The first Asians to arrive in the Americas are believed to be Filipino sailors who landed in North America as far back as the late 1500’s, and who famously established a small settlement in Louisiana in the 1700’s. However, one of the largest influx of Asian migrants to America in the 19th century was comprised of Chinese labourers, merchants and students who starting in the 1820’s with the establishment of trade between the US and Asia embarked on the dangerous journey from China to the western shores of the Americas.
Chinese labourers — predominantly men — traveled to the United States throughout the 19th century, in addition to labourers from Japan, Korea and the Phillipinnes; all were enticed to make the dangerous ocean journey by promises of jobs or education in what the Chinese dubbed the Gold Mountain. In truth, these Asian labourers, or “coolies” as they were pejoratively called, were brought in under exploitative contracts as indentured labourers and found themselves working for bare subsistence wages as part of the manual workforce that sustained the economies of Hawaii and the Southwest. As a cheap source of labour, they worked in sugar plantations and in other agricultural positions, and were essential in completion of the western lines of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Despite early excitement that greeted Asian American immigrants, for most of the 19th century, Asian American labourers found themselves despised as invaders that threatened to erode American culture and economic opportunities, and thus targeted by laws designed to minimize their integration into American society. Starting in 1862, California imposed a monthly head tax on every Chinese in the state, and other laws excluded Chinese residents from living in most residential areas, resulting in the formation of Chinatown ethnic enclaves. Chinese immigrants, as well as other Asian immigrants, were also routinely victimized by vigilante mobs; they were run out of their homes, robbed, and even murdered.
By May 6, 1882, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration law that codified Yellow Peril fears by functionally banning all further immigration from China. This law stood for nearly 60 years.