Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context

By Elaine H. Kim | Go to book overview

2
From Asian to Asian American Early Asian Immigrant Writers

Between 1840 and 1924, when the laws restricting Asian immigration were enacted, thousands of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans migrated to the United States and Hawaii. In each case, immigration was prompted by active recruitment of labor for plantation, railroad, mining, or field work. And in each case, anti-Asian sentiment resulted ultimately in the passage of exclusion laws. 1 Filipinos were permitted to immigrate until 1934, when they too were barred by law from further entry.

The relatively small Asian population consisted largely of laborers without the means or, in some cases, the inclination to return to their homelands. Partly because their time was consumed in struggles for a livelihood, the Asian point of view on the immigrant experience is rarely presented in writings in English or even in Asian languages. Some unknown immigrants carved poems in Chinese into the walls of the barracks on Angel Island, where they were held before being allowed to enter the United States between 1910 and 1940. 2 Autobiographical information about a Japanese house servant and a Chinatown merchant was collected by Hamilton Holt, editor of The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans ( 1906). 3 And Carlos Bulosan,' a self-taught Filipino farmworker, was able only because of the mandatory rest required by his tuberculosis to write his account of the life of the Filipino migrants in the American West immediately prior to the Depression. But with these exceptions, Asian immigrant workers vanished without leaving behind much written account of their individual lives in America. Although some letters and diaries written in Asian languages have survived earthquake, fire, and Japanese relocation, 4 the general privation and loneliness of Asian immigrant life, sequestered as it was in field labor camps or urban ethnic enclaves, must have dampened the desire to com-

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