Asian-Pacific American History

Houston Institute for Culture 
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Hard Roads to America
By Michelle Ong

One of the first Asian groups to immigrate into the U.S. was the Chinese, who arrived during the frenzy of the gold rush in 1849. Many of these new immigrants were single men or husbands forced to leave their wives behind due to immigration restrictions. The attraction to the gold rush and employment opportunities in the U.S. attracted so many new immigrants that in 1852, 20,000 Chinese arrived.

As railroad work decreased, many Chinese moved to urban centers, living in such cities as San Francisco and Sacramento and created their own small Chinatowns. These urbanites became shopkeepers, merchants and businessmen. Others who decided to stay in rural areas found employment on farms and as laborers.

Many Chinese immigrated to Texas from California and worked for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad Company. Most later became farm workers. More Chinese laborers arrived with the new construction of the portion of the transcontinental railroad into Texas and the expansion of subsequent railroads. As railroad workers, they were isolated and stayed in separate camps, which helped them maintain cultural traditions. When work on the railroads ended, Chinese workers either migrated to other states or stayed and established Chinese communities in such cities like El Paso and San Antonio.

Although California initially welcomed Chinese immigration, Anglo-Americans quickly became resentful, jealous and racist. Chinese miners worked for lower wages, causing Anglo-American miners to believe Chinese workers unfairly acquired jobs at their expense. To accommodate these complaints, the California legislature passed the foreign miners' license tax in May 1852, requiring any miner who did not want to become a citizen to pay a monthly sum. Subsequent legislative acts increased this sum. Another discriminatory law passed in 1854, prohibiting Chinese from testifying in court against Anglo-Americans.

In 1856, the U.S government passed a law banning the entry of Chinese or Mongolian immigrants. In 1857, California segregated schools for Chinese children, clearly emphasizing the exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

During the 1860s, many miners formed small companies and gradually began working for Anglo-Americans. In the mid 1860s, Southern plantation owners hired Chinese laborers to replace the newly liberated African Americans that had left their sugar and cotton plantations. At the end of the Reconstruction era, however, newly imposed segregation between Anglo-Americans and African-Americans lowered the demand for Chinese laborers.

Many Chinese workers resisted discrimination with strikes and legal action. In one example of a successful legal battle, Ling Sing v. Washburn, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese people could not be singled out for special taxation. In spite of this and a few other triumphs, Asians lacked political influence and continued to face discrimination. The US government banned Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens in 1878. In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning further immigration from China. After the passage of this act, workers again demanded higher wages, knowing the ban would cause a labor shortage. Some Chinese continued to emigrate illegally through Mexico; Chinese communities continued to grow despite the ban.

Texas also passed several bills and laws that curtailed civil rights for the Chinese. In 1921 the Texas Alien Land Law denied Asians the right to own land. A decade later, Texas passed a bill denying the Chinese a right to own a business.

The government finally repealed the ban against immigration during WWII. Many Chinese joined the US military and worked in factories to support the war effort. During this time, society's view of Asians steadily improved, allowing many to acquire jobs in skilled and technical fields. The ban against Chinese immigration was lifted in 1943.

A great triumph for Asians occurred with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. The Act substantially increased immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere to twenty thousand immigrants per country. Many of these new immigrants from China were students and skilled workers. The Chinese continue to be one of the largest groups to immigrate into the U.S., with diverse backgrounds and skills.


In the 1890s, Japanese immigrants were first attracted to higher wages in the U.S. Most immigrants were young male farmers who found employment as migrant workers, on the railroads and in the canneries. Others had various occupations. Some owned small fleets and gathered fish from Baja California to Alaska. Japanese labor contractors acted as intermediaries between laborers and white employers. Women also worked on farms and as housewives. A few immigrants opened restaurants that served cheap American food. Many worked as day-servants for Japanese companies, restaurants and as live-in servants.

In the early 1900s, a different group of immigrants arrived. Most of them were from samurai families, wealthy and educated, with goals to establish rice colonies in such places like Texas.

Japanese immigrants suffered from the same resentment and prejudice that Chinese immigrants before them faced. On October 11, 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education directed school principals to send Chinese, Japanese and Korean children to "Oriental" schools, further isolating these groups from American society.

In 1907-1908 the U.S. and Japanese government agreed to limit Japanese immigration by only allowing merchants and students to emigrate in order to avoid any continuing problems between Japanese immigrants and Anglo-Americans.

In California, hostility grew to such an extent that the California legislature passed a law in 1913 forbidding Japanese immigrants to own land. Japanese immigrants in California and other states that passed similar restrictions were able to attain land by using their American-born childrenšs names or forming agreements with Anglo-American landlords.

Japanese immigrants were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens in 1922. The Japanese community was also strongly affected by the 1924 immigration law that prohibited further Asian immigration.

During WWII, the U.S .government suspected Japanese Americans of being spies of the Japanese government. The FBI arrested men and seized common goods like cameras and radios as evidence of their treachery. The INS created internment camps in desert-like areas, such as Southern California and Arizona, and forcefully relocated Japanese Americans to these camps until the duration of the war. Relocation camps were also established in Texas, in Kenedy, Crystal City and Seagonville. Many Japanese sold most of their belongings and property, unsure of when they would return to their homes. On January 1943, Nisei (first-generation Japanese Americans) were allowed to join the war effort and fought commendably in the 442nd regimental combat brigade. At the end of the war, those that still owned property returned home to find their property vandalized or ruined. Other groups had also moved into their vacant homes, including a sizable African-American population.

Nisei continued to face discrimination. Even with college degrees, they were restricted to employment within the Japanese community. Only in 1952, were Japanese allowed to become U.S. citizens.


From 1903 to 1920 Koreans immigrated to the U.S., encouraged by American missionaries, to escape Japanese government persecution and in search of better opportunities. Koreans, however, consisted of such a small population that they were unable to form communities like Chinatown or Little Tokyo. They also faced discrimination and had difficulties renting a house from Anglo-Americans. Many Anglo-Americans also associated them with the Japanese, ignorant of the struggle between Koreans and Japanese and the strong desire for Korean independence from Japan during that time.

Koreans worked as farm laborers and gradually acquired their own land by combining financial resources. They also branched into such fields as hospitality and retail.

Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian

During the 1970s, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos sought refuge in the U.S. Vietnamese refugees escaped from their war-torn country, while Cambodians and Laotians fled genocidal Communist regimes.

As U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, many Vietnamese went to refugee camps and then transferred to relocation centers throughout the U.S. to learn and prepare themselves for life in the U.S. Many of these refugees were educated and prosperous with some professional skills. They were allowed to leave these relocation centers once they found sponsors to help them find food, shelter and jobs. In spite of their education and skills, many were only able to find low-paying unskilled jobs and had to obtain new certification for their professions.

A second wave of immigrants arrived in 1977. These new immigrants were mostly from rural villages, could not speak English and were illiterate. Finding employment and transitioning to an urban society was more challenging for them.

For more on the Vietnamese in Houston, please see Building New Saigon


Filipinos first immigrated to the U.S. after the annexation of the Philippines in December 1898, also in search of better opportunities and to escape poverty. Filipinos worked as service workers, in Alaskan salmon fisheries and agriculture. They helped fill the gap in agricultural labor caused by the prohibition of Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigration.

Filipinos also faced racial discrimination and were commonly mistaken for other Asian groups although they were still less visible to society due to their Spanish last names and ability to speak English. They likewise faced exclusion from theaters or having to sit in segregated sections of theaters. Anglo-Americans commonly viewed them as rogues and instigators.

In 1932, Filipinos became ineligible to apply for citizenship and faced a reduction of immigration to 100 people per year.

In 1934, the US government established the Philippines as a commonwealth, ending their unrestricted access into the U.S. Discrimination and racism also caused a drop in immigration during the early 1930s.

Filipino men also increased rancor with the white community by dating and marrying white women. Society shunned these couples and their children. To further alienate these couples, in 1922, the U.S. government removed citizenship from American women married to Asian men.

During WWII, Filipinos also contributed to the war effort. They acted as scouts and fought against the Japanese in the Philippines. Some received citizenship as a reward and joined the U.S. army. Shortly after the end of WWII, the ban against Filipino immigration was lifted. Filipinos were also finally allowed to become naturalized citizens.

After 1965, the repressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos caused resurgence in Filipino immigration. The Philippines suffered from a scarcity of available employment for the college-educated and forced many to seek employment abroad. Korean college graduates also faced the same problem in Korea, spurring their immigration to the U.S.

Recent Asian immigrants continue to face new challenges moving to a different society and learning a new language. Asian communities around the U.S., including the sizable one in Houston, act as a support system for these immigrants. Several groups, including the Chinese Community Center in Houston, provide adults ESL classes and after-school activities for children whose parents work hard, like the Asian immigrants of the past century, to provide their family opportunities for prosperity and security.


Brady, Marilyn Dell. The Asian Texans. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.

Chang, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Okihiro, Gary Y. The Columbia Guide to Asian American History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.