The Immigrant story of Chinese Americans

Setting Down Roots in the United States

The immigration story of Chinese Americans

  1. Anti-Chinese Movement

    In the 1870s, the depressed economy deepened Americans’ resentment of Chinese people, especially for those states where the Chinese were clustered, like California. Their resentments first appeared by distorting Chinese characters in poems, cartoons, movies and newspapers, but later anti-Chinese movement rose to violence, setting fires and shooting Chinese people in Chinatowns. The growing hostility led to a mass exodus of Chinese from California; some of them returned to China while others who could not afford passage moved to states like Illinois and Ohio.

  2. The Chinese Exclusion Act

    In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, which restricted Chinese immigration. It also prohibited them from reentering if they left the United States. In order to prevent Chinese people from establishing roots in the U.S., Chinese were not allowed to bring their families to America, which created a male bachelor society.

  3. World War II

    The turning point of Americans’ attitude toward the Chinese happened when China became an ally of the United States during World War II. About 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese Americans joined the US Army, fighting for their ancestral homeland, their honor and their loyalty to the United States.

  4. The War Brides Act

    In 1945, the US published the War Brides Act, which allowed ethnic Chinese veterans to marry in China and bring their wives to America. The new arrivals and new births during 1940s increased the population of Chinese Americans sharply, which jumped from 77,000 to 117,000 in the United States.

  5. Chinese Intellectuals

    After World War II, the ruling Nationalist government lost its power in mainland China during the five year Civil War and retreated to Taiwan in 1949. At the same time, nearly 5,000 Chinese intellectuals escaped from China and built new lives in the United States. However, the development of the atomic bomb in China and the Korean War brought back the anti-Chinese movement, which affected Chinese Americans financially and physically. Most Chinese intellectuals lived under surveillance, suspected of being Communists by the FBI. Meanwhile, the United States prohibited all remittance to mainland China.

  6. Taiwanese Americans

    With America’s comprehensive support to the Nationalist government and its huge investment in the realms of science and technology, thousands of Taiwanese students pursuing high-tech fields came to the United States with full scholarships in the 1960s. Nevertheless, these students’ lives in America were not easy; they not only had to financially help their families in Taiwan, but they were also watched by spies from Nationalists, fearing they would be assimilated by the Communists.

  7. Study-abroad Fever

    Thanks to the Reform and Opening up policy, as well as the resuming diplomatic relations between China and the United States from 1970s to 1980s, almost 80,000 scholars traveled from Mainland China to the U.S., which constituted the largest wave of Chinese intellectuals in history. Later, the whole country formed a “study-abroad fever”. In addition, the US government sets no limits for the number of Chinese tourists. In the 1980s, the racial discrimination gradually reflected in education after news reported that ethnic Chinese students concentrated on top Universities in the United States. Prestigious universities started to set a higher threshold and reduced the admission rate specifically for Chinese Americans, American born Chinese usually rejected by their dream school even their academic performance were more qualified than their counterparts.

  8. Hong Kong Refugees

    The decade of 1990s spotlighted on immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong. In order to escape uncertain life after the transfer of government over Hong Kong, many Hong Kong refugees moved their families to the United States but maintained their business in Hong Kong. On the other side, rich Taiwanese began to send their children and shift their wealth to the United States, fearing the pro-Taiwan independence groups would trigger a war against mainland China. Under this circumstance, the words “astronaut” and “Parachute ” were perfectly represented the lifestyle of Hong Kong fathers and Taiwan Children.

Smile face

Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA by Decade

In the 1820s, only three people obtained lawful permanent resident status. From the animation story and the history timeline it is clear that each subsequent wave of immigration was triggered by an important historal event, especially for the region of Hong Kong and Taiwan. The biggest increase in the population of Chinese Americans took place between the 1970s and early 1990s. Unlike the early immigrants, most of them were adventurous and highly educated. Their expectations was more than finding a place to escape civil wars and poverty, but a place would provide them with a brilliant future in the academic fields and workforce. However, with the rise of Chinese economy and the continually changing immigration policy, the determination of staying in the United State wasn’t as strong as before.

(Source: Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2014, Homeland Security)

The Population Distribution of Chinese Americans

Top 20 City Population Percentage
San Francisco 172,181 21.4
Honolulu 38,330 10.2
Oakland 34,083 8.7
San Jose 63,434 6.7
New York City 486,463 6
Plano 13,592 5.2
Sacramento 20,307 4.4
Seattle 27,216 4.1
Boston 24,910 4
San Diego 35,661 4
Philadelphia 30,069 2
Stockton 5,188 1.8
Los Angeles 66,782 1.8
Portland 9,113 1.7
Chicago 43,228 1.6
Anaheim 4,738 1.4
Houston 29,429 1.3
Austin 8,886 1.2
Pittsburgh 3,402 1.1
Riverside 2,985 1

(Source: United States Census Bureau)

Eight common ways for Chinese to get a green card

EB-5 Visa:

A Foreign Investor should provide at least $1 million, or $500,000 in a targeted high unemployment area of the United States as an exchange of conditional permanent residence granted by USCIS. However, many Chinese business owners were defrauded by illegal intermediaries during the application process, losing large amounts of investments and having their visa application denied.


This may be the fastest way for foreigners to get a green card. When a person marries a U.S. Citizen, he or she can get a IR1 or CR1 visa as the immediate relatives of their spouses.


F-1 Visa(a non-immigrant visa for those wishing to study in the U.S.) → OPT (practical training directly related to students' major area of study) → H1B Visa (visa holders who won the H1B lottery can work temporarily in specialty occupations.) This is the most frequent way for Chinese immigrants to get a green card, but the whole process might take more than eight years.

Alien of Extraordinary Ability:

The applicants go through a series of rigorous processes. Only those with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or who has achieved extraordinary achievement in certain fields nationally or internationally can get a green card instantly.

A family member of a U.S citizen:

Immediate relatives only refer to the spouse, unmarried children under the age of 21 and parents of a U.S. citizen, they could get a green card instantly. But a family member of a U.S. citizen extends to their unmarried children over the age of 21, married children of any age and brothers and sisters. In this category, applicants have to wait years due to the limited allowable visas.

U.S. citizen child:

In California, some organizations provide maternal health care for Chinese pregnant women with a tourist visa who want to give birth in the U.S. When the child turns 21, he/she can sponsor his or her parents for green card status.

Multinational manager or executive:

Managers and executives who work in an international company with offices in both the U.S. and other nations could temporary live and work in the U.S. by applying for an L1 visa.


Foreigners who are suffering persecution because of race, religion or political opinion could seek protection in the U.S. During the Chinese civil war and cultural revolution, many intellectuals and religious people escaped to the U.S. by applying for asylum.

The percentage of different visas held by Chinese People vs other nationalities

Highest Rate
Biggest Increase

(Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.)

The Immigrant Investors' Education Backgroud and Reasons to Emigrate

According to the 2011 Hurun Report, immigrant investors have relatively higher academic degree. More than half of them hold a college degree, 30 percent of them have a master degree and only 13 percent of investors never went beyond high school.

In terms of the reasons to emigrate, education quality is the most important one for them to seek foreign citizenship. This ranking fits with Chinese traditional ideology, that is, parents will give education a priority in a family. In addition, with media’s continual coverage of food safety and environmental pollution, people started to lose faith in domestic production. Therefore, for those who are wealthy enough to emigrate, investment immigrants become the most efficient and practical way to improve the quality of life.

(Source: Hurun: Immigration and the Chinese HNWI 2014)

U.S.A is the Largest Remittance Source Region for China

In the eyes of most Americans, Chinese people stole their jobs and made no contributions to their country because the Chinese scarcely consumed American goods and remitted every dollar they earned to their families in China. The reasons for early Chinese immgrants to leave their country was to seek a better life for their families. Considering the restrictions of immigrantion policies and personal economy, most of Chinese laborers were unable to bring their family members to the United States. In order to ensure survival of the family line and receive monthly remittance, parents would force their young sons into marriage and gave birth to next generations before they left China. In Chinese conventional ideology, every member should spare no effort to countribute the development of whole family. Generation by generation, immigrants are accustomed to support their relatives in the montherland no matter how close their relationship is.

Remittance-sending countries and regions

Remittance-receiving countries

(Source: World Bank Group)

History and Future

The immigration story of Chinese Americans really began with the California Gold Rush. In general, the first-generation immigrants went through a life full of struggle, sadness and desperation no matter whether they became rich or not. Most of them came to the United States with an idea that they would earn large amounts of money and return home soon. In certain areas, men were cheated as cheap labor while women were sold as prostitutes. The most miserable memory for many Chinese laborers was the the experience of building the transcontinental railroad. At that time, they had to work twelve-hour shifts six days a week. White laborers could be paid 35 dollars a month and board, while Chinese laborers were forced to do the riskiest work while getting only 30 dollars pay and boarding themselves. In addition, they went through two of the worst winters in American history and used nitroglycerin to explode the granite in order to lay tracks. Because of this, nearly one in ten Chinese labors perished during the construction of the railroad.

Since ancient times, Chinese decedents were instilled with the philosophy that only diligent study and industrious work could pave the way to a successful life. Even after they emigrated to a new country, Chinese Americans were kept out of politics. Under this circumstance, most of them were accustomed to keep silent and tolerant unfair treatment. After many years, the Chinese Americans become third-class citizens in American society.

The lives of the Chinese Americans in the U.S. depends in large part on the diplomatic relations between China and the United States. If there are any conflicts between the two countries, the Chinese Americans will become a target to be attacked. The successive waves of anti-Chinese movement shows this pattern throughout history.