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The History of Asian Americans in California
California Voices

The History of Asian Americans in California

Like many other immigrant stories, Asian Americans are a well-established community in California nowadays with an interesting history.

Dikran Seferian


5 min read

May 20, 2022

Besides the plethora of beaches and natural landmarks, California is known for being home to a diversity of cultures from across the globe. One group of people that form a more or less significant part of the Golden State’s history would be the Asian Americans. Boasting a rich mosaic of cultures from the continent of Asia, Asians in California have established their presence through their contributions to the nation’s history and achievements. Since May is Asian Pacific American History Month, why not celebrate it by getting familiar with the history of Asian Americans in California?

Who Are the Asian Americans?

The term “Asian American” refers to the communities of immigrants from Asia, as well as their descendants in the US. Ethnicities within these diverse groups predominantly include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese. Having considerably increased in number since the 20th century, Asian Americans are known to be the second-fastest-growing community in the country. The largest group of Asian Americans live in California — mainly Los Angeles and San Francisco — making up 15% of the population. Popular landmarks such as Little Tokyo as well as the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco are a testament to their presence in the Golden State. 

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in California have established some well-known Asian-American-owned businesses and actively contribute to the local economy. Korean Americans, for instance, own a large number of convenience stores in ethnic neighborhoods and are also involved in medicine. Japanese Americans, on the other hand, are mostly in sales and management. As for Filipino and Chinese Americans, you can find a large number of them in skilled professions such as dentistry and engineering. Younger generations of Asian Americans, in particular, are known to enjoy high rates of employment.

Asian Californians make up an integral part of local communities.

The Arrival of Asians in California

Commonly referred to as the Gold Rush Era, the mid-1800s saw a wave of Asian immigrants arriving in California. These newly established communities faced several obstacles throughout the decades that followed — from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, to the ineligibility for citizenship imposed on Asian immigrants until the 1960s. California Asians also struggled with their ethnic identity and a sense of belonging. However, none of this stopped them from taking part of California life starting in the mid-1800s while maintaining their own cultural traditions.

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During the Gold Rush Era, a large number of Chinese miners arrived in California to find labor, eventually making up a fifth of the population in mining regions. The influx of Chinese immigrants continued despite the growing mistrust of the local white population towards them. Many of these immigrants made a living by working in abandoned mine claims while others became cooks, merchants, herbalists, and launderers — but were faced with unfair practices and low pay. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that banned immigration, came into effect. Regardless of this law, the Chinese community in California kept on thriving.

Meanwhile, another Asian community started to emerge in the Golden State: the Japanese. In 1884, Japanese workers made their way to Hawaii where they would work in sugar plantations. Many of them moved on to California soon after.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was among the difficulties Chinese Americans had to face.

Rough Patches

The great earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 and subsequent fires led to the destruction of birth and immigration papers. This allowed many Chinese immigrants to claim that they were born in the United States as a way to obtain citizenship. In 1910, immigrants were detained and questioned about these practices, and nearly 175,000 of them were imprisoned for up to two years over the course of 30 years.

Japanese Americans weren’t exempt from discrimination, either. In 1907 and 1908, an unofficial agreement between the United States and Japan aimed to stop Japanese immigrants from flowing in. The only exception was the wives and children of those who were already in the US.

Other restrictions on Japanese Americans included laws that prevented them from owning land. However, this didn’t keep Japanese communities from establishing homes, churches, as well as businesses in San Francisco and many parts of the Golden State. In central California, many of these immigrants earned a living in agriculture and fishing, among other labor jobs.

The 20th century also saw an influx of Korean and Filipino immigrants. While Koreans faced similar challenges as Japanese Americans, Filipinos enjoyed more freedom. This was due to the United States’ 1902 conquest of the Philippines which allowed the immigrants to obtain the status of “US National”.

The series of hardships didn't stop Asian Americans from developing their communities.

Post-War Challenges 

As the 20th century went forward, Japanese Americans found themselves in the produce and flowers industry, and many of them had even made their way into the middle class. However, this little sprout of fortune was short-lived. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, however, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans found themselves in relocation camps for over two years.

Fearing a similar fate, Americans of Chinese descent had to wear labels that said “I am Chinese” to avoid being mistaken for Japanese. Considering China’s alliance with the US during World War 2, Chinese Americans didn’t face as much discrimination as their Japanese counterparts. In 1943, Congress even repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

After the war, conditions weren’t so good for the newly released Japanese Americans. Left without homes, belongings, and work, they had no choice but to start over. In 1948, however, they received partial reparations from Congress, which realized the relocations were unfair. Further compensations followed in 1988 under the Civil Liberties Act.

Although life was better off for the Filipino Americans who had served in World War 2, a lot of them were still laborers. After the war, however, many Filipino workers decided to unionize and became actively involved in the United Farm Workers.

New Beginnings

Asian neighborhoods in California are a hub of ethnic cuisines and vibrant cultures.

The Immigration Act of 1965 put an end to different exclusionary laws, in addition to forming a system that favored skilled laborers. This iconic legislation paved the way for huge waves of new Asian immigrants to arrive in California. New communities such as the Koreatown in Los Angeles emerged. Meanwhile, many suburban Chinatowns like Monterey Park flourished due to the fresh capital that accompanied the influx of more immigrants.

Nowadays, 40% of Asian Americans call California home. Present-day Californians of Asian descent consist of nearly 980,000 Chinese Americans, 918,000 Filipino Americans, 345,000 Korean Americans, 314,000 Asian Indian Americans, as well as 288,000 Japanese Americans. While deeply rooted in its own history, Asian American culture is an integral part of the diverse tapestry of the Golden State some of which can be found in Japantown San Francisco.

Asian contributions to American culture are present in every aspect of daily life, from entertainment to the culinary arts. While Chinatowns across the state offer a rich array of Asian cuisine, entertainment platforms such as Netflix provide a plethora of Anime shows and K-dramas. Even cultural celebrations such as the Lunar New Year draws visitors from across the nation.

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