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California Cultures

Asian Americans: New Communities: 1960s-Present

Questions to Consider

How did the end of the Vietnam War affect the California’s Asian American population?

How do some Asian Americans keep their traditions alive?


The 1965 Immigration Act ended various exclusionary immigration policies. It also set up a system of preference that favored skilled workers and the families of American citizens. This landmark piece of legislation facilitated massive new waves of Asian migration. New communities arose, such as Los Angeles’ Koreatown, and the Sikh community in Yuba City, whose temple is pictured here. As Asian migrants with more capital arrived, “suburban Chinatowns” such as Monterey Park grew.

The End of the Vietnam War

The end of the Vietnam War in 1973 brought waves of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Over 1.2 million people from Southeast Asia migrated to the United States, most arriving between 1975 and the late 1990s.

At first, most newcomers were those on the losing side, fleeing from the Communist regime; later refugees fled continuing political, religious, ethnic persecution. In the late 1970s, the United States accepted refugees known as “boat people,” mostly ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese desperately trying to flee Vietnam on the South China Sea.

An SOS collage speaks to the harsh conditions in Vietnamese refugee camps, as do the paintings The Strength of Youth and Dai Giang Nguyen’s Life in the Camps. The rights of the boat people were still an issue in the 1990s, as demonstrated by the 1992 Walk for Boat Peoples’ Rights.

The US government dispersed the refugees throughout the United States in small groups, hoping to mediate any hostility toward them from Americans who were worried about losing jobs to the newcomers, who were also a reminder of the contentious war years. The first major settlement was in Orange County, just north of Camp Pendleton, the port of entry for many refugees. Southeast Asians from around the country slowly migrated to Westminster and surrounding areas, which soon became known as Little Saigon.

Assimilation and Tradition

Over the ensuing decades, people from many cultures of Southeast Asia came to live in California, and began to assimilate into American culture. A Cambodian family posed for an anti-smoking poster; and a Lao farmer holds tomatoes in a field in Livermore.

They also kept their traditions alive. Many Southeast Asian groups are represented in these photographs: A casual Hmong family party is held in a living room; and a more traditional Hmong new year’s celebration is held elsewhere. Photographs also picture Liu Mien Yao people in traditional dress, including a baby wearing a Yao cap; three Lao girls in Lao dresses; and a family at Baci ceremony, a Lao tradition held to honor a variety of life events. Two young men participate in a Mien ceremony in Richmond, on the anniversary of a death; and Cambodian girls dance at a new year’s festival in San Francisco. A monk is pictured in a Lao Buddhist temple in Oakland; and a Mien altar hangs on a wall in Sacramento; and picketers protest political unrest in Laos.

The Korean American community was also struggling with issues of assimilation and ethnic identity in the 1970s. In 1977, investigative reporter K. W. Lee wrote a series of articles about the wrongful conviction of Chol Soo Lee, a young Korean immigrant, for murder. These articles sparked the first successful pan-Asian political movement in the United States and ultimately led to Chol Soo Lee’s release and full acquittal. In 1979, K. W. Lee founded the first English-language Korean American newspaper, Koreatown, which lasted until 1982.

In 1992, Asian Americans — Korean Americans in particular — came into the national spotlight during the Los Angeles uprisings. Following the acquittal of four officers who savagely beat black motorist Rodney King, Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Pico Union, and South Central went up in flames as rioters looted stores. The news media tended to focus on the conflict between Korean shopkeepers and their black patrons, neglecting to highlight the legacies of economic deprivation and police brutality against blacks in the inner city.

Asian Californians Today

Today, California is home to 40 percent of all Asian Americans. The 2000 census showed that the majority of Cambodian (84, 559), Laotian (65,058), Hmong (71,741), and Vietnamese (484,023) refugees to the United States settled in California. Politicians such as Tony Lam and Tan Nguyen make sure Southeast Asian American voices are being heard. Quietly Torn, a literary journal by young Lu Mien women living in Richmond California in 1999, demonstrates that these recent refugees are engaged with American culture.

Although Southeast Asians have been in California for a relatively short time, they have become well established. Entrepreneurs own businesses, such as the market and bakery pictured here, and many have entered the middle class.

Asian American groups whose history in the United States goes back many more years are also thriving. Currently, there are 980,642 Chinese Americans, 918,678 Filipino Americans, 345,881 Korean Americans, 314,819 Asian Indian Americans, and 288,854 Japanese Americans living in California.

Indeed Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing minority groups in California. Asian Americans are also one of the most diverse racial groups, comprising many different ethnicities, varying income and educational rates, and political ideologies. In recent years, Asian Americans have been a part of debates on bilingual education, affirmative action, gaining rights for Filipino American WWII veterans (who were denied various benefits after the war), and labor and immigrant rights.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 11:

11.9 Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (11.9.3)

11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (11.11.1)

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.

Photograph of Sohan Singh Rai and Family portrait, Yuba City, CA, 1953 Photograph of Sikh Temple, Yuba City (Calif.), 1977 Photograph of Hari Singh Everest, Yuba City (Calif.), 1977
Augustus F. Hawkins with members of the Pico-Union Neighborhood Council, 1972 People marching for recognition of human rights in Laos, Northern California, 1980's Three Lao girls in traditional clothing, Northern California, 1980s
PLu Mien bride and groom, Oakland, ca. 1980s Yao woman and baby with Yao cap, ca. 1980 Hmong New Year, Richmond, 1982
Baci ceremony, Northern California, 1982 Mien ceremony on the first anniversary of a death, Richmond, California, 1980s Girls dancing at a New Year's festival, San Francisco, California, 1982
Lao Buddhist monk in Oakland temple, ca. 1983 Lao farmer holding tomatoes, Livermore, California, 1986 Poster 'Our Family is Healthy Because Our Home is Free from Cigarette Smoke', 1988, Cambodian Americans, Long Beach, California
Group at a party, 1980s? Hmong Americans Altar at Mien ceremony, Sacramento, California, 1990 S.O.S. collage, refugee camp
The strength of youth, ca.1987-ca.1997 Life in the camp, Nguyen, Dai Giang, Artist, 1990 Hmong mother and sons holding parcel from relatives in Fresno, California, 1991, Ban Vinai (Thailand: Refugee camp)
Walk for boat people's rights, 1992 Tet festival, San Francisco, 1992 Chol Soo Lee to Kyung Won Lee
'Koreatown,' page 5 Elect Tony Lam, 1992, Westminster (Calif.) 'Challenge is part of life for Lahu immigrants' article, 1994
Percent of Cambodian Households by Income level; Income, Poverty, 1995 page 36, Quietly Torn: a literary journal by young Lu Mien American women living in Richmond, California, 1999 page 44, Quietly Torn: a literary journal by young Iu Mien American women living in Richmond, California, 1999
page 13, Quietly reborn, 2000 Bank of America, Little Saigon, 2002 Little Saigon Supermarket, Little Saigon, 2002
Van's Bakery was one of the first Vietnamese bakeries in Orange County, (Little Saigon), 2002 Vietnam War Memorial dedication, Westminster (Calif.), 2003 Dragon dance at the Tet parade, Little Saigon, Westminster, California, 2003
Tan Nguyen for U.S. Congress booth at Tet festival, Garden Grove, California, 2004 no photograph no photograph

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

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)