Asian Americans in United States History
Asian American Histories of the United States

Asian Americans in United States History

Historian Catherine Ceniza Choy offers revealing narratives of Asian Americans throughout US history.

Historian and professor Catherine Ceniza Choy offers stories that reveal the experiences of Asians who helped build the United States. Professor Choy seeks to unravel why the global COVID pandemic brought an increase in violence against – and an increase in hate and racism toward – Asian Americans. She illustrates how a lack of Asian American representation in the United States’ power structure and Asian American’s silenced history contributes to these injustices.


As COVID-19 case numbers rose in America, then President Donald Trump referred to the disease as the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu,” inflaming negative sentiment toward Asian Americans. Falsely linking Asians to disease is an American tendency dating back to the California gold rush in 1848, when the first Chinese immigrants came to the US west coast.  San Francisco’s municipal health organization blamed Chinese immigrants for spreading smallpox, though, historically, Americans and Europeans had carried and spread the disease.

The stereotyping of Asians as disease carriers obscured a historical truth about Europeans and European Americans.Catherine Choy

Violence, exclusion and racism erupted as more Asians arrived and migrated east. In 1871, a mob of 500 white men in Los Angeles lynched 17 Chinese men. In 1885, a mob burned the homes of 28 Chinese workers in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killing the people inside.

The Vietnam War

The common Western version of the Vietnam War presents a tale of failed US military strategy and tactics.Though people discuss the war’s failures, they rarely discuss Vietnam’s destroyed landscape, communities and culture.

All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second in memory.Viet Thanh Nguyen

The United States also  “carpet-bombed” 83 sites in Cambodia between 1965 and 1969. This killed 250,000 Cambodians and fueled the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.Surviving Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge recall “forced labor, starvation, disease and mass executions.” Millions of refugees who fled in the late 1970s still carry traumatic emotional and physical scars. 

As Cambodian refugees arrived in the United States, their trauma and lack of education made it difficult for them to assimilate. Many died from “sudden unexplained death syndrome” (SUDS), and others faced resentment and racism. In Massachusetts in the 1980s, violent locals burned Southeast Asians’ homes and beat refugees to death in the streets.

Asian immigrants persisted, and eventually transformed American culture, industry and art. They created “ethnic enclaves,” such as Little Saigon in Orange County, California, where they unite to celebrate their culture and history.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the United States admitted only immigrants of European descent. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act expanded the nation’s immigration policy to prioritize family members seeking to reunite with American relatives.

Immigrants who were admitted continued to face low-level jobs with little or no security. Most found work by starting restaurants and nail salons. By 1996, New York state officials began translating business license documents into Vietnamese, reflecting the growth of Asian businesses.

In time, Korean women came to own more than 2,000 nail salons in Manhattan.But in many ways, Asian success was an illusion. Many Vietnamese nail salon workers toiled more than 40 hours a week for low wages, with no job security or access to healthcare.

Asian success in the tech industry is also, in part, an illusion. A 2007-2015 Ascend Foundation study found that while Asians constituted a large portion of the Silicon Valley work force, they rarely held executive or leadership positions at that time.

Cuisine and Agriculture

Choy explains that in the course of 150 years Asian farmers changed American agriculture and enhanced the nation’s cuisine.In the late 1860s, Chinese workers transformed California’s San Joaquin Valley from wetlands to thriving orchards and farms. For thousands of miles, men stood waist-deep in water digging levees to divert a portion of the Northern Sacramento River down into Southern California.

To appreciate the contributions of Asian Americans to food…we need to see the faces behind the food.Catherine Choy

Today, the levees carry water for millions of acres of farmland producing vegetables and fruit, many of which Asian farmers brought to the United States and adapted to its climate.

Japanese Internment Camps

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 triggered the forced roundup of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Officials confined 120,000 people into internment camps in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming and Idaho.

The US Supreme Court put an end to the internment on December 18, 1944. Many Japanese Americans felt torn between staying in the United States or returning to a devastated Japan.

How can you see, study, and reflect upon histories you don’t know were there?Catherine Choy

The American public knew little about the Internment Camps until the 1980s. The US government finally recognized the shamefulness of imprisoning its citizens based on their race. President Ronald Reagan offered $20,000 compensatory payments to survivors.

Racism and Objectification

The brutal murders of six Asian American women at spas in Cherokee County, Georgia in March 2021, mirrored a long history of violence and misogyny toward Asian women in the United States. The local Sheriff’s insistence that the murderer was a sex addict attacking temptation – as embodied by the victims – is a painful example of American objectification of Asian women.

This stereotype harkens back to 1875 and the passage of the Page Act. Congressman Horace F. Page, who sought to bar Chinese people from entering the United States, based his immigration law on the bigoted notion that all Chinese women were prostitutes and disease carriers.

Why can’t we represent ourselves?Catherine Choy

In modern times, many Asian women have made it their mission to represent their peers by pursuing leadership positions. For example, in 1965 Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Asian woman elected to Congress. Mink and other Asian American leaders have expanded their community’s horizon.

Accurate Self-Portraiture

More than any other mission, professor Catherine Ceniza Choy seeks to create a broad-based, detailed portrait of the Asian American experience that Asian Americans will recognize and that will serve as a revelation to ill-informed non-Asian American readers. Choy proves rightly proud of her community and outraged by the United States’ treatment of Asian Americans. She offers detailed examples that will elicit both emotions in readers. She takes particular care to frame many Asian American struggles in terms of labor and exploitation, and to contrast their financial situations with those of non-Asian Americans. In this readable if sometimes uncomfortable account, Choy provides a compelling, thorough investigation of this important history.


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