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 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.
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.
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.