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American Waves
    Race, Ethnicity, & Cultural Identity
Issue Date: 1 / 1987    
 
 
 
Chinese in America

San Francisco's Chinatown is an unforgettable montage of dragonentwined lanterns, arched eaves, filigreed balconies, and neon caligraphy that enchants every vistor. Photo Courtesy of San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau

From the most humble beginnings, Chinese-Americans have had a major impact on the development of America.

       Today, although they only number slightly more than one million in a nation of 233 million people, Chinese-Americans enrich the United States with their intellectual and artistic achievements, business acuity, influence, and patriotism. Yet of all the peoples who migrated to America's shores, the Chinese possibly had the toughest time of all. Poor, unskilled by western standards, clinging to "mysterious" ways, the early immigrants were abused and exploited by brawny whites. Nonetheless, they pulled themselves out of the hopeless mire of ignorance and prejudice and today are among America's most valued citizens.
       
        Chinese were first recorded in America in 1785, when three seamen were left stranded in Baltimore after their ship's captain decided to get married and remain on shore. They were oddities, but apparently nothing untoward happened to them. The first serious exodus from China came in 1851, the Year of the Pig, and the first year of the reign of Emperor Hien Feng.
       
        It was a time of terrible drought in China; there had been no rain for months to water crops or grow rice. The Chinese could not feed their chickens, let alone their families. Thousands died of starvation, particularly in Canton in southern China. There was rebellion too, and oddly, this affected the lives of the Chinese who came to America. The rebellion was against the Manchus from Manchuria in northern China who invaded mainland China in 1644, thus overthrowing the Ming dynasty, which had lasted for 277 years. For 267 years (1644-1911), the Manchu rulers changed the styles of the people, requiring men to shave the outer edge of their hair and braid the center in a long tail called a queue. Chinese working in America kept their distinctive queues because without them, they dared not return to their home country. Drunken Americans often clipped the queues off or tied two of them together, usually at tax-collecting time.
       
        Historical background
       
        China was the first nation to have a written language and before the early dynasty of Han, they used a knife to mark the writing on freshly slashed, moist sections of bamboo. As the bamboo dried, the records became permanent. When paper was developed, records were kept in books. The Chinese had improved methods of farming, creative artworks of jade, brocade, and ivory, and tea and spices that traveled across deserts by camel caravan. Pasta was also introduced to Europeans. The trade routes, however, were slow-going, dangerous, and expensive. Trade by sea was the more profitable, and European nations were all too eager to fund expeditions in the name of various crowns. The Portuguese reached China by sea in 1514, followed fifty years later by Spanish, Dutch, and English traders. Finally the French, Swedes, Danes, and Americans sailed into compete for trade. Canton was finally opened, but there was no landing ashore permitted. Trading was done by the hongs [government officials], and high taxes were collected in earnest.
       
        Americans had a particularly difficult time because the Chinese had no use for trinkets, and following the American Revolution, there was little money, gold, or silver to do business with. The solution was found in the ginseng roots that grew wild in the forests of North America and were considered by the Chinese to be a powerful aphrodisiac. Another item the Yankees brought were the luxurious sea otter pelts with which the emperor and mandarins could line their robes. Yankees sailed the seas to the South Pacific for sealskins and fragrant sandalwood. They also tempted Chinese palates with sea cucumbers, sharks' fins, and edible birds' nests.
       
        Trade continued peacefully until the British began dealing in opium directly from India. This was rightly worrisome to the Manchu government because of the debilitating effect on the people and the drain on the national wealth. Consequently opium was banned, a move that England used as an excuse to declare war on China in 1839. China was not a warring nation and had few defensive troops, and within a year, the country was defeated. England demanded and was given Hong Kong with its fine harbor. The treaty would last for 100 years. Five more ports were opened: Kwungchou, Hsai-man, Ningpao, Fuchou, and Shanghai were opened to the English while other western powers demanded the same concessions. The closed-door policy was shattered, and the government at last realized that the Chinese had not kept up with modern technological advances and that the government itself was weak and corrupt.
       
        As opium poured into China, the Manchu government upped taxes on the people. Foreign manufactured goods flooded the market. The English "red-haired devils," the "Holland devils," and the American "flower-flag devils" (because of the flag) seemed to be necessary evils until nature took over. Heavy rains, overflowing riverbanks, and muddy water flooded valleys and ruined what crops had been planted. These disasters were followed by years of drought with crops withering instead of drowning. To make matters worse, roaming bandits stole from those in the countryside who were trying to survive. The bloody Tai-ping rebellion, led by Hung Shiu-Chuen, beginning in 1851 and lasting until 1864, found many farmers leaving and heading for areas where family members might take them in. Descendants of the Hans made up 85 percent of the Chinese population, so this upheaval could not be considered a small matter. They were in the majority and were desperate.
       
        Until these catastrophic times, the government had forbidden anyone to leave the country on pain of death. Finally, permission was granted to foreign governments to recruit coolie labor. The British who had freed their African slaves needed plantation workers. Most signed contracts to work in Peru, Cuba, Hawaii, Trinidad, British Guyana, and British Borneo as early as 1845. It was sometimes referred to as the "pig business." Americans used this labor source in the dreaded guano trade, where excrement from seafowl was loaded aboard ships and sent to America as fertilizer. Companies promised fair and comfortable working conditions. None of this was true, and many workers committed suicide.
       
        Meanwhile in the home country, peasants set out, often to Canton, carrying their worldly goods on a bamboo pole across the shoulder, a basket on each end. One side held rice cornmeal, dried squid, gingerroot and dried mushrooms, while a pot of oil and soy sauce hung on the other end. They carried bamboo mats and quilts on their backs while youngsters packed extra clothing on their backs. Women brought cooking pots, bowls, and chopsticks. Each wore a broad-brimmed straw hat shaped like a mushroom and sandals on his feet. At day's end, women prepared meals by boiling water over a charcoal stove, stirring in cornmeal in the light of a flickering oil lamp.
       
       
        Lure of the gold fields
       
        These families soon learned there was no work to be had in Canton, but something far more interesting was being passed through the street. There was news of the gold discovery in California. The "Mountain of Gold" had been found in January 1848, and the following spring found many Chinese sailing for San Francisco. A Chinese merchant, Chum Mind, is generally credited with starting the scramble when he wrote his friend Cheong Yum in Canton about the find. The strongest young man of the family was selected to go and eventually send money home for the family and care of the elders. The cost of passage was only the equivalent of $15, though later it rose to $45. A credit system was developed whereby the employer was repaid from money his workers had earned. "Americans are very rich people," the ads ran. "They want the Chinaman to come and will make him welcome. There will be big pay, large houses, food, clothing of finest description...."
       
        Those who sailed to America were called Gum Shan Hok (guests of the Golden Mountain), and they considered themselves visitors on a temporary stay. Until 1860, it was against the law to emigrate, and young men left their wives and children behind in China. Besides, few had the money to bring their families. Some came as coolies, selling their services as laborers or miners. If their muscles were strong they were accepted. Most came with a credit ticket system. Brokers in Hong Kong paid the passage money, and a connecting agent in San Francisco furnished supplies to the gold miner or helped the laborer find work. Repayment money, plus interest, was paid in monthly installments (miners were paid in gold dust), and it usually took seven months to be free of the debt. The credit-ticket-system worker could choose his own work, but a contract worker had to be employed by the person who paid his passage.
       
        The trip across the ocean could take anywhere from forty-five days to three months, and in the overcrowded hold of the ship, the workers were literally packed in like sardines. Seasickness and cholera were common. Nevertheless, the year 1852 found 20,000 Chinese in the San Francisco area, hard at work and ready to prospect for gold. They had to pay a foreign miner's tax until 1870 and everything they bought was on credit, including their river boat and stagecoach tickets. Add to this their boots, gold pan, pickax, long-bladed knife, hammer, nails, shovel, and small tent, and most wondered if they would ever be free of debts.
       
        San Francisco was a bewildering hodgepodge of muddy streets, boardwalks and unpainted wooden buildings, canvas-covered gambling houses, and carpenters putting up new buildings. Vendors sold coffee and cake, but they soon learned of Chinese Street with stories of food they were used to - dried fish, duck, hams, tea, and rice. Some had copper pots and kettles, alongside mining supplies. As they moved through the streets with their shoulder poles and baskets, they noticed silversmiths, wood carvers, herb doctors, a theater, barbers, restaurants, boarding houses, tailors, and butchers.
       
        The young men lived in dormitories, and at first they were welcomed by the burly, bearded whites. As more and more Chinese arrived, however, fear of economic competition and resentment led to mass protest meetings and demands that all Chinese be removed at once.
       
        The gold rush lasted from 1848 to 1855, and during that time, some 47,200 Chinese passed through U.S. Customs in San Francisco. Though most headed for the gold fields, some opened restaurants, barber shops, boarding houses, and stores stocked with Hong Kong foods. By 1870, one-third of the miners were Chinese, but there was a catch to this. From 1848 on, no one could hire workers to mine placer gold (the loose particles on or near the surface). Each miner had to work his own claim and keep his own profits. A miner could stake a claim and record it at the nearest land office, but if he was gone from his claim more than three days, someone else could take it. Chinese took over these abandoned mines because there were still specks of gold to be found. They earned an average of $5 a day, but a few actually struck it rich.
       
        Whites resented the diligent Chinese workers who clung to their traditional ways, their queues, foods, holidays and who attended temples they built in gold towns. Tent burnings, robberies, and queue cuttings by ignorant, uneducated whites became common. The 1852 foreign miner's tax found collectors singling out Chinese and beating them until the tax collectors were paid. Newspapers ridiculed them as "Codfish Celestials," "Long-tailed, cloven-footed inhabitants of the infernal regions" and "the Yellow Peril". The latter was particularly offensive because the reference was to Mongolians not Chinese. Chinese never raided Europe, killing women and children in their warring escapades, but American headline writers grouped the two together, probably because they didn't know any better, and they sold a lot of newspapers.
       
        When the gold ran out, the Chinese mined quartz, quicksilver, and borax, and were constantly on the alert for other opportunities. Some went to Alaska, but many stayed in San Francisco, working at jobs no one else would do. They served as houseboys, waiters, cooks, laundrymen, peddlers, janitors, and laborers. They always sent money home (which irked politicians who thought the money should be spent in California).
       
       
        "Crocker's pets," the railway builders
       
        One of the most dramatic achievements of these early Chinese immigrants was the building of the Central Pacific Railroad over the High Sierras. It began in Sacramento, in 1861, and was to run west to east, while the Union Pacific would be built east to west. When joined, it would be the first transcontinental railroad, spanning the huge continent of North America. Four Sacramento merchants, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford (who at that time was the governor), Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins organized the Central Pacific, later called the Southern Pacific Railroad.
       
        In those days - before the advent of modern mechanical bulldozers, scrapers, and Caterpillars - the job had to be done by hand, and few white laborers wanted any part of it. Furthermore, they demanded high wages and usually stayed only long enough to get a stake before leaving for the gold fields. When silver was discovered in Nevada, more workers left. Crocker was desperate and thought of hiring Chinese, but his politically minded partner Stanford (who had run on the ticket of getting rid of the Chinese) opposed the idea.
       
        Crocker approached several of the white bosses. "What? Use those rice-eating weaklings? Most of them don't weight any more than 100 pounds. They'll drop in their tracks after a couple of hours."
       
        Another said, "Maybe Chinese can wash shirts and raise vegetables, but they can't do hard work."
       
        Crocker's answer was, "They built the Great Wall of China didn't they?"
       
        After much argument, fifty Chinese laborers were hired and taken to the end of the track. There they made camp, cooked rice and dried fish, and went to sleep. At sunrise, they were hard at work and, twelve hours later, were still working. The astonished construction supervisor couldn't believe his eyes. More and more Chinese were hired and within six months 2,000 of them, dressed in blue cotton blouses and loose pantaloons, with their queues swinging under basket hats, swarmed over the line.
       
        These railroad workers were divided into groups, or tongs, of thirty to thirty-five men, who lived together in canvas tents or log huts furnished by the company. Sometimes they built crude shelters in burrowed-out mountainsides. Each tong had its bilingual overseer who bought and paid for all provisions used by his tong. Wages were $30-$35 a month in gold, minus their board. Whites' board was included in their wages.
       
        Each tong had a Chinese cook who served a healthy diet of dried bamboo sprouts, seaweed, mushrooms, salt cabbage, and five kinds of vegetables. They had Chinese bacon, poultry, and cuttlefish, abalone, dried oysters, and four kinds of dried fruit, sugar, sweet rice crackers, vermicelli, peanut oil, tea, and rice. They drank only tea made from boiled water that carriers brought in several times a day. At day's end, they took a sponge bath and changed clothes.
       
        White workers ate only beans, beef, bread, butter and potatoes. They drank water from streams that were often polluted and, at day's end, seldom bathed or changed clothing.
       
        The equipment was crude at best: wheelbarrows, one-horse carts, shovels, picks, and black explosive powder. The Chinese felled trees, blasted hard rock, dug cuts in the hillsides, and loaded carts and wheelbarrows with dirt in order to fill ravines to help make the roadbed. While they were doing the pick and shovel work, the whites stayed on as teamsters, stonemasons, and foremen.
       
        Once the railbed was ready, the tracks were laid. Lifting the heavy rails was the job of the big muscular whites - mostly Irishmen - who laid the tracks in place. When the iron rails were secured, locomotives pushed flatcars filed with iron tracks, explosives, food, lumber, and more men, to the railhead at the end of the line.
       
        By June 1865, trains were carrying passengers and freight on a daily basis between Sacramento and Clipper Gap, forty-three miles away. Crocker was so pleased with his Chinese workers that he wanted thousands more. They soon became known as "Crocker's pets," and when the supply of workers ran dry in California, he sent his agents to China to recruit them directly.
       
        Although there was much official praise, trouble continued to brew for the railroad workers. Governor Stanford wrote to President Andrew Johnson, "As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical. Ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building, they soon became as efficient as white laborers."
       
        The chief engineer wrote, "The Chinese...are faithful and industrious and, under proper supervision, soon become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work."
       
        Damning with faint praise was Senator George Hearst. "One of my great objections to them is that they can do more work than our people and live on less and for that reason...they could drive our laborers to the wall."
       
        Still, Crocker continued to use Chinese labor and, considering the tasks ahead, it was a wise decision. The railroad route followed a long ridge that sloped down from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada range. The ridge had gaps between the high peaks. To remedy this, the Chinese dug cuts in the ridge and filled the high embankments. They built bridges over streams and long trestles across canyons. Often they bored tunnels through the ridge when there was no other way to go.
       
        One tricky and dangerous job was Cape Horn, which reached 1,200 feet above the river canyon floor. There was no place to stand or work, so a shelf had to be cut. The slightly built Chinese were lowered in waist-high baskets, carrying with them hammers and chisels, and a pole to push themselves against the rock to keep the basket free of the steep slope.
       
        After days of work, they'd carved a ledge on the rock from which workmen could pack the holes with blasting powder and long fuses. After the men were pulled to safety, the fuses were lit. Sometimes, this was not soon enough, and some fell to their deaths or were killed by the explosions.
       
        The Summit Tunnel was the last stretch. This called for boring through solid rock, and more than 9,000 Chinese worked on this project alone. When heavy snows began to fall, the workers who were housed in snow-covered log cabins continued their labors by building corridors - some large enough for two-horse sleds to move through. Some men were buried in snowslides, their bodies found in the spring, still clutching their shovels.
       
        In the upper crust, the granite was so hard that blasting powder could only break a few inches at a time, so they began using the highly volatile nitroglycerin. Crocker ordered an all-out attack on Summit Tunnel that spring and, by November 1867, the tunnel, 1,695 feet long, hand-carved through solid granite, was complete.
       
        There was considerable rivalry between the Chinese crews and the Union Pacific's Irish crews as the railroad continued across the scorching deserts and alkali-laden dust clouds of Nevada and Utah. Chinese were paid $26 a month minus board, while whites received $35 plus board - yet the Chinese got the most dangerous jobs. When they struck in indignation, Crocker cut off their food and water until they went back on the job. The Irish got their comeuppance though when their rivals laid ten miles of track in one day. On May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point near Ogden, Utah, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific rails were joined to make a transcontinental railroad. The celebration, ceremony, speeches, and band music was for the "bigwigs" and politicians. It did not include the workers, who were not invited.
       
        Chinese workers also helped build railroads in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana. They worked on the Northern Pacific, then the Canadian Pacific, and within two years, there were 6,500 of them laying tracks over the Canadian Rockies and across the plains.
       
       
        After The Railroads
       
        The work of the early Chinese in America demonstrates stubborn courage and self-discipline, qualities that have been passed on from generation to generation. What they wanted was a chance to work, and to this day, they disdain any form of welfare. It is disgraceful not to pay one's debts, and no matter how hard the work, the long hours, the dangers, those young men fitted themselves into American working life admirably, despite hostilities.
       
        Most people figured the Chinese would return to their homeland after the railroads were completed, but it was still hard to make a living in China. Some 5,000 to 10,000 did sail for home, but there were twice as many new arrivals to take their places. Then too, many had become naturalized citizens. With the railroad in operation, many moved to the East Coast, and into Canada. The main reasons for moving on were the depression of 1870 (which followed the end of the Civil War), the drying up of the mines, and the completion of the railroads. Businesses failed, fortunes were lost, and somebody had to be blamed. A fiery Irish sailor, Dennis Kearny, who lost his money in mining stocks, pointed at the Chinese. "The Chinks must go!" Headlines screamed, "Yellow Peril," "Chinese take Jobs from Whites." Those who had not been in America as long as the Chinese were the first to demand they be thrown out of the country.
       
        Undaunted, those who stayed in California worked at jobs they knew well, but others didn't. They built dikes and ditches to drain swampland for farming. They reclaimed land in San Francisco Bay so docks, factories, and warehouses could be built on the waterfront.
       
        Agricultural workers, able to work out sharecropper arrangements, taught white Californians about orchard crops, the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of fruit. They also harvested grain, picked grapes, and grew vegetables. Some worked as dairy-cattle and sheep men in the Salinas valley. During those early days, they developed a superior variety of rice and of course, the purple-black Bing Cherry. They experimented successfully with hatching eggs with artificial heat, a practice in common use today.
       
        The Chinese were expert fishermen, and many sailed the bays and rivers for bass, salmon, and sturgeon. Along the coast, they caught squid, rock cod, mackerel, and flounder. They used bag nets from China to gather shrimp from the Bay. Americans had never thought of eating abalone, but they did like the pearly shells from which jewelry and ornaments could be made. Today, abalone is one of the great dining delicacies in California. The Chinese formed small fishing villages, but a tax law in 1860 banned their junks and allowed them only the fishing rights to sharks and work in the salmon canneries.
       
        Their junks were banned, but still they persevered. When some fishermen complained about the use of nets that brought in bass, the Chinese invented a type of net that allowed to bass to escape while leaving the shrimp.
       
        They were adept at sewing skills, working to manufacture overalls, shirts, and underwear. They worked in woolen mills as well as slipper and boot factories. Some owned and operated cigar factories, operating under false names in hopes that they would not be closed down.
       
       
        Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
       
        Meanwhile, as the post-Civil War slump continued, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress, which stopped Chinese labor immigration. The Scott Act of 1888 prevented admittance and prohibited courts from granting citizenship. Only officials, teachers, students, and travelers could enter the United States. Chinese had few legal rights. In California, they could not send their children to public schools except if white parents agreed to it. They could not testify in court - not even if they witnessed a murder. "Not a Chinaman's chance," came into popular parlance.
       
        On another front, mixed feelings developed. Restaurants in cities and mining camps had developed dishes to tantalize patrons. Americans learned to love chop suey and chow mein, and fortune cookies were exciting, too. Never mind that the Chinese never ate these foods. Today, cosmopolitan customers of Chinese restaurants have a wide range of choices and experiment freely, in often fine surroundings.
       
        The other options open to the entrepreneur was the famed laundry. Whites didn't want that kind of work, and many young males wrote home for family members to send them a wife who would produce strong sons and help in the laundry. The usual practice was to set up a business in the front of a rented building and live in the back. Washtubs, boilers, and scrub boards were their mainstays. A six-sided wood stove held flatirons against it to heat. Riots continued against the Chinese presence, though, and finally the so-called Six Companies from the districts of Canton Province in China began acting on behalf of the beleaguered newcomers to America. Today there are seven districts, but the title remains the Six Companies, the unofficial government for the Chinese in America. They also act in disputes among their own people.
       
        Unfortunately, secret organizations, or tongs, sprang up in San Francisco's Chinatown between the years 1880 until after the 1906 earthquake. Wars among rival tongs fanned the flames of prejudice that spread to other states: Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Hundreds fled east, forming small Chinatowns in such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. The largest eastern Chinatown was established in New York.
       
        In those days, there were twenty-seven men to one woman. It was a lonely existence for young men who were used to close family ties, but they had to be practical. As soon as they'd saved enough money, they sent for the next oldest male relative rather than a prospective wife, who was obligated by tradition to look after the elders at home. Besides, early on, men who had not been born in America could not send for their wives. The 1906 earthquake did bring a reprieve of sorts. Many Chinese claimed their birth records were lost during the disastrous fires. They became known as "paper fathers and sons."
       
        There were more changes within the Chinese-American community when the revolution in China in 1911 overthrew the Manchu dynasty. The following year, Sun Yat-sen founded the Chinese Republic. Men no longer needed to wear queues or Manchu clothes. Many cut their hair and began wearing western clothes.
       
        As time went on, wives and children appeared on the Chinatown streets and in schools. Wives helped their husbands in business, cooked, and looked after the home and family. They could do all the shopping and visiting with friends without ever learning English.
       
       
        The End Of Discrimination
       
        Discrimination continued during the 1920s. Even college-educated Chinese could not live in white neighborhoods, and children could still not attend public schools unless white parents agreed to it. Organizations of American-born Chinese began their long fight for civil rights. The Chinese-American Citizens Alliance, originally called the Native Sons of the Golden West, was especially effective in changing American laws. The Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed in 1943. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 made it possible for people of all races to become citizens. The 1965 new immigration law gave every country outside the Western Hemisphere a quota of 20,000 persons per year. Fair housing laws made it possible for Chinese-Americans to live where they pleased.
       
        Chinese-Americans longed for education above all else, and children attending public schools earned excellent grades. They also attended Chinese schools to learn history, culture, and the Chinese language. Their evening classes would run from 5 to 7 o'clock or 6 to 8 o'clock. In San Francisco, the society of the Splendors of Literature collected newspapers, letters, bills, and old laundry lists with beautiful writings. These were burned in the sacred furnace, the smoke considered an offering to the gods and the ashes scattered at sea.
       
        Most young families could not afford white doctors, and no hospital would admit them in those early days. Besides, there was the difficulty of making their ailments understood. They came to depend on their own herbal doctors who brought medicines from China and set up practices. They could tell the condition of each organ by pulse beat, then prescribe up to a dozen herbs for healing. Oddly, this same system is making a serious comeback. Journalists are being deluged with the "latest" scientific method - measuring the pulse beat.
       
        The Chinese brought with them Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Today, most Chinese-Americans are Christians although some still adhere to Buddhism and Confucianism.
       
        Chinese-Americans served the United States during World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Many were killed or wounded. There was no question as to their loyalty and devotion to duty. They served in many capacities, from high-ranking officers to young enlisted personnel, and were often invaluable as translators and interpreters.
       
        With all the sophistication and prominence of today's Chinese-Americans, ancient traditions live on. Weddings and funerals are very elaborate and formal. In the past, only the birth of a son called for a celebration, but today's parents present their month-old girls - as well as boys - with equal enthusiasm.
       
       
        Celebrations and calendar
       
        For most Americans, the single most bewildering aspect of the Chinese community is their calendar, which has neither weeks nor Sundays as days of rest. They make up for this in the number of festivals they enjoy.
       
        The old Chinese calendar is based on a lunar year, which is determined according to the phases of the moon. A month had either twenty-nine or thirty days so that the fifteenth always fell on a full moon. A leap year had one extra month. Thus, festivals can fall on a different date each year. For convenience's sake, today's Chinese-Americans use the western solar calendar, but their holidays are still based on the lunar calendar. New Year's Day can be any time between January 21 and February 19. It is believed that the forces of Yang, warmth and light, are ready to overcome the forces of Yin, the cold, dark winter.
       
        As the Chinese New Year approaches, wives scrub and polish everything in the house and, when possible, each family member gets new clothes. They decorate with flowering branches of peaches, pears, almonds, or apricots, arrange azaleas, camellia plants, and dishes of flowering narcissus and daffodils. Red paper streamers with good luck inscriptions are prominently displayed, and holiday foods are prepared. Steamed sweet puddings, deep-fried dumplings, chopped roast pork, bamboo shoots and spices, candied melon, coconut, lichee nuts, fruits, and red melon seeds top the list. The older generation Chinese wife does not use knife or scissors during the first day of New Year for fear she might "cut luck." Even today, the Chinese-American community respects the fairy tale of the Nen animal who comes out to hurt people every 365 days. People stay at home and wait for Nen to disappear. After that, celebrations begin in earnest.
       
        Tourist bureaus love their Chinatowns during New Year celebrations. Parades are spectacular; fire-crackers frighten away evil demons, men strike cymbals, drums, and metal gongs, and there are decorated floats, lively bands, and performances by lion dancers.
       
        The lion's head is made of papier-mâché, painted red, yellow, green, and orange. One dancer holds the head while others are inside the silk body. The huge dragon, nearly a block long, breathes out fire and smoke while dozens of dancers inside make him twist and writhe. This creature is not considered a monster but a kind, supernatural being in charge of rainfall. According to legend, the dragon awakens from a year's sleep and appears on earth at the New Year.
       
        Chingmino or Pure Brightness Festival, in the spring is the Chinese Memorial Day when graves are tended, swept, and weeded. In china, the "Double Fifth" (the fifth day of the fifth month) was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. Chinese-Americans don't hold boat races but do honor the day by enjoying tsung, a rice dumpling. The Moon Festival comes toward the end of September, when thanks are given for good harvests. Celebration foods include large round cakes, Yuet-beang, which are decorated to look like the moon.
       
        The contemporary success story
       
        To detail the success stories of Chinese-Americans is nearly impossible because they are in all walks of life. There are engineers, doctors, judges, scientists, pharmacists, chemists, artists, architects, computer wizards - as well as cooks, taxi drivers, barbers, and laborers. Politically, they are as diverse as other Americans, and women are becoming more active than in the past. They successfully protested the forced busing of children out of San Francisco's Chinatown, and a number of them have gone public as actresses and newscasters - the most well-known being the beautiful Connie Chung.
       
        Moviemakers and fiction writers harmed the image of the Chinese in the 1930s. The spooky Fu Manchu character, with his long fingernails, slave girls, nonsensical poisons dropped into teacups, and fiendish hypnotic eyes, frightened moviegoers out of their wits. Who among early moviegoers can forget the lovely Anna May Wong? Westerners tried their hand at these roles, among them Myrna Loy and Marlene Dietrich, but they were so obviously phony that even the makeup artists must have been embarrassed. Then, there was the foolish portrayal of Charlie Chan by a westerner, Warner Oland, and his number one son, played by Keye Luke, who solved murder mysteries, one after the other - and always peppered their sleuthing with wise "Confucian" sayings. The inscrutable Chinese endured even in the face of such nonsense. Indeed, during World War II, Chinese actors had a heyday playing the roles of dastardly Japanese.
       
        Meanwhile, sensible images of the Chinese were being presented. The Good Earth, published in 1931, written by Pearl Buck, who was a daughter of a missionary, became a classic. That, along with Dragon Seed, were both produced as outstanding movies. Henry Luce, publisher of Time, was another powerful force in turning sentiments around. He too was a missionary offspring. The American-educated Madame Mei-Ling Sung Chiang, wife of General Chiang Kai-shek, a woman of great charm and beauty, visited America on a goodwill tour that helped matters considerably. That, plus the terrible years of slaughter by the Japanese, turned the picture completely around. The Chinese and Americans were united in their war effort to defeat the Japanese.

Despite initial opposition from both white labor and management, Chinese railroad workers proved to be industrious and efficient and played a significant role in building the United States. Photo Courtesy of California State Railroad Museum

       
        As with certain other ethnic groups, the more recent arrivals have often been people of means and education, great talent, and the ability to change the ways of thinking and even the landscape of America and its peoples.
       
        Although Chinese art has always been highly prized, architecture has been the province of Ieoh Ming Pei from Shanghai. He came to America to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was awarded the Alpha Rho Chi medal, the MIT Traveling Fellowship, and the ALA Medal upon graduation. In 1942, he was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and six months later volunteered his services to the National Defense Research Committee at Princeton, New Jersey. He received his M.A. from Harvard, and took his American citizenship in 1954. His firm, I.M. Pei & Partners, is responsible for some of the most spectacular architectural wonders of today. Extremely prolific, his firm has twenty-two major projects on the boards or under construction at present, representing 23.5 million square of feet of space, including the New York Exposition Center, the Dallas Symphony Hall, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Great Wall Hotel in Peking, and the expansion and renovation of the Louvre in Paris. The East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has been hailed as a "contemporary classic of singular grandeur." The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston was completed in 1979, the same year that Pei won the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects. His lists of accomplishments is seemingly endless, with each new challenge sparking new energy for this Chinese-American genius.
       
        A genius of another sort is An Wang, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Wang Laboratories, Inc., a research and development-based manufacturer of information processing systems, including both data processing and word processing equipment. In 1940, Wang received a Bachelor of Science degree from Chiao Tung University in Shanghai and in 1945 began graduate studies at Harvard University where he earned his Ph.D in applied physics. Through the years, his Wang Laboratories have patented at least thirty-five innovative systems that brought America and the world into the affordable computer age. His most notable contribution was the invention of the magnetic pulse controlling device, the principle upon which magnetic core memory is based. It was the first truly inexpensive and reliable method of computer memory storage; for over twenty years, the core memory was a basic component of the modern computer.
       
        In 1965, Wang introduced a desktop computer named LOCI. This forerunner of the Wang electronic desk calculators used a keyboard resembling that of an adding machine but offered the user the feature of generating logarithms with a single keystroke. Wang has received numerous awards for his work, and in return for his high success in America, he founded the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies in 1979, the only such institution in the country. His hopes are that this institute will alleviate the acute nationwide shortage of highly skilled software specialists. He also sponsors the Wang Fellowship in Chinese Studies for scholarly research that will contribute to a deeper understanding of Chinese society, history, and culture.
       
        Wang is married to the former Lorraine Chiu, and they have three children. True to tradition, their son Frederick is executive vice president and chief development officer. Courtney is president and chief executive officer for Wang Communications in Denver and their daughter, Juliette, is a college student.
       
        As with all ethnic Americans, some Chinese-Americans have attained high visibility for their genius and wealth, while others still push up the ladder for success. The Chinese have achieved near spectacular success in more fields than one can relate in a single account. They have helped shape the American way of life for the better, and they continue to serve as excellent models for overcoming hardship in the difficult and complex American society they have decided to join.
       
       

by Eloise Paananen and George Tsui
Eloise Paananen is a widely published author particularly interested in ethnic groups in America. George Tsui is a historian and philosopher. His political analyses appear in Chinese language newspaper and magazines in Hong Kong and New York.
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