Chinese Americans, the largest Asian group in the United States since 1990, are Americans who or whose ancestors have come from China. Most of the early Chinese immigrants came directly from China. In recent decades, in addition to those from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, many immigrants of Chinese ancestry have also come from Southeast Asia and Latin America. There are many ethnic groups in China, but the immigrants in the United States are predominantly Han Chinese.
Chinese immigrants began to arrive in California shortly before the Gold Rush in 1849. By the time the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, about 125,000 Chinese lived in the United States; the majority of them resided on the West Coast. In addition, about 50,000 Chinese landed in Hawaii between 1852 and 1900. The Chinese who came to California during the Gold Rush were mostly independent laborers or entrepreneurs. After gold mining declined, they worked to construct the western half of the first transcontinental railroad. They also contributed to the early development of agriculture in the Pacific Northwest and light manufacturing industries in California. A significant number of Chinese specialized in laundry businesses, although washing clothes was not a traditional occupation for men in China.
More than 90% of the early Chinese immigrants were men who did not bring their wives and children with them. Before 1870, most female Chinese immigrants were young women who were imported to the United States and forced into prostitution. Chinese prostitutes were most visible in western cities and mining towns.
As the western population increased, the presence of Chinese laborers aroused great antagonism among European workers. Gradually Chinese workers were forced to leave their jobs in manufacturing industries. Harassment and mob violence also forced Chinese farm laborers to move to Chinatowns in San Francisco and other large cities.
In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years (the law was extended twice in 1892 and 1902, and it was made permanent in 1904). During the exclusion, the only Chinese who could legally enter were members of the exempted classes: merchants, students, teachers, diplomats, and tourists. Later, Chinese who had left the country to visit their families in China were not allowed to reenter. Because there were few Chinese women in the United States and interracial marriage was illegal at the time, it was almost impossible for most of the Chinese immigrants to have families.
Largely isolated in segregated ethnic neighborhoods in urban America, Chinese Americans formed many associations based on kinship, native places, and economic and political interests. Two most important immigrant organizations are clan and district associations. These associations had a great impact on the day-to-day lives of the Chinese Americans before World War II. Hierarchically above the clan and district associations was the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which provided leadership for the entire community. Another important organization, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), was organized by Chinese Americans who were born in the United States.
During World War II, a large number of Chinese American men and women served in the U.S. military or found employment in defense industries. For the first time in the 20th century, they had the opportunity to work outside Chinatowns. In 1943, all the Chinese exclusion acts were repealed. The repeal changed the status of alien Chinese from "inadmissible" to "admissible," although a quota of only 105 per year was allocated to Chinese.
Legislation after the war helped the growth of Chinese American families. The 1945 War Brides Act allowed the admission of alien dependents of World War II veterans without quota limits. This privilege was extended to fiancées and fiancés of war veterans in an Act of June 1946. The Chinese Alien Wives of American Citizens Act of August 1946 further granted admission outside the quota to Chinese wives of American citizens. As women constituted the majority of the new immigrants and many families were reunited, the sex ratio of the Chinese American population underwent a significant change. In 1940 there were 2.9 Chinese men for every Chinese woman in the United States. By 1960 this ratio was reduced to 1.35 to 1.
The 1965 Immigration Act established a new quota system and the principle of family unification. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Chinese immigrants came largely from Taiwan and Hong Kong. After the United States recognized the People's Republic of China in 1979, China became a major source country of immigrants. In addition, immigrants of Chinese ancestry also entered the United States as refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. A very high percentage of Chinese American women worked outside the home in garment industries, restaurants, and domestic services.
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