A Chinese American is an American who is of ethnic Chinese descent. Most Chinese Americans are descended from China's majority ethnic group, the Han. The rest are usually members of one of China's 55 minorities, such as the Hui.
Chinese Americans constitute one group of overseas Chinese and are also one group of Asian Americans. Numbering 2.3 million in 2000, Chinese Americans make up 22.4% of Asian Americans (larger than any other Asian American subgroup), and constitute just over 1% of the United States as a whole.
Chinese immigration to the United States has come in several waves.
Legend says that the first Chinese came to the Americas as early as 1421, the time when several Chinese Ming generals came sailing all over the world. According to Gavin Menzies, the Amerindians who inhabited around the coastal areas, especially Sacramento, had elements of Chinese DNA and used many words derived from archaic Chinese. This proved to be true, however, when several archaeologists uncovered hidden treasures under the sea and on land, ships containing Chinese pottery and artwork. This wave of Chinese sailors, however, were marooned on the Americas and through long-term intermarriage, their descandants lost touch with their ethnic identity.
According to the records from the United States government, the first Chinese arrived in the United States around 1820, but subsequent immigrants that came from the 1820's right up to the late 1840's were mainly men, who came in small numbers. However, due to the lack of Chinese women in the United States at that time, many of them intermarried with the Europeans. The best known Chinese immigrants that came during this period is the world-famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.
The true initial wave only started around the 1850s. This was when the West Coast of North America was being rapidly colonized during the California Gold Rush, while southern China suffered from severe political and economic instability due to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty government, internal rebellions like the Taiping Rebellion, and external pressures like the Opium Wars.
As a result, many Chinese emigrated from the poor Say yup area (四邑 the four county area including Sun Wui 新會, Toi Shan 台山, Hoi Ping 開平, and Yun Ping 恩平) in Guangdong province to the United States in order to work on the railroads. People in Say yup lived in such poor living conditions that many were willing to sign up for prepaid long term labor contracts to work in the US. Many gave the sum of money to their family and didn't expect to be able to return home alive. They considered such act as selling themselves as pigs (賣豬仔). These Chinese, who mostly spoke Cantonese and its variant Toisanese (or Taishanese) clustered in Chinatowns, the largest population was in San Francisco. Some estimated over half of these early immigrants were from Taishan. This immigration (encouraged by the Burlingame Treaty of 1868) was stopped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which made Chinese immigration illegal until 1943. Many Western states also enacted discriminatory laws which made it difficult for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to own land or even find work. These laws were not overturned until the 1950s, at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement.
With the loosening of American immigration laws in 1952 and 1965, a second wave of Chinese immigration began. These Taiwanese Americans consisted of professionals from Taiwan who arrived in the United States on student visas. With the improving economy in Taiwan, immigration from the island began to decrease in the 1970s and was accompanied by an increase in immigration from professionals from Mainland China, which began to allow for emigration in 1977. Both groups of Chinese tend to cluster in suburban areas and tended to avoid urban Chinatowns. These Chinese tended to speak fluent Mandarin often in addition to their native dialect, which in the case of the Taiwanese Americans was often the Taiwanese language (also known as Hokkien, a variant of the chinese Min dialect, but in Taiwan is called 台语 literally: Taiwanese)
A third wave of recent immigrants consisted of undocumented aliens, chiefly from Fujian province who came to the United States in search of lower-status manual jobs. These aliens tend to concentrate in urban areas such as New York City and there is often very little contact between these Chinese and higher-educated professionals. They generally speak some Mandarin but mostly Min dialect, which is close to the Taiwanese language although this fact does not produce much affinity between this group and Taiwanese Americans. The amount of immigration from this group has begun to decrease as the economic situation in Fujian improves.
Ethnic Chinese immigration to the United States since 1965 has been aided by the fact that the United States maintains separate quotas for Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Absent from the list of Chinese Americans are immigrants from Hong Kong, who because of immigration law, tended to immigrate to Canada.
In the 1980s, there was widespread concern by the PRC over a brain drain as graduate students were not returning to the PRC. This exodus worsened after the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
Many immigrants from the PRC benefited from the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 which granted permanent residency status to immigrants from the PRC. One unintended side effect of the law was that the primary beneficiaries of the law were undocumented Fujianese immigrants, who unlike the Chinese graduate students, would have had no chance to gain permanent residency through normal means.
In the late 1990s, large numbers of professional Chinese Americans began to return to the PRC creating a brain gain. In a typical career pattern, a Chinese graduate student would emigrate to the United States and enter the job market and return to the PRC after encountering the glass ceiling; Chinese students had once been favored under affirmative action programs, but that was no longer the case after 1990. The number of Chinese graduate students returning to the PRC increased dramatically after 2000 and the dot-com bust resulted in worsening job prospects in the United States.
Legally all ethnic Chinese born in the United States are American citizens as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1898 United States v. Wong Kim Ark Supreme Court decision. Upon naturalization, immigrants are required to renounce their former citizenship. The People's Republic of China does not recognize dual citizenship and considers this a renounciation of PRC citizenship. The Republic of China on Taiwan not only recognizes dual citizenship, but also does not recognize the American naturalization oath as renouncing citizenship. In addition, the PRC does not recognize the American citizenship of children born to PRC nationals in the United States.
San Francisco Chinatown
, one of the largest in North America
. This photo shows Washington Street at Grant Avenue looking West.
Cities with large Chinese American populations include New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. In these cities, there are often multiple Chinatowns, an older one and a newer one which is populated by immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s. In some areas, Chinese Americans maintain close relationships with other Asian groups, particularly Vietnamese Americans. These relationships are helped by the fact that many Vietnamese American are ethnic overseas Chinese, although most ethnic Chinese Vietnamese Americans do not classify themselves as Chinese American.
In addition to the big cities, smaller pockets of Chinese Americans are also dispersed in rural towns, often university towns, throughout the United States. Chinese Americans formed nearly three percent of California's population in 1990, and over one percent in the Northeast. Hawaii, with its historically heavily-Asian population, was nearly five percent Chinese American.
As a whole, Chinese Americans continue to grow at a rapid rate due to immigration. However, they also on average have birth rates lower than those of American whites, and as such their population is aging relatively quickly. In recent years, adoption of young children, especially girls, from China has also brought a boost to the numbers of Chinese Americans, although most of the adoptions appear to have been done by white parents.
Chinese Americans are divided among many subgroups based on factors such as generation, place of origin, socio-economic level, and do not have uniform attitudes about the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the United States, or Chinese nationalism, with attitudes varying widely between active support, hostility, or indifference. Different subgroups of Chinese Americans also have radically different and sometimes very conflicting political priorities and goals. It is for this reason that Chinese Americans do not have any unified political groups or any unified political viewpoints, although some subgroups such as independence oriented Taiwanese Americans do have some effective lobbying groups such as the Formosan American Professional Association.
In addition, many see the People's Republic of China as a potentially powerful rival to the United States.
Among Chinese in Mainland China and Taiwan, second-generation Chinese Americans known as American-born Chinese are often perceived as being a bit exotic. Chinese Americans have also strongly influenced politics both in Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. A large number of major political figures in Taiwan (including Peng Ming-min, Shih Ming-teh, and Lee Yuan-tze) have had either permanent residency or citizenship in the United States, and many Taiwanese political figures including Lee Teng-hui, Ma Ying-jeou, and James Soong have advanced degrees from the United States. The son of James Soong is an American-born Chinese with United States citizenship.
The large number of Taiwanese with either dual American citizenship or relatives with American citizenship have led to some concerns about political loyalty on Taiwan and has resulted in the requirement started in the 1990s that high government officials (although not ordinary people) must renounce any dual citizenships. However, Taiwanese Americans make up important bases of support for both the pan-Green coalition and pan-Blue coalition and neither party appears interesting in pushing this issue much. During the 2000 Republic of China Presidential election, both pan-Green and pan-Blue ran active campaigns among Taiwanese voters in the United States, and an estimated 10,000 Taiwanese Americans returned to Taiwan to vote in the election.
In Communist China, the top leadership contains few persons educated in the United States: the Cold War period made for tenuous China-America links and the Cultural Revolution disrupted academic exchanges with the rest of the world. However, the middle ranks of the People's Republic of China government contain very large numbers of people who received their education in the United States, and a graduate degree from an American university has become an important benefit to political and economic career advancement. In addition, the sons and daughters of many Chinese political leaders, such as Jiang Zemin, are students in the United States. With the leadership transition to the fourth generation of Chinese leaders under Hu Jintao, American educated Chinese officials are increasingly found in powerful positions.
Two incidents have energized some Chinese Americans, particularly American-born Chinese in recent years -- the murder of Vincent Chin by white auto workers in 1982 and the unsubstantiated charges of spying against Chinese American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1999, whom many believe was a victim of racial stereotyping .
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Americans, like all overseas Chinese, were viewed as capitalist traitors by the People's Republic of China. Chinese with relatives in the United States were put under extra suspicion. This attitude changed completely in the late 1970s with the Deng Xiaoping reforms. Increasingly Chinese Americans were seen as sources of expertise and capital.
One institution well known among Chinese Americans is colloquially called the Love Boat, a cultural and educational study tour to Taiwan whose overt purpose is to reacquaint American-born Chinese teens with their cultural roots. However, it also has a side motive for Chinese American parents wanting to stem out-marriage (i.e., miscegenation) by increasing the chances their children meet other Chinese Americans.
Chinese Americans and Their Immigrant Parents: Conflict, Identity, and Values, May Pao-May Tung , Haworth Press, 2000, paperback, 112 pages, ISBN 0789010569
Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience, Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong , Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2000, hardcover, 240 pages, ISBN 0-88363-128-8
Compelled To Excel: Immigration, Education, And Opportunity Among Chinese Americans, Vivian S. Louie , Stanford University Press, 2004, paperback, 272 pages, ISBN 080474985x
The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Iris Chang, Viking, 2003, hardcover, 496 pages, ISBN 0-670-03123-2
Last updated: 05-07-2005 04:11:34
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04