[TIMELINE] 23 Historical Milestones in APA History
- 23 BIG MILESTONES IN ASIAN AMERICAN HISTORY
In choosing events for inclusion we focused on those that
represented steps forward the events that enabled, liberated and
inspired Asian Americans to grow, prosper, excel and dream. As
between unheralded but seminal events (e.g. invention of the magnetic
core memory by An Wang) and those public events that had an immediate
impact on our perception of our place in American society, we chose
We didn't include the boulders rolled into our paths (e.g.
Chinese Exclusion Act) or those social earthquakes that remind us of
the deep faultlines that continue to divide American society (e.g.
Koreatown Riots) or those events that bespeak such racist abuses of
authority as to galvanize the Asian American community into outraged
action (e.g. letting off Vincent Chin's murderers with small fines).
Ultimately, milestones are just markers. They serve to remind us
of the nameless daily struggles by countless Asian Americans on the
road to winning fair and dignified treatment and establishing
ourselves as valuable and essential components of American society.
April 12, 1847: First Asians arrive in the United States
A group of three Chinese students arrived in New York City,
becoming the first Asians officially entering the United States.
However, Chinese records show that Chinese Buddhist priests traveled
along the West Coast from present-day Brtish Columbia down to Baja
California in 450 A.D. Spanish records show the existence of Chinese
shipbuilders in present-day southern California between 1541 and
1746. Chinese shopkeepers were already in Los Angeles when the first
Anglo Americans arrived.
The discovery of gold at Sutter's Creek, California on January 24,
1848 would bring the first significant influx of Chinese to the
United States. That wave was led by two men and a woman arriving in
San Francisco on February 2, 1948 on the brig Eagle. The next
significant wave of Chinese immigrants were laborers recruited from
Amoy by 94 Hawaiian sugar companies in January of 1852.
June 24, 1867: Chinese workers earn respect.
Between five and seven thousand Chinese laborers working on the
Transcontinental Railroad staged a strike in the Sierras to protest
overseers who whipped and restrained them from seeking other work.
They won the right not to be whipped or beaten. A second strike in
the Nevada desert won the Chinese the right to receive the same pay
as Whites, $35 a month. But the Chinese were still required to buy
their own supplies while Whites got free room, board and supplies.
The Chinese were smaller than the Whites, averaging 4'-10" and
120 pounds, but they handled the 80-pound ties and 560-pound rail
sections so well that by the time the last rails were joined at
Promontory Summit, Utah, 11,000 Chinese comprised over nine of ten
Central Pacific workers. To recognize their diligence, an all-Chinese
crew of eight were given the honor of bringing up and placing the
last section of rail on May 10, 1869.
February 8, 1885: Japanese immigration begins.
The first shipload of Japanese contract laborers arrived in
Hawaii aboard The City of Tokio. It brought 676 men, 158 women and
110 children. Among them was Katsu Goto, who would become a
successful storekeeper after his three-year contract expired, then be
murdered by Whites who resented his influence over Japanese laborers.
It would become the most sensational murder case in the history of
Asian immigration to Hawaii.
March 28, 1898: Citizenship for U.S.-born Asians.
The U.S. Supreme Court established that to deny citizenship to
any person born in the United States would be in violation of the
Fourteenth Amendment in U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark. Wong Kim Ark had been
born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who had been denied
citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the age of 21 Wong
left to visit his parents who had returned to China. On his return he
was denied entry on the ground that he was not a citizen.
This case was of critical importance to the eventual
establishment of Asians in America, especially in the context of the
era's frequent anti-Asian legislation and racism. On Oct 11, 1988 the
Scott Act had prohibited the return of the over 20,000 Chinese
laborers who had temporarily left the U.S. with the expectation of
returning. On May 15, 1892 the Geary Act not only allowed the
deportation of Chinese who were caught without a certificate of
residence but extended the Chinese Exclusion act by a decade. The
Chinese community had raised money to finance the case of Fong Yue-
Ting vs U.S. to test the constutionality of the Geary Act only to
have it upheld.
The lack of full legal rights encouraged acts of violence
against Chinese immigrants and hindered legal protection. On February
2, 1886 anti-Chinese riots drove many residents from Seattle. The
brutal two-day massacre of three Chinese miners in Snake River,
Oregon on May 27, 1887 was covered up by officials. It finally came
to light in 1995.
April 4, 1900: The fight for humane working conditions.
Japanese sugar plantation workers on Lahaina went on strike and
won a 9-hour workday and most of their other demands. Just two months
later on June 14, the Organic Act made U.S. laws applicable in the
islands, effectively ending contract labor. It also gave native
Hawaiians the right to vote, but expressly excluded persons of Asian
origin. The state of affairs were no better on the mainland. On March
18, 1901 the Supreme Court ruled in Sung vs. U.S. that the
prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and
unusual punishment and the right to a jury trial didn't apply to
The fight for better working conditions took another major step
forward on February 11, 1903 when Japanese and Mexican farmworkers
joined forces in Oxnard, CA to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor
Association. It sponsored a strike by 1,500 sugar beet workers. But
U.S. laws remained mostly anti-Asian. On April 6, 1903 the Supreme
Court held in Kaoru vs Fisher that immigrants who were likely to
become public charges could be taken into custody.
It wasn't until November 9, 1909 that Asian immigrant farm
workers were able to win the right to be paid on an equal footing
with other nationalities following a four-month strike that began on
May 9 with several hundred Japanese plantation workers and expanded
to include 7,000 Hawaiian workers.
January 13, 1903: Corean immigration begins.
The first large group of Corean immigrants arrived in Hawaii on
the S. S. Gaelic to work on sugar plantations. This first wave
brought a total of 7,226 men, women and children. It ended when Corea
was formally annexed by Japan in 1905.
November 3, 1903: Filipino immigration begins.
The 103 young scholars ("pensionados") who arrived in California
marked the beginning of official Filipino immigration to the United
States. However, they were by no means the first Filipinos on the
North American continent. In the late 16th century a party of
Filipino sailors set down from a galleon to claim Morro Bay,
California for the Spanish king. The first permanent Filipino
settlements were established in the bayous of Louisiana in 1763 by
Manilamen, Spanish-speaking Filipino sailors who had jumped ship to
escape the brutality of the Spaniards who had pressed them into
service. They lived along the gulf on houses built on stilts and
introduced the technique of sun-drying shrimp.
The first wave of Filipino immigration comprised students and
unskilled workers and lasted until 1934. They were followed by a
second wave (1945-1965) comprising mostly soldiers who had fought
with the U.S. during World War II. The third wave, which began in
1966 and continues to the present, is characterized by professionals.
August, 1914: The first Asian Hollywood star
Sessue Hayakawa became the first Asian to star in a Hollywood
film with the release of The Typhoon. Hayakawa was cast in the film
when producer Thomas Ince became impressed by Hayakawa's unusually
subtle and naturalistic acting style. He paid $500 for Hayakawa's
services in that film, a handsome price for an unknown actor.
Hayakawa had been a nobleman's son who had come to the U.S.
initially in 1909 to study at the University of Chicago where he
played on the football team. He returned to Japan and founded a
touring troupe of entertainers. Returning to the U.S. in 1913, he had
been acting in stage productions with a Japanese American theater
group in Little Tokyo when discovered by Ince.
Impressing American audience with his looks and unique acting
style, Sessue Hayakawa quickly became a star. He starred in many
successful films but they were mostly in villain or anti-hero roles.
Frustrated by Hollywood's unwillingness to cast him in leading-man
roles, in 1918 Hayakawa borrowed $1 million from a former University
of Chicago classmate and founded Hayworth Films. Over the next three
years he made 23 films and earned $2 million a year a princely
amount in those days. He later moved to Europe to escape American
racial prejudices and enjoyed considerable success there. Near the
end of his career, he was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of
a vicious POW camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
September, 1921: First Asian American female Hollywood star
Anna May Wong became the first Asian female to receive "star"
billing in a Hollywood film when Bits of Life appeared. Her role was
small, but the 16-year-old displayed a distinctive flair, screen
charisma and sex appeal. After several more minor roles, Wong landed
a more substantial role in The Toll of the Sea (1922), a Madame
Butterfly knockoff. The film's only distinction was being Hollywood's
first true Technicolor feature.
Its success and flattering notices for Wong's performance didn't
spare the Los-Angeles-born actress from a series of supporting roles
that increasingly exploited her as exotic flesh. The most famous was
playing a Mongol slave in the Douglas Fairbanks costume fantasy The
Thief of Baghdad (1924). The high point of Wong's Hollywood career
was co-starring with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932).
Wong became increasingly angered at being forced to play vamps,
villainesses and rape victims while white women performed in yellow-
face. MGM considered her "too Chinese to play a Chinese" she once
complained. Her biggest disappointment was losing the lead in Pearl
S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth to Louise Rainer. The
male lead had gone to a white actor and anti-miscegenation laws
prevented Hollywood from casting a non-white to kiss him. Rainer won
an Academy Award for her performance.
In the 1930s a disillusioned Anna May Wong moved to Europe where
more liberal racial attitudes gave her a broader range of roles.
Recently Anna May Wong has been rediscovered as an Asian American
woman with modern ideas whose first-order talent was stunted by
Hollywood racial prejudices.
January 17, 1943: First Asian American to lead combat battalion
Colonel Young Oak Kim became the first Asian American officer to
exercise command in a combat battalion. Upon graduating as a second
lieutenant from Infantry Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning,
Georgia, Kim chose to join the newly-formed all-nisei 100th Battalion
though, as a Corean American, he could have joined a regular Army
Kim's most famous exploit was a daylight mission in Anzio.
Having volunteered to capture German soldiers for intelligence, he
and another soldier crawled more than 600 yards directly under German
observation posts without cover. They succeeded in capturing two
prisoners and obtaining information that significantly contributed to
the fall of Rome, for which Kim was awarded the Distinguished Service
Cross. His 100th, along with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, became
the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S.
Even after participating in four deadly battles in Italy and
France during World War II and suffering severe injuries that forced
him out of action, Kim felt obliged to resume service as a
battlefield commander when the Korean War broke out. He became the
first Asian American to command a non-segregated U.S. combat
battalion as CO of 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th US Army
Division. Kim retired from the U.S. Army in 1972 as a full colonel
after 30 years of active duty and became a respected leader in the
Japanese American community. He remains history's most decorated
Asian American soldier.
April 17, 1952: Property rights for Asian immigrants
The California Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the
state's Alien Land Act in Fujii Sei vs State of California. The 1913
law had been used to prevent Asian immigrants from owning property,
regardless of their length of residence in the United States. The
Japanese American Citizens League lobbied to place a measure on the
general ballot to repeal the Act. It won by popular vote on November
June 27, 1952: The right to become naturalized citizens
McCarran-Walter Immigration Nationality Act abolished the
Asiatic Barred Zone Act of February 5, 1917, but set an overall limit
of only 2,000 immigrants per year from the region defined as "The
Asia-Pacific Triangle." Filipinos were allowed the more liberal 2,000
per year quota. The Act's primary benefit to Asian Americans was
making Japanese- and Corean-born immigrants eligible for U.S.
It reversed the The National Origins Act of May 26, 1924 which
had excluded immigration of all Asian laborers with the exception of
Filipinos who were considered U.S. colonial subjects.
It also reversed the Supreme Court's November 13, 1922 opinion
in Takao Ozawa vs. U.S. which upheld denial of citizenship to a U.S.-
educated, 20-year resident on the grounds that Japanese are neither
white nor African.
August 1, 1952: First Asian American Olympic gold
Major Sammy Lee, a 31-year-old Corean American army doctor who
had served in two wars, became the first Asian American to win an
Olympic medal when he took the gold medal for the 10-meter high
dive. "The Oriental from Occidental" later coached Greg Louganis who
went on to win record numbers of diving gold in the Seoul Olympics.
August 21, 1959: First Asian American U.S. Senator
Hiram Fong became the first Asian American to be elected to the
U.S. Senate. At that time Fong was already one of Hawaii's most
prominent citizens and successful businessmen. After graduating from
McKinley High school and the University of Hawaii, he worked for
several years to save money to attend Harvard Law School from which
he graduated in 1935. After working as a Honolulu deputy city
attorney and founding a law firm, Fong won a seat in the Territorial
House of Representatives in 1938 at the age of 31. He went on to
become a Speaker of the house who was popular with both Democrats and
During WWII, Fong served as a judge advocate in the 7th Fighter
Command of the 7th Air Force. He then founded numerous successful
businesses. When Hawaii won statehood in 1959, the 14-year veteran of
the state legislature had little trouble winning election to the U.S.
Senate as a Republican. In 1964 he became the first Asian American to
seek the Republican party's nomination as President of the United
States. He retired from the Senate in 1977 to return to running his
October 3, 1965: Racist immigration laws abolished
Lyndon Johnson signed into law The Immigration Act of 1965
abolishing the racist "national origins" quota system. At long last
Asian immigrant quotas were placed on an equal footing with those of
other nationalities, reversing a long succession of anti-Asian
legislation that began with the Naturalization Act of 1790 allowing
only "free white persons" to become U.S. citizens. The quota for
Asian nations was raised to 20,000 per year, the same as for European
June 12, 1967: The right to intermarry with Whites
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were
unconstitutional in Loving vs. Virginia. That ruling invalidated laws
in 16 states that prevented Whites from marrying "colored" spouses,
including Asians. Until then many Asians had been forced to move to
more liberal states in order to marry.
August 24, 1973: First Asian American Hollywood legend
Bruce Lee became the first Asian American Hollywood action
superstar and legend when Enter the Dragon premiered at Grauman's
Chinese Theater. Unfortunately, the star had died on July 20 of a
mysterious swelling of the brain. Death didn't keep Lee from becoming
a global icon of martial arts action and a hero to Asian Americans
fed up with stereotypes of Asian men as subservient sidekicks or
Bruce Lee had enjoyed some success as Kato, the Green Lantern's
sidekick, but left for Hong Kong after being spurned as being "too
Chinese" to play the lead in the Kung Fu TV series. It didn't matter
to Hollywood that Lee had conceived the series as a vehicle for his
martial arts skills. Lee renewed his assault on Hollywood with two
low-budget Hong Kong-made features: Fists of Fury (1971) and The
Chinese Connection (1972). Both were box office smash hits with
global audiences, laying the groundwork for Warner Brothers to
produce Enter the Dragon.
November 5, 1976: First Asian American U.S. Senator from a mainland
Dr. Samuel Ichiye (S. I.) Hayakawa became the first American of
Asian descent to be elected to the U.S. Senate from a mainland state.
The diminutive (5-6) Republican had become a popular symbol of no-
nonsense conservatism after standing up to radical anti-war
demonstrators as president of San Francisco State University. In his
seventies when he took office, Hayakawa was criticized for falling
asleep during Senate discussions. The Senate's business involved much
that he couldn't "give a good goddamn" about, he explained. By the
end of his term, both S. I. Hayakawa and his brand of feisty
conservatism had fallen out of fashion. He did not seek a second
Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa was born in Vancouver, Canada on July 18,
1906 of Japanese immigrant parents. He became a naturalized U.S.
citizen in 1955. He was a semanticist renowned for his love of the
English language long before becoming a Senator. After leaving the
Senate he once again became a galvanizing force for both major
parties by introducing a constitutional amendment to require the use
of English in all public discourses.
August 10, 1988: Reparations for Japanese American internees
House Resolution 442 was signed into law by President Ronald
Reagan. It provides for a payment of $20,000 to each surviving
Japanese American internee and a $1.25 billion education fund, among
other provisions. It sought to address the sense of betrayal felt by
Japanese Americans when FDR signed Executive Order 9066 on February
19, 1942. It forced 110,000 Japanese Americans to liquidate their
assets on 3-day notice and relocate to remote prison camps.
The campaign to seek reparations was begun on July 10, 1970 by
the western branch of the Japanese American Citizen's League. The
campaign's emotional turning point came when 750 Japanese American
witnesses recounted their experiences before the Commission on
Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The first $20,000
redress payments were made on October 9, 1990 to 107-year-old Mamoru
Eto and eight other elderly survivors.
June 13, 1989: First Asian American Pro Sports Superstar
Chinese American Michael Chang become the youngest male to win a
Grand Slam (17 years, 3 1/2 months, a record that still stands) and
the first American man in 34 years to win the French Open. The
grueling five-set final against 3rd-ranked Stefan Edberg lasted 3
hours and 41 minutes. When it was over, Chang had pulled off the
year's second biggest upset by a score of 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Just a week earlier Chang had flabbergasted the tennis world by
pulling off the biggest: a 5-set 4th-round win over top-ranked Ivan
Michael Chang's 1989 French Open exploits made him the first
Asian American to attain the status of a global sports superstar. The
Hoboken, New Jersey native began his pro career at the age of 15 and
went on to win 34 ATP career titles with earnings totaling over $18
million before retiring on September 4, 2003.
November 5, 1996: First Asian American governor of a mainland state
Gary Locke became the first and only Asian American elected
governor of a mainland state when he won the Washington State
governorship by a wide margin. Locke's success in raising the state's
educational standards and balancing its budget led to a landslide
victory for a second term in 2000. A third term was virtually
assured, but Locke announced in early 2004 that he would forego a
third term in order to spend more time with his wife and two young
children. That January Governor Locke commanded a national stage when
he was chosen to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Bush's
State of the Union Address.
June 22, 1999: First Asian American chief of a military service
Japanese American Eric K. Shinseki became the U.S. Army's
highest-ranking officer when he took over as the 34th Chief of Staff.
His term in office was marked by a push to remake the Army into a
lighter, more mobile fighting force. Shinseki became a controversial
figure when he ordered the Special Forces to switch to tan berets so
the rest of the Army could sport black berets. He incurred the ire of
the Bush administration when he correctly predicted that the U.S.
would require a much larger force to occupy Iraq than called for in
Pentagon plans. Shinseki retired from the Army on June 11, 2003
because, he hinted, he was forced out by the Bush Administration.
The Kauai native was placed on the Army's fast track after
compiling one of the most distinguished records of any Vietnam
veteran. Within a few months of graduating from West Point in 1965
Second Lieutenant Shinseki went to Vietnam as an artillery forward
observer. He went back for a second tour as commander of a tank
squadron. He was wounded three times during those tours. On one
occasion Shinseki's injuries were so severe that even his own
sergeant assumed he had died in the hospital. Thirty years later,
learning that Shinseki had survived, Les Cotton called him "the
finest person and the best officer I have ever served with".
Shinseki's valorous leadership under fire won him two Distinguished
Service Medals, the Bronze Star and several Purple Hearts.
July 25, 2000: First Asian American cabinet secretary
Norman Mineta was confirmed Secretary of Commerce, becoming the
first Asian American to be appointed to a cabinet-level post. Just
six months later, he was confirmed as George Bush's new
Transportation Secretary, making him the first person ever to serve
in the cabinets of both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Norman Mineta has enjoyed a distinguished political career that
began in 1967 when he became the first minority to win a seat on the
San Jose City Council. He set another milestone in 1971 when he was
elected mayor, becoming the first Asian American mayor of a major
city. After being elected to Congress in 1975 he led the push for the
Japanese American Reparations bill (H.R. 442) and chaired the Public
Works and Transportation Committee from 1992 to 1994 when the
democrats lost control of Congress.