World War II brought momentous change to America's Chinese community. For decades, Chinese were vilified in America, especially in California, the center of the U.S.'s anti-Chinese feelings. The Chinese had initially come to California for the Gold Rush and later the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, but public sentiment quickly turned against them. Competition for jobs and a depression in the 1870s all led to a racist backlash against Chinese. Eventually Chinese immigration was ended with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese in America found themselves a hated minority segregated in Chinatowns. The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 changed all of that.
After Pearl Harbor perceptions of China and Chinese Americans were suddenly transformed. China went from being known as the "sick man of Asia" to a vital ally in the United States' war against the Japanese. Likewise, Chinese went from the "heathen Chinee" to friends. In 1943 a congressman said if not for December 7, America might have never known how good Chinese Americans were.
Chinese were drawn to the war effort like other Americans. They contributed money to the Red Cross and ran bond drives to fund the war. In San Francisco Chinese raised $18,000 for the Red Cross and bought $30,000 in war bonds in 1942 alone. Chinese also collected tin and other scrap metal to donate to the government.
The war also had a great impact on the economic status of Chinese Americans. Before, Chinese were severely limited in their job opportunities. Most Chinese were relegated to their local ethnic economies found in Chinatowns working as waiters, cooks, laundry, and garment workers. When the war started, eventually better work was made available. America's huge defense industry was hungry for workers of any race, ethnicity, and gender as the war progressed. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, 15 percent of all shipyard workers were Chinese in 1943.
Even the country's strong distaste for Chinese immigrants was changed. In 1943 Congress began considering repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act. President Roosevelt even joined the cause. The resulting change in opinion led to the Exclusion Act being repealed by late 1943. The new immigration act that replaced it was more symbolic than anything else as only 105 Chinese were allowed to enter the United States a year. More importantly, however, Chinese already in America were now allowed to become naturalized citizens if they met the requirements, something previously denied them by racist laws.
Finally, Chinese made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II by serving in the American military. Many Chinese were drafted because the law said that men with no dependents were the first to be drafted and the Exclusion Act had created a bachelor society of single Chinese men in America. Many others volunteered for service. In total, 13,499 Chinese fought in the war for the United States, 22 percent of all Chinese men in America. Seventy percent were in the U.S. Army serving in the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions in Europe and the 6th, 32nd, and 77th Infantry Divisions in the Pacific. Twenty-five percent also served in the U.S. Army Air Force like Oakland's Sgt. Thomas Fong pictured receiving his Air Medal for outstanding service in the bomber corps over Europe.
- Students analyze America's participation in World War II. (11.7.5)