Historical Snapshots: Asian America Asian American Resource Center

Who are Asian Americans?

Do you like listening to pop music? Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? Bruno Mars is one of the most successful singer-songwriters today. Jerry Young co-founded the internet company, Yahoo. They are both Asian Americans. Today, Asian Americans are recognized in a variety of fields; arts and entertainment, politics, medical, academic, business, and many more. About 21 million Asian Americans have their roots in more than 20 countries in Asia.

Just like there are all kinds of Asian Americans, there is an even wider variety of stories. No two stories are alike but each equally important. As we learn more about our history, more stories appear.

This 3-lesson program is a snapshot of stories from groups in the three major waves of immigration in Asian American history. Meet different Asian and Asian American groups throughout history and learn their immigration story.

Part 1 is about the first wave of immigrants in the 1800s.

Part 1

The First Wave (1850s-1930s)

Recommended Ages: Middle School. Duration of Session: 1 hour max.

Early Immigration

People of Asian-origin have always been present in North America, even before some states became states! One of the earliest documented settlements by Asians in North America was Saint Malo in Louisiana, then a colony of Spain (1). Although Asian and Asian American groups have settled in North American long before the the 19th Century, modern day historians have identified three major waves of Asian and Pacific Islander immigration in North American history.

The first known major wave of immigration from Asia was documented in the mid 1800s. Similar to immigrant communities today, many came to the United States for work and for new opportunities. Like the their European counterparts, who were processed was on Ellis Island, immigrants from Asia came through Angel Island, the West Coast's port of entry.

(1) “Los Chinos in New Spain and Asians in Early America.” The Making of Asian America: a History, by Erika Lee, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, pp. 33–33.

Photo: Department of the Treasury, Public Health Service, “Photograph of Immigrants Arriving at the Immigration Station on Angel Island,” Digital Public Library of America.


200 hundred years ago, traveling the U.S. continent coast to coast took months. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill to approve the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Central Pacific company built the railroad from Sacramento, California to the east, and the Union Pacific company built from Omaha, Nebraska to the west. Up to 20,000 Chinese Americans worked to build the western section of the railroad. They were called coolies.

Video Storytime: Learn about Chinese Americans who worked for the Transcontinental Railroad Project.

Video Source: "Coolies, Yin(Author) - Version 2 (with words)" by Stories That Build Character And More... Feb 22, 2018

Transcontinental Railroad Route (image by Cave Cattum, distributed under a CC-BY 3.0 license.)


Over 100,000 Filipino workers (Sakadas) immigrated to Hawaii between 1906-1946 to work for sugar and pineapple plantations. Their life was very hard. They had to work for long hours with little break. They were paid less than other ethnic groups. Watch this short program about the story of Sakadas.

Video Source: "How Filipino ‘sakadas’ realized the American Dream in Hawaii" by Balitang America TFC. November 4, 2019

Do you think you can work like a Sakada? What would be the most difficult thing for you if you were a Sakada?

Photo: Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library. From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Early U.S. Immigration Laws

As the United States grew, so did the need for workers. Yet, as more immigrants answered this call for work, the government enacted laws to prevent immigrants of Asian origin from gaining rights and citizenship. At the time, immigrants were referred to in the laws as "aliens," meaning they were from another place. Below are some of the major immigration laws that impacted various groups and their communities.

  • 1875 Page Act: The first law to ban immigrants.
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act: The Chinese Must Go!
  • 1913 Californian Alien Land Act: No aliens can own land.
  • 1923 U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind: No citizenship for Asian Indians.
  • 1924  Immigration Act: No more Immigration from Asia!
  • 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act: Filipinos are "aliens," not nationals.

Photo: Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library. From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Japanese Picture Brides

Can you imagine finding a wife or husband through a photo? That’s exactly what many Japanese American men did in the early 20th century. Immigration laws at the time only allowed laborers and their family to immigrate to the U.S. Many men came to the U.S. not married but wanted to start a family. Many state laws at the time prevented them from marrying American women.

To create a family in their new country, Japanese American men in California and Hawaii sent a photo of themselves to a matchmaker in Japan. In return, they received photos of the ladies who were willing to move to the U.S. to marry them. Over ten thousand Japanese women relocated to the West Coast from 1908 to 1920 to marry with a Japanese-American man whom they never met.

Photo: Japanese Picture Brides at Angel Island in 1919 (Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Craft Activity

Immigration suitcase: What would you pack inside?

Many Asian American immigrants had to leave their home country with few items. What would you pack in your suitcase if you need to emigrate to another country?

Craft Supplies & Tools

  • White paper
  • Crayons or markers
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  1. Print out a suitcase pattern or draw a suitcase on white paper.
  2. Think about what you want to take to your new country. Your most favorite toy? A photo of your friends? The snack that you like?
  3. Draw the items that you want to take with you inside the suitcase. If you have easy access to a printer, you may want to search for the images of the items that you want to take with you. Print and cut the images and paste them inside the suitcase to make a collage project.
  4. Share your artwork with your family. Tell them how you selected the items that you placed inside your imaginary suitcase. Talk about how you would feel if you must leave for a new country with just one suitcase.

Part 2: The Second Wave Coming Soon!

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