Tag Archives: AAPI Heritage Month

Discrimination Against Asians in the United States

Discrimination Against Asians in the United States

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

In May, we celebrate the resilience, legacy and culture of Asians, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders in the United States. As you may know, the last few years have been very difficult for Asian Americans. We were aghast at the March 2021 mass murder of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were Korean women. Asian Americans were already targeted for being “Asian” since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and February 2021, almost 4,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported throughout the country. Verbal abuse and physical attacks were recorded on surveillance cameras. Violence could be spitting, hitting, and shoving that led to injuries. In February 2021, an 84-year-old Thai man died after he was shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown in California. 

Since the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, the United States has had a long history of viewing Asians as “The Other.” The early immigrants worked in gold mines and helped build railroads in the American West. They sent their hard-earned money to China to support their families, and repaid loans of their passage to America. They had little choice but to work for whatever wages they could. American laborers generally could bargain for higher wages, but they feared being squeezed out of their jobs by the Chinese immigrants. 

As with most immigrants, the Chinese settled in their own neighborhoods. The stories of crime and decadence in Chinatowns, some of which were true, so alarmed the public that the Chinese were called the Yellow Peril. 

The Chinese Massacre of 1871 was the first in a series of riots and killings in California. Los Angeles was a small town then. The 200 Chinese men who lived there were farmers, laundry workers, laborers and vegetable vendors. This small population lived in a segregated area called Calles de los Negros, a very rough neighborhood where no one wanted to live. That was where the Chinese could afford to live. 

On October 24, 1871, a dispute between two Chinese factions led to the accidental killing of a white bystander. People ran around saying the Chinese were killing White people. A mob of 500 white men descended on Chinatown killing 18, some of them by hanging. At the time, Chinese people were not permitted to testify against white people. Even so, a few of the perpetrators were tried and convicted. But they were released on a technicality. No one served a prison sentence, no one was held accountable.

In 1885, Chinese miners in Rock Spring, Wyoming, did not join a strike by white miners. This enraged the white miners so much that they stormed Chinatown, killing 28 Asians and injuring 15 more. Again, no one was held accountable. When news of the massacre spread, many people condemned the violence, but it also resulted in Chinese immigrants being driven away from some communities. 

By then, Congress had already passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese immigrants for ten years. This Act was the first in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration based on nationality. In 1892, Congress voted to renew the exclusion for another ten years, expanding the restriction to cover Hawaii and the Philippines as well. This Act was not repealed until the year 1943, when a law passed set a quota of 105 per year. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally abolished the National Origins Formula.

During WWII, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to ten Internment Camps (see my recent article on this topic) in the Western United States. German and Italian Americans were not interned, even though Germany and Italy were also fighting American soldiers in Europe. 

Whenever there is economic hardship, someone becomes a scapegoat. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese young man, was mistaken for being Japanese. Japanese cars were selling very well, and many workers in American auto plants had lost their jobs. Vincent was bludgeoned to death by a laid-off autoworker and his stepfather, also a Detroit autoworker. His murderers never spent a day in jail. In this case as well, justice was not served. It was almost as if an Asian life was not worth anything. 

But Asians, just like everyone else, are worthy. They have contributed greatly in music, performing arts, science, sports, literature, and politics as well as all other fields. Duke Kahananmoku, Hawaiian American, popularized surfing in the 1920s. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Indian American to be elected in 1956 to the House of Representatives. Yuji Ichioka, Japanese American, was a historian and civil rights advocate. Jerry Yang, Taiwanese American co-founded Yahoo. Tammy Ducksworth, Thai American, is a disabled Veteran and a senator. Sandra Oh, Korean American actress plays roles that are not stereotypes. Sunisa Lee, Hmong American gymnast, won a gold medal in the 2022 Olympics. The list goes on and on. 

It is encouraging that movies made by Asians about Asians Americans are gaining popularity in the United States. The award-winning film “Minari” by Korean director Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of an American Korean family’s struggles and aspirations in rural Arkansas. Disputes between husband and wife, health issues of a child, generational differences and financial difficulties are familiar to those of white families. The more realistic Asian stories are told, the less they will be perceived as “The Other.” 

 In the past, Asians have survived racism by keeping their heads down. The younger generation is coming together and standing up for their parents and elders. It no longer believes that a nail that sticks out gets hammered down. ‘Head down and mouth shut’ is no longer an option. It is important to speak up about and work against injustices of racism. 

Different languages as well as cultural traditions among the many different Asian communities in the nation can make it difficult for them to unite for Asian advocacy. But it is important that we unite and be active for the cause. 

Let’s hope that as we celebrate the Asian American and Pacific Islander Month this May, we witness great strides being made to end racism in our nation.

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

The Internment of Japanese Americans During WWII

The Internment of Japanese Americans During WWII

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Japanese immigrants started to arrive on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1860s to work in the sugarcane fields. Later, many moved to the West Coast of the U.S. mainland to work as farmers and fishermen. By 1911, over 400,000 Japanese men and women had immigrated to the U.S. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese were portrayed as the enemy of the American worker, just as Chinese immigrants were decades before. The Japanese farmers were the envy of white farmers who did not use as many labor-intensive methods and were less productive.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Navy ships were destroyed and many American servicemen died. On the West Coast, the government immediately began rounding up Japanese newspaper editors, community leaders and labor organizers. Their families were not told the reason or where the men were taken.  

The entire Japanese American population within 100 miles of the West Coast and Hawaii was considered dangerous, possibly spying for Japan. An 8 p.m. curfew and a five-mile travel limit were imposed on all persons of Japanese origin. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending the Japanese and Japanese Americans to ten hastily built internment camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.   

The Japanese were shocked beyond belief. Two-thirds of the 120,000 internees were American citizens, born in the U.S. They were forced to sell or abandon most of their possessions, houses, cars, boats and land. Their possessions, including precious farmland, were sold at a bargain to white farmers. They had only a few days to pack and could bring only what they could carry. 

The camps were located where the weather was very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The barracks were shoddily built, covered with tarpaper on the outside. Only canvas cots, a light bulb and a potbelly stove for winter warmth were supplied. Each family had to build its own plain furniture such as a table, chairs and shelves. There was no insulation. Dust and wind blew in through the cracks of wood that had not aged properly and shrank. Four families in small rooms shared one barrack. Within each room, blankets and sheets could be hung to provide some privacy. 

There was no way to escape these prisons. Barbed wires surrounded the camps. Armed guards surveyed from watchtowers. Life was regimented.There were lines for meals, the shower, the toilets and the laundry in communal buildings.  

In the beginning years, the food was American, such as hot dogs, stew, potatoes, liver and cow tongue, which the Japanese were not used to. Later, they grew their vegetables and even made tofu, soy sauce and noodles. Rice was added to the menu. The government spent only thirty cents a day per person on food.  

The internees were put to work with very low wages, from $8 to $19 a month. The camps needed cooks, office and field workers, food servers and construction workers. But many were bored. To relieve boredom, the internees organized outdoor sports for adults and youngsters. Baseball was a favorite pastime for spectators as well. Primitive baseball fields were leveled, rocks and stones removed. There were a variety of other activities, including movies, talent shows and holiday celebrations. 

Grandma Okita’s Embroidery Class, Minidoka Concentration Camp. Photo: Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Portland, Oregon. Permission from JAMO required for further reproduction.

The internees were stoic about the experience, often repeating “Shikata ga nai” meaning you can’t change it. They tried to make their lives as pleasant as possible. They ordered fabric from catalogs to make curtains and tablecloths. Paper flowers decorated the rooms. They created tiny gardens in front of the barracks and even small ponds to make their bleak surroundings acceptable. They created handicrafts from dead trees, wood and material found around the camps. Painters, both professional and amateur, recorded the daily activities of the camp in their artwork. Art lifted the spirits of the internees. Their acts of beautifying their surroundings were something the government and the prison guards could not take away from them.  

Some 17,000 children under the age of ten were among the internees and more were born in the camps. Schools were organized for the children from kindergarten to high school. Used textbooks were sent from nearby schools. Most of the teachers were Japanese, although there were some white teachers who had better living quarters. 

In some households, family closeness was a casualty. Children witnessed their parents’ loss of control in their lives. The parents lamented that the children would rather eat with their friends at the mess halls. Teenagers became more rebellious as many of their peers did in the outside world. But in their abnormal lives, the strain was more severe.

Still, the internees were patriotic. They made camouflage nets, bandages for the war, donated money for the Red Cross, and collected metal for recycling.

Nisei Veterans of the 442nd RCT, Minidoka Concentration Camp. Photo: Courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Portland, Oregon. Permission from JAMO required for further reproduction.

Beginning in February 1943, citizens of Japanese descent were permitted to enlist in the Army and Navy. Many young men joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) that was comprised of all Japanese American soldiers and fought valiantly in Europe. This regiment was the most decorated unit in the army. They operated in some of the most dangerous battles, and therefore, had the highest casualty rates (9,000 dead or wounded). They put their life in danger for the country even though their parents and relatives were in the internment camps. When the soldiers were wounded, when they were released after treatment, they would be sent right back to the internment camps. 

Towards the end of war, the government began releasing large numbers of the internees. The internment camps were empty by the end of 1945, and the last one closed in March 1946. Most Japanese Americans did not return to their hometowns because there was nothing to return to. Those that did return had a difficult time finding work and accommodations. A small number chose to go back to Japan. Each released person was given just $25 and a bus ticket to start their new life.

At the end of the war, no American Japanese were found to be spying for Japan. Later research proved that some American officials were guilty of falsifying reports that were used as the basis for the government’s internment decision.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. In 1990, the first letters of apology signed by President George Bush were mailed. Surviving interned Americans and their heirs received $20,000 compensation for each individual. For many, the apology and the check came too late—they had lived a very difficult life, and many of them had already died. 

After the 9-11 attack by Muslim terrorists, fear mongering and Islamophobia depicted Muslim as dangerous to Americans just as the Japanese were demonized after the Pearl Harbor attack. The anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed in the country led the Japanese American community to publicly state that the horrible injustice done to them in WWII must not be repeated. It continues to raise its voice whenever an ethnic group is unjustifiably targeted. 

By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.

Editor’s Note: May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the country. 

Never Give Up is an award-winning documentary that teaches about the discrimination faced by the Japanese American community and the issues described in the above article. You can get details from the website: www.minoruyasuifilm.org