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Asian Americans: Early 20th Century

Questions to Consider

What varieties of employment were generally available to the various Asian American groups that lived in California in the first decades of the 20th century?

What do the photographs say about daily life for the different Asian American groups?

How did California’s Asian American population change from the Gold Rush Era to the 1930s?


With immigration from China cut off, those Chinese already in California became increasingly marginalized. They struggled to maintain dignity and financial stability in the face of racist boycotts, discriminatory hiring practices, and threats of mob violence.

Chinese American Life

In 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed birth and immigration records, allowing many Chinese to claim American birth and thus citizenship. Because the Chinese Exclusion Act allowed the children of citizens to migrate, many Chinese men migrated as "paper sons." Not actually related, they claimed kinship on paper only.

As a result of those practices, in 1910, the Angel Island detention facility in San Francisco Bay began to detain and interrogate Chinese immigrants. Over the next 30 years, approximately 175,000 were incarcerated and held, some for up to two years. A photograph shows the examination in the main building of this facility. The detention center was finally abandoned in 1940.

Throughout the early 20th century, Chinese Americans continued to put down roots in their communities. Photographs from the time show businesses thriving: the shelves of San Francisco's Sam Hop Company are filled and stacked to the ceiling; a merchant has an abacus to do his accounts; and restaurateur Tom Mah — the inventor of chop suey — poses In Los Angeles' Chinatown. They also show family life: a man proudly holds a baby (perhaps his grandchild), and children ride bicycles.

Japanese American Life

California’s Japanese American population also faced prejudice, which culminated in an unofficial US-Japanese agreement in 1907-08 to slow or stop the flow of immigrants from Japan. The exception was wives and children of the men who had already migrated.

Since most issei (Japanese Americans born in Japan) were single men when they immigrated, it was not uncommon for them to find wives through correspondence and the exchange of photographs. Many issei women came to the United States as “picture brides.” In 1924, the United States passed a law barring further immigration of Japanese women, evidently to discourage the establishment of families and communities of Japanese Americans. Henry Sugmimoto’s 1965 painting Stop Picture Bride refers to this time. The 1924 emigration papers for one young woman, identified here as Frank Hirahara's mother, suggest she may have been among the last picture brides.

Despite laws preventing land ownership, the Japanese American population established homes, churches, and businesses. Mr. and Mrs. Tagawa, their daughter and a man are shown at work in the Hanford laundry business they started in 1910. A portrait of Kumakichi Takeoka is inset over the photograph of his farm in Florin.

In addition to labor jobs with the railroads, in the fields, and in domestic jobs, they established their own enterprises in fishing and agriculture, particularly in Central California. A plaque commemorates the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the first agricultural settlement of pioneer Japanese immigrants. One photograph shows Japanese American farm women wearing bonnets and long dresses in 1915; another shows Japanese workers among a very diverse group of farmworkers. A playful photo shows a man identified as Mr. Kawada riding a bicycle in a field in Elk Grove.

By 1910, there were 41,356 Japanese residents and Japanese Americans in California ("Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California" published by the National Parks Service). A home in Coronado, in an 1895 photograph, shows a distinct Japanese influence. Photographs — like those of Mary Hirahara’s mother, the Taketa family, Walter Tsukamoto and his family, and Florin’s baseball team — show Japanese Americans firmly entrenched in American middle-class society.

Initially, most of the population had been in San Francisco and Northern California because San Francisco was the major point of entry to the United States. However, several factors — including the 1906 earthquake and fire, laws preventing land ownership, and the fall of agricultural prices after WWI—caused many Japanese Americans to migrate to cities, particularly Los Angeles, which is still home to a vibrant Little Tokyo.

Immigration from India

In the early part of the 20th century, small numbers of Punjabi migrants from India came to Central California as farmers. One photograph shows “Hindu” laborers in a field on San Joaquin Island; another shows their housing conditions.

After 1917, pressured by labor interest groups, Congress barred immigration from India. Due to a gender imbalance in the Indian community, a good number of the Punjabi farmers in California’s Imperial Valley married local Mexican women. A photograph from 1910 shows a turbaned man identified as Indian or South Asian sitting with another man on a wooden sidewalk in San Francisco. In 1921, San Francisco’s "Hindoo" (Hindu) Temple was the only one in the United States. The photograph of Mary Singh Rai and her mother, Ernestine Singh, was taken in the 1930s.

Korean Immigration

Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, a handful of Korean laborers, students, and expatriate intellectuals migrated to California. For over 20 years, a Presbyterian mission in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood was a focal point for the community. Because Japan began a colonial occupation of Korea in 1910 and afterward, exclusionary immigration and land ownership laws that targeted Japanese also affected the lives of Koreans in the United States.

Filipino Immigration

At first, Filipinos freely migrated to the United States because the American conquest of the Philippines in 1902 granted them “US national” status. The 1920s saw a huge influx of Filipinos into California, mainly in response to the need for agricultural workers following the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese. Photographs show some of these men at work, and in their workers’ camps.

By 1930, more than half of the Filipinos in the United States lived in California. Many of them were brought in as strike-breakers, which led to racial tensions, especially with Mexican and whites, who perceived them as taking away work. Threatening letters like the one shown here warned of violence to come.

In 1929, tensions erupted into violence in Exeter, California, when a mob attacked a Filipino camp. More riots and violence followed in San Jose, San Francisco, and Watsonville, where conflict arose not only from labor competition, but also because local European Americans were opposed to Filipinos dating white women.

The vast majority of Filipinos were male seasonal or migratory laborers. Well-dressed men (but no women) pose in front of the Manila Pool Hall; and the group photograph of the Lapog Sons of San Jose shows only a few women among all the men. The lack of Filipino women, and the families that would result, meant there was never a “Little Manila” or “Filipinotown” as strong as the Chinatowns or Little Tokyos in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nevertheless, Filipino migrants often founded fraternal and other community organizations like the Lapog Sons to provide spaces for social interaction, sometimes a rotating loan system, and a network for news about available jobs).

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.4)

Grade 8

8.12 Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Chinese Boy, from Oroville Chinese Temple collection Chinese Family, ca. 1905, Anaheim Alice
U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Examination room -- main building July 4th, 1901. Marysville, Cal. [parade float, labled 'Chinese Temple'] Man with abacus
'Sam Hop Co., 815 Clay St, S.F., Feb. 5 1908' [man holding baby], post 1910 [Unidentified children on bicycle.]
[Street scene, Chinatown.] Tom Mah, 1925, Los Angeles Chinatown, inventor of Chop Suey Chinese dragon in parade, San Francisco
Inside Kings Laundry in Hanford, 1915 Florin Tokay grape packing shed and workers in Florin, 1915/20 Japanese American farm women, 1915
Kumakichi Takeoka farm, Florin, California Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony historical landmark plaque. Stop Picture Bride, Henry Sugimoto (artist)
Mr. Kawada on bicycle in Elk Grove, 1895/1905 View of a Japanese garden in Coronado, ca. 1900 Frank Hirahara's Mother, Japanese Emigration Papers, 1924
Mary Hirahara's Mother, Portland, Oregon, ca. 1920s Taketa family, 1930 Walter Tsukamoto and family at home, 1939
Seven Florin Japanese American baseball players, 1935/40 Hindu temple in San Francisco, 1921 Hindu laborers. San Joaquin Valley Island. 1909
Makeshift shelter for Indian farm laborer, California. ca. 1906-1911 Men sitting on wooden sidewalk, one Indian or South Asian man in turban. San Francisco, 1910. Mary Singh Rai and her mother Ernestine Singh in ca. 1930's; photograph was taken in Arizona before they moved to Yuba City (Calif.)
Copies of letters threatening Filipinos Snapshots of workers' camp Snapshots of agricultural laborers
Snapshots of unidentified individuals and groups Group photo of the Lapog Sons of San Jose [ca. 1930] Snapshots of Filipinos in front of buildings: In front of Manila Pool Hall

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Calisphere: Related Materials

Themed Collections

Growing Ethnic Diversity

Historical Essay

1921-Present: Modern California

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)