Chinese Americans- Before and After World War II

The participation of Chinese Americans in the allied military campaign during World War II changed how other Americans perceived them. Dating back to the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, their perception was generally negative. The Americans already currently living in the United States saw them as different and were unable to view them as true Americans. Despite possessing only a desire to better themselves and their families, the first Chinese immigrants faced discrimination in all aspects of American society. However, when World War II broke out, these perceptions slowly began to shift towards a more positive side. Many groups, including the United States Government, began to fight for equal opinions and treatment of Chinese Americans. The Chinese Americans did their best to fit in and their efforts began to pay off. By the post World War II era, the perception of Chinese Americans had become significantly different then that of their ancestors who first immigrated to the United States.

Chinese no no no poster

1892. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma

During the 1840s, many Chinese immigrants migrated to the United States, becoming the first Asian group to do so.[1] Located mainly on the West Coast, these Chinese immigrants hoped to take advantage of the many opportunities available in the United States. They took any work they could find, mainly vigorous labor jobs such as working in gold mines, railroad construction, and other strenuous jobs.[2] Chinese immigrants played a major role in constructing the Transcontinental Railroad, which greatly benefited the United States.[3] Despite their willingness to work any job that came their way, they began to gain an increasingly negative reputation. Workers of other ethnic backgrounds saw the Chinese immigrants as a threat to steal all their labor jobs.[4] The Chinese immigrant perception was now negative, and many Americans opposed their presence in the United States. On top of this outrage, new laws began to come into legislation that re-affirmed the prejudices held against Chinese immigrants.

In 1882, Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act.[5] This was the first major law restricting immigration of the Chinese. Following The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which even further restricted Chinese immigration.[6] These laws were a direct response to the growing hatred of Chinese immigrants. These laws, on top of the discrimination they faced, made life for Chinese immigrants extremely difficult. Many of these immigrants were men who had left their families and wives back home in China. Since these laws were in place, many Chinese immigrants were living isolated in America, with no hope of being joined by their wives or families.[7] This was just another example of unjust treatment the Chinese immigrants faced.

This unjust treatment stemmed from more then just Chinese immigrants “stealing” jobs away from other Americans. Much like African Americans, the Chinese were viewed as non-white, which led to the idea of them as inferior to their white counterparts. Chinese immigrants, as well as all Asians, were viewed as “heathens” with a “disgusting character.”[8] This mindset was the driving factor for these laws to be passed. Although most Chinese immigrants possessed nothing but good intentions, they were deprived of basic rights other immigrants had earned. The Chinese were not thought to posses the ability to ever become loyal to the United States during this time of initial immigration.[9] However, as the 1930s approached, and eventually World War II, Chinese involvement and perception began to change.

By the 1930s, perceptions held by Americans of the Chinese living in the United States had not changed much. They were still facing constant discrimination from their European-American counterparts. Another reason they were discriminated against was their “unassimilable nature.”[10] Other Americans criticized the Chinese for living isolated from the rest of society, but the Chinese were left with no choice. They formed communities together to escape the animosity they faced from the rest of the population. However, beginning in the 1930s, many Chinese-Americans decided to take a stand and put an end to this stereotype.

A major turning point for Chinese Americans occurred during the Depression of the 1930s.[11] In New York, they decided to put an end to the stereotype of their “unassimilable nature.” Chinese Americans of various occupations decided they needed to come together and begin to be active participants in the political and economic aspects of society.[12] They were on a mission to show other Americans that they were not that different, and the stereotypes cast on them were unfair. Committees focused on voting involvement and other political activities were formed.[13] This was the first push made by Chinese Americans to portray themselves as becoming capable Americans as much as any immigrant group had become before them. Soon, as the war approached, many Americans would believe this as well.

When World War II broke out, the United States erupted into chaos. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Executive Order No 9066 was signed, putting any person of Japanese descent on the West Coast into internment camps.[14] The Japanese were now fiercely hated in the United States, and all Asian groups in America suffered as a result. Many Americans categorized any Asian looking person as the same, which caused problems for Chinese Americans. In some instances, Chinese Americans wore buttons saying “We Hate Them Too” to show they were not related to the Japanese.[15] The actions of the country of Japan caused the Chinese-American hatred to intensify. However, China had become an ally to the United States and the U.S. Government set out to put down these negative perceptions of Chinese Americans.

Chinese soldier

World War II Propaganda Poster

Since China was an ally to the United States during World War II, President Roosevelt and his advisors knew it would be important to improve the perceptions held of Chinese Americans. If no action was taken, they feared they might loose China as an ally.[16] On December 17, 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.[17] This was a great achievement for Chinese Americans. Even more encouraging were results from a poll taken right before the act was repealed. It was found in the poll conducted by the Office of Public opinion that 65% of Americans favored repeal, and support for repeal was also strong in the West, where Chinese discrimination was the strongest. [18] Public perception of Chinese Americans was finally beginning to shift in a positive direction.

On top of the favorable results from the poll, President Roosevelt made public statements calling for the equal treatment of Chinese Americans. He publically stated, “We regard China not only as a partner in waging war but that we shall regard her as a partner in days of peace.”[19] In addition to public statements from the President, the media began to portray Chinese Americans in a positive light. An editorial in the Danburg-News Times wrote that the Chinese were “well educated, intelligent, and will make excellent citizens.”[20] Also, the United States government began printing posters depicting a smiling Chinese soldier with the caption, “This Man is Your FRIEND, He Fights For FREEDOM.”[21] The collective effort on behalf of the mainstream media and government provided much needed support to Chinese Americans, and proved to be a driving force in changing the perception of them.

Another major factor in the change of perception of Chinese Americans was their willingness to enlist in the allied army. Around 20,000 Chinese Americans, about 20%, joined the army.[22] They wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States, and show other Americans they were serious about becoming citizens. Many began to take notice that Chinese Americans were willing to die for a country that had shown them little respect. These acts of bravery did nothing but enhance the positive perceptions the media and government were displaying Chinese Americans in.

With Chinese Americans playing a significant role in World War II, the allied forces were victorious. In the years following, to show gratitude and respect, memorials were built in their honor. On October 22,1950, the Memorial for Chinese American Officers and Soldiers During World War II was erected in Seattle.[23] Another memorial for Chinese American soldiers killed during battle was constructed in San Francisco.[24] During their initial immigration, the Chinese faced the fiercest discrimination from the West Coast. Then, after fighting for their country, there was a newfound respect for them. Memorials were being built for Chinese Americans in a place where they were not welcome a hundred years ago. This showed that most Americans had truly changed their thoughts on Chinese Americans.

From the time of Chinese immigrants arrival to the post World War II era, the perception of Chinese Americans changed significantly. They started out at the bottom of the labor force, facing discrimination wherever they went. Chinese Americans were not welcome, and other Americans made it no secret. However, as time progressed, opinions began to change. World War II was the major turning point, as their involvement in helping the allied forces win the war helped switch the opinion on them. They became integrated into American society and showed they were willing to die for their country, just like any other American. They went from being openly hated to having memorials built in their honor. This showed that there truly was a change of perception of Chinese Americans by their counterparts as a direct result of World War II.

[1] Harry H. L. Kitano. “Asian-americans: The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Pilipinos, and   Southeast Asians”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social        Science 454 (1981) 128

[2] Chen, Changfu. “Chinese Americans and American Society.” Chinese Studies In History (2008):4

[3] Ibid

[4] Boyd, Monica. “Oriental Immigration: The Experience of the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Populations in the United States”. International Migration Review 5.1 (1971): 48

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, 49

[7] Harry H. L. Kitano. “Asian Americans” 128

[8] Boyd, Monica “Oriental Immigration” 128

[9] Song, Jingyi. “Fighting for Chinese American Identity”. New York History 83.4(2002)385

[10] Sue, S. and Kitano, H. H. L. Stereotypes as a Measure of Success. Journal of Social Issues, 29: (1973) 85

[11] Song, Jingyi. “Fighting for Chinese American Identity”. New York History 83.4(2002):387

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, 388

[14] Yui, Daizaburo. “FROM EXCLUSION TO INTEGRATION: ASIAN AMERICANS’ EXPERIENCES IN WORLD WAR II”. Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies (1992): 57

[15] Harry H. L. Kitano. “Asian Americans” 126

[16] Leong, Karen J. “Foreign Policy, National Identity, and Citizenship: The Roosevelt White House and the Expediency of Repeal.” Journal Of American Ethnic History 22, no. 4 (2003): 6

[17] Ibid,17

[18] Ibid,7

[19] Ibid,15

[20] Ibid14

[21] Chinese.” 1942. World War II Poster Collection at Northwestern University Library, Washington DC

[22] Chen, Changfu. “Chinese Americans and American Society.” Chinese Studies In History (2008): 5

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

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