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1990s: The Golden Decade : In Pursuit of a Better Way of Life

January 15, 1990

World attention riveted on China in 1989 as the country underwent the throes of a massive political upheaval. Across the strait in Taiwan, islanders also tried to map out their futures, with some staying to fight for political change while others sought their fortunes overseas.

In Hong Kong, the specter of 1997, when the British colony reverts to Communist Chinese rule, set the pace for investments and emigration as the colony braced itself for a major political transition. And then there are the ethnic Chinese of Southeast Asia, some languishing in refugee camps, all seeking a better, more peaceful future.

These groups of Chinese can be divided when it comes to dialects and politics, but they are bound by a common culture and the desire to pursue a better way of life for their families.

Just as war, famines and calamities forced earlier generations of Chinese to go to foreign lands, domestic unrest and economic uncertainty in this century have prompted growing numbers to seek alternatives in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States.

In the 1980s, Chinese immigrants to California swelled the number of Asians in communities such as Fresno, Oakland and Daly City in the north and Monterey Park, Walnut and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the south. The decade was a time of friction as Chinese and Western cultures clashed, sometimes from misunderstandings, other times from prejudice and hatred.

With the number of Chinese-Americans in the country projected to reach 1.7 million by the year 2000, longtime residents and immigrants alike have a shared interest in what happens in the next decade, an era destined to be as epochal as other immigration milestones.

In the 1850s, the newcomers escaped famine in China to work as laborers in the fields and on the transcontinental railroad in the United States. The work took some to Wyoming, Mississippi and beyond. But California was always the dream destination. The Chinese characters for San Francisco, for example, are "Old Gold Mountain." Today, 40% of the Chinese in the United States live in California.

There is a dark side, too, to this history. Along with blacks and American Indians, Chinese were prohibited in 1850 from testifying against Anglos. In the 1880s, San Francisco passed discriminatory ordinances targeting Chinese laundries and singling out Chinese men for wearing braids. In 1882, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance prohibiting Chinese from living within the city limits.

Anglo workers who resented competition from Chinese laborers often exploited xenophobic sentiments, which led to increased violence against Chinese. In October, 1871, the festering resentment erupted into the Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, during which an Anglo mob lynched 22 Chinese. The killers were never caught.

Beginning in the 1880s, exclusionary laws that banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States were adopted. They were lifted in 1943, leading to the great immigration pushes immediately after World War II and in 1949 when the Communists took over mainland China. The Immigration Act of 1965 ended national quotas; by 1980 there were 322,309 Chinese in California.

By the 1980s, Chinese immigrants were arriving in America to pursue educational opportunities and to escape from political instability. Some toiled in garment sweatshops and restaurants while others worked as professionals.

Now, as the Year of the Horse rings in the 1990s, the latest wave of Chinese immigrants will be taking the next step to join mainstream America.

With estimates indicating that in 10 years Chinese will make up 17.1% of all Asian-Americans nationwide, it is just a matter of time before Chinese residents discover the power in numbers and the need to capitalize on that strength.

"Political power is the next stage," said Irene Natividad, a Fairfax, Va., political consultant; in the 1990s, Chinese-Americans will have to learn that being an integral part of this country means more than economic or financial success.

From the classroom to the boardroom, Chinese-Americans are struggling against "glass ceilings." In arts and entertainment, the barriers come in the form of negative stereotypes that perpetuate disparaging images of Chinese-Americans.

To be sure, there are beginnings of political awareness. The Chinese American Assn. of Southern California, for example, is a growing force in grooming Chinese-Americans for political office and in raising money for them.

But even though Chinese-Americans have a reputation for making generous campaign donations, the state Legislature still suffers from what Maeley Tom of Sacramento described as the "10-year drought" in terms of Asian-American legislators.

Since 1979, when Floyd Mori (D-Pleasanton) and Paul Banai (R-Gardena) lost their seats, no Asian-American has been elected to the 120-member state Legislature, said Tom, a special assistant in state Sen. David A. Roberti's office on Asian Pacific affairs.

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