How US history reminds us the importance of immigration

January 30, 2019 15:05
One of the key moments when Asians “arrived” in US life was when Taiwan-born architect I.M. Pei won the commission to design the Kennedy Library in 1964. Photo: Facebook

A contact of mine has recently had a book published about the Asian – especially Chinese – immigrant experience in the United States. It is not only a history of Chinese migration to America, which is a fascinating story dating back to the 1850s, but an account of how the US itself has changed as a host country to newcomers.

It is also a reminder for all of us – especially in Hong Kong – of the importance of immigration in creating modern vibrant communities.

The early Chinese migration to America was during the California and West Coast gold booms and railroad construction in the middle to late 19th century. The new arrivals were mostly male laborers fleeing poverty in China (many other Chinese went to Canada, Australia and Southeast Asia at this time).

They were in a completely alien culture, worked for low wages, and suffered serious discrimination from white workers. In the racist climate of the time, Asian migrants were viewed as the “yellow peril” that might flood the country. In the 1880s, the US passed exclusion laws specifically barring unskilled Chinese from entering the country.

By the 1920s, as post-imperial China tried to modernize, more and more Chinese students started to come to the US. We think of this as a contemporary phenomenon, but the Chinese were among the most numerous foreign students in the US throughout the 1920s-40s.

In the post-war period, many of the Chinese coming to the US were refugees. Although the numbers were small, they were typically educated and helped to build up a reputation as industrious and law-abiding immigrants.

The big shift came in the 1960s when the US repealed older immigration rules imposing quotas on different nationalities, and started to target migrants based on skills. This opened the door to much larger inflows of Asians (and some Asian countries started to complain of a “brain drain” as talent left). Since then, much larger numbers of Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese and others have moved across the Pacific.

One of the key moments when Asians "arrived" in US life was when Taiwan-born architect I.M. Pei won the commission to design the Kennedy Library in 1964. Today, first- and second-generation Asian Americans have gained prominence in technology, business and other areas.

As a community, Chinese and other Asians are now often viewed as model immigrants – with strong family values and work ethic.

At the same time, they have started to attract suspicion and resentment. While Asian-Americans are just 6 percent of the US population, they now get over 20 percent of the places at Harvard University – and some Asian parents complain that their kids are discriminated against by pro-diversity racial quotas.

The stereotype can work against them both ways. While many have been successful, some struggled and did not do well. There are Asian Americans in serious poverty with problems like youth crime and poor schooling – but they are often overlooked.

There are important lessons and questions for all of us in this fascinating story.

Just about everyone of us in Hong Kong is descended from migrants. In my case, my ancestors go back to Chaozhou in the mainland, via Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds came to Hong Kong with virtually nothing over the years. They worked hard, and many saw their children go to school and get well-qualified jobs. Hong Kong – like the United States and many other societies – was to a great extent built by immigrants.

Today, there is widespread hostility towards immigration. In the US, President Trump has promised a wall all along the Mexican border. Here in Hong Kong, immigrants are blamed for the housing and other problems.

It takes some imagination to look into the future and ask how our city would look in 20 or 30 years’ time with or without new people coming in. Surely, we will be poorer in the long run without the energy and determination of newcomers.

The book is called “The Good Immigrants: how the Yellow Peril became the Model Minority” by Madeline Y Hsu.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress