In the first decades of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants made slow steps toward greater inclusion in American life. Although the Exclusion Act was still in effect, the law did permit Chinese merchants, diplomats, and students to enter the country. For a time, these immigrants were even allowed to bring their wives and families. To take advantage of this loophole, young people often came into the U.S. by posing as family members of those with merchant status; these counterfeit family members became known as "paper sons" and "paper daughters".
A Chinatown served as a safe haven and second home for Chinese immigrants, a place to shop for familiar food, to worship in a traditional temple, or to catch up on the news from the old country. It also was a good place to do business: The shops and factories in a Chinatown were almost exclusively Chinese-owned, and would hire Chinese workers when many non-Chinese businesses would not. By the turn of the century, Chinatowns had sprung up in cities, from San Diego to El Paso to Connecticut, and formed a network that crossed the continent.
Chinatowns also provided Chinese immigrants with the social support networks that were not available to them anywhere else. District associations, made of up immigrants who came from the same part of China, performed many of the roles that government agencies or charities would otherwise have fulfilled: They found jobs for new arrivals, cared for the sick and poor, and arranged for the bones of the dead to be sent back to their homeland. These associations soon became like a secondary system of government, and their leaders served as representatives to the non-Chinese population, sometimes becoming well-known public figures. Organized crime also arrived in Chinatowns, sometimes associated with organizations called tongs, but the district associations fought, usually successfully, to keep the neighborhoods free of serious gang activity.
In spite of all the legal and practical obstacles, between 1910 and 1940 some 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through Angel Island Immigration Station, near San Francisco. At the same time, the growing number of children born to Chinese Americans helped add to the community's sense of permanence and stability. Since any child born in America automatically became a U.S. citizen, many parents bought property in their children's names, and were thus able to start businesses and make investments that would otherwise not have been available to them.
As more immigrants found professional work and achieved financial success, they began to move out of urban Chinatowns, often to new suburbs or other outlying neighborhoods. Despite continuing restrictions in immigration, the Chinese population of the U.S., which had dropped from about 107,000 in 1890 to a low of 61,000 in 1920, began to rise again.
The outbreak of the Second World War brought Chinese immigrants and their descendants even further into the mainstream of U.S. society. Japan's brutal invasion of China led to greater public sympathy for the Chinese people, and prompted Chinese Americans to register for the draft, to join in war industries, and to enlist in record numbers. San Francisco's Chinatown even built and funded its own pilot-training school to prepare Chinese American pilots to fight the Japanese air force. Of the 13,000 Chinese American soldiers who served during the war, almost half were not U.S. citizens, still barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In 1943, the Exclusion Act was finally swept away, brought down by the pressures of wartime labor shortages and popular sentiment. Under new legislation, Chinese immigrants were finally made eligible for citizenship, and new quotas were set for immigration. Even greater changes came two years later, when the War Bride Act and the G.I. Fiancées Act permitted Chinese Americans to bring their wives into the country. Family life, for centuries one of the most cherished aspects of Chinese culture, was finally possible for the Chinese community in the United States.
By the end of the 1960s, the Chinese American community had been transformed. After long decades of slow growth under tight constraints, Chinese immigration exploded, and brought a new, and very different, group of immigrants to America's shores.
A new immigration law passed in the mid-60s changed the way the U.S. counted its immigrant population. This law, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before, and eliminated the old quota system that gave preference to western Europeans. As a result, the Chinese American population in the U.S. almost doubled within ten years.
With the new surge of growth, the community changed. This new group of immigrants did not come from the same few rural provinces of China as the immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had. Instead, many came from urban Hong Kong and Taiwan. They had a different outlook on life than the earlier immigrants, who had created slow-paced, close-knit communities. The Hong Kong and Taiwan immigrants spoke different dialects, had more exposure to urban fashion and music, and had greater expectations of social mobility. Some were professionals, and they and their families integrated easily in cities throughout the United States.
Others with less education and fewer skills tended to live in Chinatowns, and were subject to lower wages and worse living conditions than the previous generations. From the 1980s, many more people from China, including university students, joined the migration to the U.S., and many settled here permanently. As the flow of immigrants from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong continues to remain steady, the Chinese American communities in both large cities and suburbs continue to adapt to the challenges that come with a growing and diverse culture.
In the meantime, Chinese immigrants and their descendants have had an increasingly great impact on U.S. culture. From the films of director Ang Lee and the novels of Amy Tan to the architecture of I.M. Pei and the hip-hop turntable skills of Kid Koala, Chinese Americans are becoming more prominent with every passing year, particularly in fashion and youth culture. As the community continues to grow, and as more movies, pop songs, and magazines that target young Asian American audiences begin to emerge, the role of Chinese Americans in American cultural life seems only likely to increase.
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