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The Chinese Ethnic Group Essay, Research Paper

Andrew Brennan

The Chinese Ethnic Group


The ethnic group that I have selected to discuss in this term paper is that of the Chinese. In this paper I will present information on the Asian American identity, Chinese immigration and geographical concentration as well as population growth and other aspect all in the hope to explain the Chinese diverse and growing presence here in the United States.

Asian American Identity

The Asian American population is booming. Between 1980 and 1990 their numbers doubled and will most likely double again by 2010(Lee, 1998). In 1997 there was an estimated 9.3 million Asians in America accounting for 4% of the total U.S. population but their influence in American society is boosted by the fact that the majority of them live in only 4 states (Lee, 1998). Their population growth and ethnic diversifications are changing the meaning of Asian American . To most Americans, Asian mean Chinese or Japanese but in fact the term encompasses far more people such as Koreans, Filipinos, Asian Indians and Vietnamese and each of these groups is distinguished from the others by its language, religion, food, dress, customs and history.

The Asian American Minority status is an important aspect of their evolving identity. Asian Americans are a racial minority in the United States because of their physical characteristics as well as ethnic origins however; their high average educational attainment, occupational status and household incomes put them ahead of the other minorities here in the U.S. but also appear to negate the idea that they are still a disadvantaged minority. The history of Asians here in the U.S. is similar to that of other minorities in that it is marked with prejudice and discriminations (Lee, 1998) and to illustrate this we will now look at their immigration and their slow acceptance into the United States has brought this about

Immigration and Settlement Before 1965

The earliest Chinese immigrants were mostly men who worked as miners, railroad workers, farmers and laborers between the 1850s and 1920s (Allen and Turner, 1988). The first wave of Chinese immigrants was attracted by the California gold rush in the 1850s. A second wave arrives to help build the transcontinental railroad. At this time the Chinese were largely a foreign born group in the mining counties for three decades they ultimately moved into other occupations and other areas (Allen, 1988).

Many Chinese went to San Francisco. There, labor gangs were organized for construction projects throughout the West and for strikebreaking anywhere in the country. The Chinese were in great demand because they worked well but accepted wages that were generally less than half what white people expected (Allen, 1988, pg 178). In Chinatowns the men set up their own places of business such as cigar and grocery shops and would hire fellow Chinese to work in them to help the Chinese community.

The mining construction and agriculture jobs distributed Chinese men widely across the western states. Railroad owners like the prospect of Chinese laborers in that they could undercut the labor demands of white workers but at the same time they were worried that the Chinese were too small to handle railroad construction (Allen, 1998). A study was then released showing that the Chinese men were peaceful, hard working and ready to learn (Allen, 1988). Soon enough the Chinese men were helping to build the railroads and digging water trenches in Nevada and other western states. News of other gold strikes in other western states also attracted many Chinese to those parts, who typically took up abandoned placer claim or worked in various laboring mill jobs connected to mining (Allen, 1988, pg 178).

In 1880 the Chinese, who had been appreciated at first when the west needed labor so badly, came to be seen as threats to the wages of white workers. Bullying and violence, as well as discriminatory laws and regulations, took their toll on those already here (Lee, 1998). In 1882 Congress halted the immigration of Chinese laborers with highly restrictive legislation remained in effect until 1943. By the turn of the century competition from Chinese had been eliminated in most jobs desired by whites. For example, in the 1890s Chinese farm workers in several parts of California were driven from fields and orchards by mobs (Allen, 1988, pg 178).

Most Chinese in small towns through out the West packed up and moved, either back to China or to a large city such as San Francisco. The Chinese exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law to exclude a specific race from moving to the United States. This Law also prevented Chinese residents from becoming U.S. citizens. Because of this law and the lack of wives along with people going back to China meant the United States for the first time had a decreasing ethnic group population. From a numerical high of 107,000 in 1890 the Chinese numbers fell to 62,000 between 1920 and 1940 (Lee, 1998).

However, a few Chinese remained near the scattered work sites becoming market gardeners or opened laundries, stores or cafes. In Louisiana and Texas Chinese laborers were brought to work on cotton plantations. A few hundred Chinese who had built railroads in East Texas became sharecroppers and field hands on Brazos Valley cotton farms (Allen, 1988). In 1911 a labor force of 35,000 Chinese had been assembled in Mexico since they could work there but it wasn t long before harsh labor conditions and anti-Chinese sentiment drove many north of the border over the next two decades (Allen, 1988, pg 179).

Although many Chinese when conditions got harsh stayed on the west coast many found that there was less prejudice and discrimination in the Midwestern and eastern cities. Because of this the Chinese population in most western areas began to decline substantially between 1880 and 1940, but in the east it was going quickly. When they arrived at the desired city the Chinese had to settle in slum areas because of the low rent and became traders, laundrymen and restaurant owners.

Immigration and Settlement After 1965

Immigration from China changed completely after 1965 because of two reasons: the passage of the new Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 and the end of the Vietnam War (Allen, 1988, pg 180). The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments helped open the door for immigrants from China to United States. During the 1950 immigration from China and surrounding areas was about 15,000 people per year but in the 1960s the numbers jumped to 45,000 then to 160,000 in the 1970s and then a jump again to 274,000 in the 1980s (Allen, 1988). A large part of this new wave was in part from the ability for Chinese to sponsor family members still in China and bring them to the United States under the family reunification provisions of 1965 laws. 266,000 immigrants were admitted to the United States between October 1995 and September 1996 from the Asian area and of those 266,000, 65% were admitted under the family reunification provisions (Allen, 1998). Another factor contributing to the new influx of immigrants were highly skilled professionals who came to the United States in search of jobs.

Geographic Concentration And Population Growth

The majority of Chinese and Asians in general live in the western United States, reflecting the destinations of the earliest Asian immigrates and the proximity of the western states to Asia. The Asian population is slowly spreading out in the U.S. In 1890 100% of all Asians lived on the west coast; by 1940 just less than 90% were still on the west coast (Lee, 1998).

Asians make up less than 2% of the population in most states, which reflects the relatively small size as well as the geographic concentration of the Asian American population. In 1990 Asians made up 2% or more of the population in just 12 states (Lee, 1998). Among the 12 states with at least 100,000 Asians, the percent Asian ranged from 48% of Hawaii s population and 9% of California s to about 1% of the population in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In 1996 Asians made up at least 2% of the populations in 29 States and at least 4% in another 7 states (Lee, 1998).

The Chinese population here in 1980 was almost ten times its 1930 size, and 63% of the Chinese in America in 1980 had been born abroad (Allen, 1988). The immigrants have settled almost exclusively in metropolitan areas, especially the larger ones. This pattern, in combination with that of descendants of older immigrants resulted in a 1980 distribution that was 97% urban and 96% metropolitan.

In 1980 the three largest metropolitan concentrations of Chinese accounted for over half the Chinese in American. The San Francisco Bay area, including as far south as San Jose, had more Chinese than any other, but the numbers in New York City and adjacent counties were almost as high. Los Angeles and Orange counties comprised the third largest center.

The Asian American population is a highly urban group. In 1996, 94% of the Asian population lived in metropolitan areas compared with 80% of their total population. 45% lived in central city areas, far less then any other ethnic groups for example 55% of blacks and 22% of Hispanics. Asians also tend to live in less segregated neighborhoods than other minority groups.

Within metropolitan areas there has been increasing residential dispersal because few of the professionals have settled in Chinatowns. Although New York City s Chinatown has expanded into surrounding areas, less then half the Chinese in 1980 lived in Manhattan. An area of especially rapid growth due to immigration had been the Houston area in Texas, home to half the Chinese in the State. In Los Angeles the traditional Chinatown has grown too, but more dramatic changes have taken place in the older suburban cities just to the east.

San Francisco, the reception center for many 19th century immigrants, has become the major focus of Chinese life in America. San Francisco has been the refuge and home of many retired Chinese laborers who chose to remain in America despite discrimination and poverty, and San Francisco s Chinatown had been the symbolic geographical center of the Chinese American experience (Allen, 1988). Despite the glittering, festive image displayed to the tourists, what many people don t see it the dark side of these Chinatowns. Many of the residents have remained poor, uneducated and illiterate. They are often suffering from high rates of crime, unemployment, illness and drug abuse.

Age and Sex Composition

Combined with immigration, the differences in childbearing patterns have given the Chinese Americans an age structure that is very different from the rest of the United States population. Most recent Chinese immigrates have come to the United States when they were very young, 70% of all Chinese came here post-1970, so this makes the total Chinese population very young compared to the rest of the U.S. population. In fact only 7% of all Asians where over the age of 65 compared to 13% for the rest of the population. With the young age of the Asian American population, in the coming years they will soon start their own families and create a solid base for the third generation of Asians here in a American.

The easing of the immigration laws of the 1960s has also added to the number of Chinese here in America. When Chinese immigration first started it was predominately male so much in fact that for every 1400 Chinese men there was only 100 females. The immigration after the 1960s is now aiding in evening out the unbalance between men and women.

The final topic to look at in this section is the fertility rate among the Chinese ethnic group. Fertility is a very useful statistic in helping to see what the future of an ethnic group will be. Chinese and Asians in general tend to wait longer before having their first child compared to any other minority. Due to this they have an average fertility rate of 1.9 and to be specific the Chinese have a fertility rate of only 1.4 lower then any other minority. These rates are well below the number of 2.1 needed to replace the population. So to say it simply, without new immigration the population of the Chinese here in America would actually decline over time.

The Future of Chinese Americans

The Chinese population is become a more and more integral part of the changing U.S. society. The Chinese population is also changing as it absorbs new immigrants and a growing native-born population. It s future will be shaped by three factors: the social status and position of Chinese Americans; the meaning of Chinese American in an increasingly diverse population; and the demographic impact of Chinese Americans on the U.S. population and society (Lee, 1998).

By looking at conventional indicators to see how well a minority group is doing as compared to the majority group the Chinese have fared well and are considered part of the American middle class. Yet a significant part of the Chinese population is economically disadvantaged. High levels of poverty and use of public assistance, and low educational attainment and labor force participation characterize many Chinese. The well being of the Chinese Americans is tied to their status as a racial minority. Their minority status affects the opportunities open to them. Being labeled a racial minority affects all Asians, but it is particularly important for the disadvantage Asian ethnic groups.

Chinese Americans are likely to remain a minority in numbers, but some analysts believe they will transcend the constraints of minority status and become and ethnic groups, as did Italians, Irish and other immigrant groups that were subject to intense discrimination when they first arrived here in the United States.


Despite their remarkable pace of growth, Chinese and Asian Americans in general will remain a small proportion of the U.S. population. Their influence on American institutions and culture will expand, largely because of their high average educational levels and increasing interaction with non-Asians. The Asian American geographical sphere of influence is also widening. They will be less concentrated in western states and a few large cities. U.S. born Asian Americans in particular are likely to settle in new communities in response to economic factors that are unrelated to the immigrant histories of their parents and grandparents.

The effects of Chinese on the U.S. society will be varied and they may be tempered or accentuated by the complex demographic, political, and social changes that are occurring in the United States today (Lee, 1998, p36). Just as previous immigrant groups have been altered by life in the U.S. so to has U.S. society been altered by immigrants. The transformation, whether it is for better or for worse, from Chinese to Chinese Americans is well underway


1. Allen, J. P., Turner, E. J. (1988). We the People. An Atlas of America s Ethnic Diversity. New York, NY: MacMillian.

2. Lee, S. M. (1998). Asian Americans: Diverse and Growing. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.


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