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Why Did Chinese Americans Leave the U.S. in the Early 20th Century?

It was a student’s question that led Professor Charlotte Brooks (Baruch College) to what she calls one of the “most engrossing projects” of her career. For an Asian American history class, Brooks had students read essays written by Chinese Americans in 1936 on whether their future lay in China or America. One student asked what became of the essay writers: Did they go to China or stay in America? 

That led Brooks to uncover a stunning statistic: Nearly half of all U.S.-born Chinese Americans moved to China in the first few decades of the 20th century. Brooks tells their story in American Exodus: Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901-1949.

America is often mythologized as a land of opportunity for immigrants, but Brooks’ research showed that until World War II, upward mobility was virtually impossible for Chinese Americans due to racism. “White Americans generally refused to hire people of Chinese ancestry, regardless of citizenship or education, for any work that was not menial labor,” Brooks wrote.

In San Francisco, Chinese children attended a segregated school with no classes above fifth grade. Laws limited Chinese immigration and barred Asian immigrants who were already here from becoming citizens. No wonder thousands of Chinese Americans left.

Some families sent their U.S.-born children to exclusive schools in Hong Kong and Macao that opened doors to the colonies’ privileged elite. Other U.S.-born children were educated in ancestral villages in mainland China, where family networks later helped them find jobs.

Another cohort, the “modernizers,” arrived in China as adults with bilingual skills, technical expertise, and degrees from places like Stanford and the Ivies.  This “entitled them to jobs unimaginable even for white Americans of comparable age and experience in the U.S.” They included lawyers, aviators, architects, doctors, and engineers. They ran schools, churches, hospitals, charities, businesses, cultural groups, and government agencies.

The emigres also had to navigate China’s tumultuous political landscape, as the old Qing dynasty crumbled and nationalist movements arose. When Japan invaded China in 1937, they scrambled for self-preservation. American officials protected and evacuated white Americans, but withheld assistance from many U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage and their families. Some perished amid wartime violence and deprivation. Few stayed after the Communists took power in 1949.

Back in the U.S., older expats often floundered, but younger returnees tended to land on their feet. Postwar labor shortages “broke down some of the old racial barriers in the job market.” Discrimination “continued to limit their opportunities long after the war,” Brooks said, “but never again were their horizons quite as narrow as they had been in previous decades.”