A new exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act recently opened at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, Washington. The exhibit showcases the history and impact of the bill, which radically altered immigration procedures and created a second wave of Asian American migration to the US. Between 1971 and 2002 about 7.3 million out of the nearly 18 million immigrants admitted were from countries in Asia, with the Philippines and China sending the largest number. Asian neighborhoods rapidly expanded and new communities were quickly established as a result. Today, such communities exist in almost every major metro area in the country.
Chinatowns can be found in cities across the US, and typically are epicenters of traditional Chinese cuisine and culture. San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the largest outside of Asia. In fact, more than 172,000 Chinese live in the city, and the state as a whole is home to more than 1.3 million Chinese Americans. New York City meanwhile, contains the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia and accounts for 83% of the state’s overall Chinese population. While the Chinatown in Manhattan is the most famous, Flushing, Queens is emerging as a new hub of Chinese culture as it has become home to over 30,000 people who were born in China. In total, there are nearly 600,000 Chinese Americans living in New York and the state has at least nine different Chinatowns. In addition to San Francisco and New York City, other major Chinese communities can be found in cities including Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Honolulu, and Boston.
In the 50 years since the 1965 Immigration Act, Korean American communities have also become more visible. Koreatown in Los Angeles is one of the most prominent examples. The community is home to over 61,000 Koreans, while the LA as a whole has the largest Korean population in the nation, making it the largest nationality in the city. Koreans also comprise the third largest Asian group in New York City with large communities in Queens and Manhattan. Large Korean communities have arisen in places like Philadelphia, Houston, and Fort Lee, New Jersey.
An estimated 1.3 million Japanese Americans live in the US but there are only three major Japantowns. All three are located in California in the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. In the past, a large number of Japantowns existed across the country and at one time California alone had 43 such communities, but due to urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s many of those enclaves were redeveloped and the Japanese American population became more dispersed. There are however, significant populations of Japanese Americans in states like Hawai‘i, Washington, and New York.
Other Asian communities and neighborhoods showcasing a mix of Asian cultures have been established in recent decades as well. Oklahoma City’s Asia District, also known as Little Saigon, boasts the largest concentration of Asian Americans in the state and is home to a large Vietnamese population in particular. Across the country, Little Manilas, Little Indias, and other communities of people from the Asia Pacific region have emerged, growing in number and size since the 1965 Act.
The first Asian communities established in the US were so-called Manila Villages set up in Louisiana in the 1750s by Filipino migrants. In the mid-1850s, as a result of the California Gold Rush and need for workers to build the Transcontinental Railroad, a large number of Chinese came to the US, leading to the founding of several Chinatowns including San Francisco’s. Japanese immigrants followed suit in the 1880s, establishing Little Tokyos in Hawai‘i, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Smaller Asian communities began around the early 1900s but were relatively small in comparison to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. The passing of the 1965 Immigration Act radically altered the demographics of the Asian American community as thousands more began to immigrate, resulting in new communities being established and existing ones being expanded.
Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.