I was born and raised in Utah. As a young boy, I remember being proud that my state was where the two competitors constructing the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, met up. It happened at Promontory (Point) Summit on May 10, 1869, and commemorated by the driving of a golden spike where the rails joined. Here is the iconic photo of the scene:
But sadly, something is missing from the photo. Authorities did not allow a single person of Chinese descent to be in the photograph, even though Chinese workers made up more than 80 percent of the Central Pacific workforce.
As a young boy, I had supported Union Pacific over Central Pacific. I suppose that was because our family watched Cecil B. Demille’s 1939 classic film, Union Pacific, whenever it came on TV. In my later years, I haven’t found a single movie (other than documentaries) that portrayed it from the Central Pacific viewpoint. But in season six of the AMC television series, Hell on Wheels, we finally get to see what life was like for those Chinese workers. In a perverse form of prejudice, few movies have told the story of Asian American discrimination compared to the plethora of films portraying it against African Americans.
According to the 1840 census, only four Chinese persons were living in the United States then. However, the 1849 California gold rush brought many Chinese workers to America, and by 1852, there were 20,000 of them. But the Chinese were not welcomed by American miners, who forcefully excluded them from the mines. So the Chinese turned to the Central Pacific Railroad for work. Between 1860 and 1870, nearly 30,000 Chinese immigrated to the U.S., bringing the total number to 63,000. Almost half of those worked for the railroad.
Stereotypes emerged for the Chinese that painted all Chinese women as prostitutes and all Chinese men as “Coolies,” a derogatory term similar to using the “N” word. And so, instead of encouraging Chinese immigration, politicians determined to keep them out. Such views led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which for the first time, excluded immigration solely based on a person’s ethnicity. The Act also prevented those Chinese already living in the United States from becoming U.S. citizens. And then, in 1917, Congress expanded the law to exclude all Asians.
With the advent of World War II, the focus of our Asian prejudice moved from the Chinese to the Japanese. Concerned about their loyalty, the country incarcerated over 110,000 Japanese Americans in camps throughout the United States, despite two-thirds of them being born here. Half of them were children and often separated from their parents. One of those camps was in Topaz, Utah, but unlike the transcontinental railroad, growing up, no one talked much about that. Being one-sixteenth Japanese was enough to get you sent to one of those camps.
The film, American Pastime,[i] explores the injustices experienced by Japanese Americans during WWII at the internment camp at Topaz, Utah. Here is a collage of scenes from that movie:
Perhaps the better film about Japanese Americans during WWII is Under the Red Blood Sun.[ii] Here is the trailer for this movie:
Although the federal government removed Japanese Americans from their homes to internment camps during WWII, more than 12,000 second-generation Asian Americans (known as Nisei) enlisted. Four thousand of those formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Fighting in Europe, this segregated Asian-American unit became the most decorated infantry unit in U.S. military history.
But still, stereotypes and prejudice remained. Americans stereotyped Asian men as subservient laborers (think Hop Sing in the TV series Bonanza), and an Asian woman’s only role was to make a man happy (think Geisha girl). And like African Americans, most affluent and middle-class residential areas banned Asians from owning property through restrictive covenants.
In high school, my English class required me to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, historical fiction about family life in a Chinese village in the early 20th century. Having read it 50 years ago, I cannot remember much about it. So, I decided to watch the 1937 movie. What impressed me most about the film? How few Asians there were in it. Despite being set in China, none of the leads were Chinese. And that was common for Hollywood. Mary Pickford, Peter Ustinov, Boris Karloff, Katharine Hepburn, Yul Bryner, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, David Carradine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Cruise, Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson are just some of the White actors who have played Asian roles, even as recent as 2017.
In recognition of the valiant service of Asian Americans during WWII, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and passed the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which allowed Asian Americans to become U.S. citizens. But immigration of Asians prioritized doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Education became the American dream for these immigrants. And because of their success in America, Asian Americans became known as the “model minority.”
In the summer of 2000, I needed to relocate for a new job, meaning our daughter would start her junior high school year at a new school. It is never easy to move, and especially if you are a teenager. Since my daughter played competitive basketball and softball, we looked for a school that would welcome her to their teams. We met with one high school softball coach who asked us an interesting question: How important was it that my daughter graduate in the top ten percent of her class? If she did, any Texas state university or college would automatically accept her. My daughter was an excellent student, so I told the coach I was not worried about that, but why did she ask? The coach said it would be next to impossible for our daughter to graduate in the top ten percent if she participated in extracurricular activities such as sports. What? The coach explained the school had so many Asian Americans who put so much time and effort into studying that my daughter would not have enough hours in the day to compete with them scholastically and play sports, too.
Despite being the “model minority,” though, Asian Americans continue to face discrimination. Recently, a young man in Atlanta shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. As of yet, law enforcement has failed to classify the killings as hate crimes, even though the shooter’s logic followed the typical Asian woman stereotype of being a sex object. The massacre came on the heels of intense anti-Asian racism in America. Since the start of the pandemic last spring, there have been at least 3,795 reports of anti-Asian discrimination. President Trump did not help any by referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus and the Kung flu.
Because of the myth of Asian Americans being the “model minority,” we think they don’t experience discrimination. But Asian Americans are the most economically divided of any ethnic group of Americans. Some of that inequality must be due to bias—enough for President Biden to sign an executive order denouncing anti-Asian discrimination.
So, what can we do about it?
About 40 years ago, the Mormon Church asked my wife’s parents to serve a mission without leaving their home in Salt Lake City. Their assigned task was to help the Hmong refugees from Cambodia. By spending many hours with them, getting to know them personally, and understanding their culture, my in-laws grew to love these people. Their experience with the Hmongs reminded me of this scene from the film, Gran Torino,[iii] where Walt (played by Clint Eastwood) decides to get to know his next-door neighbors a little better:
If someone like Walt can learn to love Hmongs, and especially a Hmong teenager enough to leave him his most prized possession—his 1972 Gran Torino—there is hope for all of us.
Thinking back over my life, I realize I have known very few Asian Americans. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there was only one Japanese American family. Sadly, I looked down on them more because of their religion (one different than mine) than their ethnicity. And there was only two Asian Americans in my high school graduating class of over 500. But I grew to love Pacific Islanders when serving a church mission in Australia, and I have worked with several Asian Americans since then. One, in particular, was my best friend at work for several years until we both left for jobs elsewhere. I still regret that I have not kept in touch with him.
And although my experiences with Asian Americans are limited, my history with them teaches me that I have more in common with them than I have differences, for we all are part of humankind.
Let’s end racism now.
[i] American Pastime:
- Production Companies: American Pastime, Rosy Bushes Productions, ShadowCatcher Entertainment
- Director: Desmond Nakano
- Screenwriter: Desmond Nakano and Tony Kayden
- Starring: Aaron Yoo, Olesya Rulin, and Carleton Bluford
- Release date: May 14, 2007
[ii] Under the Red-Blood Sun:
- Production Companies: Red Sun Productions and Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
- Director: Tim Savage
- Screenwriter: Graham Salisbury
- Starring: Kyler Ki Sakamoto, Kalama Epstein, and Dann Seki
- Release date: September 14, 2014
[iii] Gran Tornino:
- Production Companies: Matten Productions, Double Nickel Entertainment, and Gerber Pictures
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Screenwriter: Nick Schenk (based on the story by Dave Johannson)
- Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, and Christopher Carley
- Release date: January 9, 2009