protests organized by bloggers and Asian-American activists, he is fired and Miss Jones is suspended. Her lost wages are donated to an Indonesian charity.

Senator George Allen singles out an Indian-American political staffer, referring to him as “macaca” and mockingly saying, “welcome to America.” Indian-Americans mobilize against him and he loses his bid for re-election.

In film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle is probably the first Hollywood film with two Asian leads.

Rob Schneider, not as an androgynous burn victim, but in yellowface for I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry



Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Click here to offer financial support and thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s