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40 years after the death of Vincent Chin: An essay on the origins of Chinese Americans

By Masao Suzuki |
June 23, 2022
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San José, CA - 40 years ago, on June 23, 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin died after being beaten by a Chrysler plant supervisor and his stepson. They ended up being sentenced to a $3000 fine, causing an uproar in the Chinese American community. Evidently the killers thought that Chin was Japanese American and blamed him for the success of Japanese carmakers in breaking into the American car market. This racist killing was another of a long history of violence against Chinese and other Asian Americans.

100 years before the death of Vincent Chin, in May of 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was signed into law by President Chester Arthur. Racist violence before and after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act - such as the massacre of Chinese Americans at Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885 where at least 28 Chinese Americans were killed and had millions of dollars (at today’s prices) of damage to their property - drove Chinese Americans to urban ghettoes in larger cities.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only immigration law that ever explicitly excluded a single nationality. Because of this act, and the racist Page Act of 1875, which basically barred Chinese women from coming to the United States, the Chinese American population went into long-term decline. From a peak population of over 100,000 in the 1880s, the Chinese American population shrank by more than 40% to just over 60,000 in the 1920s.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed at a time of reaction against oppressed nationalities in the United States. In the U.S. South, there was the betrayal of Reconstruction and the restoration of planters’ rule backed by the Ku Klux Klan that led to the formation of the African American nation in the Black Belt South. In the Southwest the theft of the Mexican Americans’ land, the violence of the racist Texas Rangers and the formation of what became the U.S. Border Patrol also marked the birth pangs of the Chicano nation, Aztlán.

But for Chinese Americans there was no formation of an oppressed nation within the United States. Stalin defined a nation as “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture.” 

Chinese immigrants at that time almost all came from the southern province of Guangdong speaking similar dialects commonly referred to as Cantonese, from the old Western name for Guangzhou, the largest city and capital of Guangdong province. Over time, the American-born second generation began to speak American English, like many other immigrants to America.

While immigrants from Europe were able to move up from the worst jobs that were low-paying, demeaning, and/or dangerous, Chinese Americans, like Chicanos and Mexicanos as well African Americans, did not. Up until World War II, Chinese Americans worked as laborers in western mines, as farm workers and as domestic servants. Chinese American “houseboys” were common among well-to-do white families in the western U.S. Chinese Americans also did industrial work. Chinese workers made up the majority of factory workers in San Francisco as well as a majority of the laborers building the transcontinental railroad. By the 1880s Chinese Americans were spread across the western United States, often making up a majority of workers in many towns and cities as well as in rural areas.

But not all Chinese Americans were workers. A minority of them were businesspeople in ethnic niches, such as businesses serving the Chinese American community, laundries and restaurants. There were also a number of Chinese American professionals such as doctors who served Chinese Americans.

Chinese American culture was not simply a mix of Chinese and American cultures, but one of a new oppressed nationality in the United States. While some aspects of Chinese culture, such as language and clothing, faded rapidly with the second, American-born generation, other aspects, such as food, did not.

Chinese Americans were molded into an oppressed nationality in the United States, with a common language, economic life and culture. As an oppressed nationality in the United States, Chinese Americans fought many battles for equality and against national oppression. All-round equality means equal political rights, equal economic opportunity, equality of languages and cultures.

One of the earliest racist laws was the Foreign Miners Tax in California, aimed at Chinese and Latino miners who were a part of the Gold Rush. Many Chinese went on to work on the railroads, where they were paid much less than white workers for doing the same jobs. Chinese immigrant railroad workers walked off their jobs to protest being paid less than white workers for the same work. Later, restrictive covenants in real estate deeds banned Chinese from buying homes in most urban areas, starting in San Francisco. Even though these racist restrictions were challenged in court, they were upheld as legal. Then this racist practice spread throughout the country, mainly targeting African Americans to maintain legal segregation in housing. 

Both Chinese and Latinos were hit by a Foreign Miners Tax. Anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented African Americans from marrying whites, were also applied to Chinese Americans. Chinese American children were segregated into all-Chinese public school in areas with large numbers of Chinese people, such as San Francisco.

The Chinese American community waged a legal struggle for citizenship rights. Chinese immigrants were banned from naturalization, or becoming U.S. citizens, while immigrants from Europe were able to do so. Racists also tried to strip citizenship, which was guaranteed by as the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, from American-born Chinese. The community fought this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately winning the case in Wong Kim Ark v. United States in 1875. This decision carried over to Japanese and other Asians, and to Chicanos and other Latinos. Indeed, reactionaries and racists for years have called for overturning this case to try to strip citizenship from American-born Asians and Latinos.

But while Chinese immigrants and their children became an oppressed nationality, they did not have a common territory, unlike African Americans and Chicanos. So Chinese Americans did not become an oppressed nation. This meant that there was no struggle for self-determination - which includes the right to political secession from the United States - among Chinese Americans. How could a number of Chinatowns throughout the West be a separate nation? What Chinese Americans did demand was full equality, in terms of equal pay, desegregation of housing and schools, and immigration and citizenship rights.

Chinese Americans also had a long history of supporting revolutionary movements in China. In the early 1900's, Chinese Americans supported efforts to overthrow the Ching (Manchu) Empire. A few decades later, Chinese Americans supported the Chinese new-democratic revolution led by the Communist Party of China. The great leader of China’s national democratic revolution, Sun Yat-sen, was educated in the Kingdom of Hawai’i and spent years in the United States and was in the United States when the Ching dynasty finally fell in 1911.

Despite their heroic struggles, Chinese Americans were generally excluded from trade unions and the socialist party of that time. Even worse, many “mis-leaders” such as Denis Kearny in the late 1800s called for the exclusion of Chinese from immigrating to the United States. It was only the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World (the IWW, commonly referred to as Wobblies) who tried to unite workers of all nationalities, including Chinese Americans. But the ideology of the IWW did not see the importance of the struggle for democracy, up to and including full equality, in the larger society outside of the workplace. It was not until the formation of the Communist Party USA in 1919 that Marxism-Leninism begin to fuse with the Chinese American struggle.

Masao Suzuki is the chair of the Joint Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. This is the first of a series of articles on Asian Americans.