European imperial trade incursions into Asian markets disrupted ways of life in southern coastal China as well as Korea, Japan, India, and the Philippines, pushing migrants to consider crossing the Pacific for better opportunities in the U.S. Some emigrated to Hawai’i to work on American-owned plantations; others traveled farther to California. Chinese contract workers — sometimes referred to derisively as “coolies” — soon became a preferred source of cheap labor for mines, railroads, and plantations throughout the U.S.
The wave of Chinese immigration sparked a violent, nativist backlash. Calling Chinese immigrants “undesirable aliens,” a campaign to bar their entry to the U.S resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal immigration restriction explicitly based on race and/or national origins. By 1924 any immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” were prohibited entry.
Virulent racism made life for Asian immigrants particularly difficult, denying them access to most housing and job opportunities. Nonetheless, Asian immigrants worked together to preserve their cultures and traditional foods, which ultimately became integral parts of the American diet.
Galleries & Exhibits
- 11865-1925: Hunger in the Industrial City
- 21929-1940: America in Crisis and Recovery
- 31945-1965: WWII and the Paradoxes of the Postwar Era
- 41955-1980: The Fight for the Right to Food
- 51975-1996: The Unmaking of the Great Society
- 61997-Present: How It Is — And How It Should Be