Asian Americans, Impact of the Great Depression on

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Editor: Robert S. McElvaine
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,151 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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The Great Depression had important political, economic, and cultural implications for "Asian-American" communities. In the United States, the ethnic label Asian American encompasses groups of people with diverse geographical, cultural, and historical backgrounds, and ancestral roots in a number of different countries. The earliest Asian immigrants arrived in the United States from China, with the first massive wave coming in the mid-nineteenth century. As with other ethnic minorities, the Chinese—and later the Japanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Koreans, and a host of other groups—emigrated to the United States to serve primarily as a source of cheap labor. These migration patterns were related to larger global transformations initiated by industrial capitalism and Euro-American colonialism. By the beginning of the Great Depression, these groups formed the largest Asian populations in the country. According to U.S. census data and other published reports, there were close to 75,000 Chinese, 140,000 Japanese, 56,000 Filipinos, and several thousand Asian Indians and Koreans living in America in 1930, most residing on the West Coast.

Like most other Americans, Asian Americans endured hardships related to and caused by the economic fallout of the late 1920s, with its effects lasting well into the 1930s. Stories of massive unemployment, housing evictions, lost savings, starvations, and in some cases suicide, were reported throughout Asian-American communities in the United States. In her autobiography, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (1990), Mary Paik Lee, a Korean immigrant, describes the devastating impact of the Depression on her and her family. She recalls how her family's savings, generated from over a decade of operating a fruit stand in southern California, were completely wiped out during those years, forcing the family to move from place to place in search of available land to support a minimal level of subsistence. Preexisting levels of racial hostility in most industries in California led many Asian immigrants, such as the family of Mary Paik Lee, to be disproportionately represented in Page 76  |  Top of Article
Japanese-American agricultural workers, photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1937, pack broccoli near Guadalupe, California. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION Japanese-American agricultural workers, photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1937, pack broccoli near Guadalupe, California. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION agriculture as laborers, farmers, and small entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, as the Depression dramatically reduced the demand for specialized agricultural goods (agricultural profits in California dropped by more than 50 percent from 1929 to 1932), the economic fallout of the Depression led to particularly harsh consequences for Asian Americans in the region. The economic effects of the Depression were also felt by Asian Americans on the East Coast. Chinese hand laundrymen, operating more than three thousand such businesses in New York City, saw their earnings and wages decline by about one-half during the Depression.

As the economic crisis of the early 1930s deepened, its impact, at least for Asian-American communities, was felt beyond the boundaries of America's borders. Many Asian immigrants, despite being separated by long distances and long periods between visits, maintained close ties to their families and villages in their homelands. In particular, the Chinese, as a result of international migration, developed what some historians have called "transnational communities." The combination of exclusionary immigration laws, cultural norms in China, and the prohibitive costs involved in the immigration process created an immigration population overwhelmingly male, leading some observers to Page 77  |  Top of Article mistakenly characterize the Chinese communities in America as "bachelor societies." Familial ties across vast physical spaces were sustained by letters, occasional visits, and scheduled remittances. These remittances went to building new homes, schools, hospitals, and orphanages for families and villages back in China. However, the Depression substantially reduced the funds that Chinese immigrants were able to send home, undoubtedly worsening conditions for their families and villages in China, which had come increasingly to rely on these remittances. In short, for Asian immigrants, the impact of the Great Depression was experienced on both sides of the Pacific.


For Asian Americans, the debilitating effects of the economic crisis were compounded by the historical legacy of racism. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the American public increasingly charged Asian immigrants, beginning with the Chinese, with being "unassimilable," "racially inferior," and a threat to the "American" way of life. These anti-Asiatic sentiments were eventually encoded into American law. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, making Chinese immigration to the United States illegal. By 1924, Asians, which by law included peoples from countries stretching from Afghanistan to the South Pacific, were effectively excluded from the United States as immigrants (with the exception of Filipinos and certain exempt classes including merchants, diplomats and students), were deprived of the right to own land, and were denied the legal right to citizenship. This history of exclusion and oppression by racial and national proscription profoundly effected the way Asians Americans and their children experienced and responded to the Depression. For example, Asian Americans, along with other ethnic minorities, occupied the bottom of a racially stratified labor market, making them especially vulnerable during times of economic crisis. Community histories describing, for instance, New York City's Chinatown, have shown that the unemployment rate among the Chinese population was considerably higher than state and national averages during the peak years of the Depression. Furthermore, racist employment practices precluded
This Filipino-American man found work in the lettuce .elds of California's Imperial Valley in 1939. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION This Filipino-American man found work in the lettuce .elds of California's Imperial Valley in 1939. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION many university educated Asian Americans from entering the professional and white-collar ranks. The comments of a certain college educated Nisei (the American-born children of Japanese immigrants) reflected the frustrations of a generation of educated Asian Americans: "They go to college, learn a heterogeneous body of facts relating to anything from art to architecture and end their days in a fruit stand."

As with previous periods of economic crisis in American history, racial antipathies toward Asian Americans were expressed more frequently and with greater intensity during the Depression. In the face of an ever-diminishing labor market, white Americans throughout the West Coast systematically and violently drove out Asian-American laborers, with Filipinos being the most frequent targets. As colonial subjects, Filipinos were given the juridical status of U.S. nationals, which allowed them, unlike other Asian groups, to move freely back and forth from the Philippines to the United Page 78  |  Top of Article
Many Asian Americans earned a living as itinerant .eld hands during the Great Depression. This Chinese-American laborer worked in a potato .eld near Walla Walla, Washington, in 1936. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION Many Asian Americans earned a living as itinerant .eld hands during the Great Depression. This Chinese-American laborer worked in a potato .eld near Walla Walla, Washington, in 1936. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION States. However, Filipinos did not began to arrive on American shores in significant numbers until the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, Filipinos experienced the same pattern of treatment as previous generations of Asian immigrants; initially, they were frequent victims of physical violence, and eventually, they were excluded through governmental legislation. During the Depression, the U.S. government offered to repatriate Filipinos with the stipulation that they forfeit the right to reentry into the United States; not surprisingly, few Filipinos took up the offer, though there were reported cases of coerced repatriation. In 1935, Filipino immigration to the United States was all but halted with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Economic uncertainty also produced similar efforts to discriminate against Asian Americans on the East Coast. For example, in 1933, a group of businessmen in New York City, in an attempt to eliminate Chinese competition from the industry, unsuccessfully advocated for a city ordinance that would require U.S. citizenship to obtain a laundry license.


Asian-American communities responded to these difficult times in a variety of ways. Like many Mexican Americans, some Asian immigrants simply Page 79  |  Top of Article decided to return to their homelands; some returned with the hope of finding better prospects, and others returned as a temporary strategy, at least until the situation improved in the United States. A small number of Asian immigrants and their children relocated to Central and South America. The vast majority of Asian Americans, however, looked to ethnic institutions and organizations to survive the Depression. Long before the 1930s, mutual aid societies, welfare agencies, and business organizations provided resources and services, such as relief, job placement services, and legal counsel. Such organizations were generally located in ethnic enclaves in large cities—the most notable being in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle—where, due in part to racism in the housing and employment markets, the highest concentration of Asian Americans resided. In addition, there were informal community networks through which families and friends could mutually assist one another in times of emergency. These institutions and networks worked to shelter Asian-American communities from the most debilitating effects of the Depression. In San Francisco's Chinatown, for example, the expanding tourist industry (which was facilitated by the repeal of prohibition laws in 1933), together with New Deal federal assistance, helped dramatically reduce Chinese unemployment in the city by the late 1930s. Growing numbers of Chinese men and women began finding jobs in newly renovated restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Similarly, in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, Japanese merchants and community leaders organized the "buy in Lil' Tokio" campaign, through which they hoped to revive slumping Japanese-American businesses by appealing to the community's sense of ethnic loyalty.

However, the depth of the Depression crisis severely tested the limits of ethnic institutions and networks, leaving them, in many instances, unable to adequately address the unprecedented levels of need to be found in their respective communities. As a result, Asian Americans, many for the first time, turned to the federal government for assistance. Government reports indicate that the rate at which Asian Americans participated in public assistance varied widely from city to city. For example, San Francisco's Chinatown had the highest percentage of Chinese receiving relief benefits, nearly approaching the national average. On the other hand, in Chicago and New York, only 2 to 5 percent of the Chinese population was on relief. In general, Asian Americans were less likely to seek relief assistance for a number of reasons. First, as frequent victims of state powers in the past, Asian Americans understandably feared government authorities. Moreover, discriminatory federal policies excluded them from certain government programs and benefits. One clear example of this was the statutory requirement that an individual must be an American citizen to be eligible for a job through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Consequently, Asian Americans, many of whom by law were ineligible for citizenship, composed a disproportionately small percentage of people on WPA employment rolls. Based on the calculations of one historian, among the three largest Asian-American groups in California in 1940, less than 14 percent of their unemployed had jobs with the WPA as compared to more than 60 percent of unemployed black Americans. In addition to all of this, many Asian Americans were simply unaware that they were entitled to relief assistance, which also helps to explain their lower participation rates.

Despite these shortcomings, the federal government did make positive contributions to Asian-American communities during the Depression, and in doing so, may have helped to bring about a change in these groups' attitudes and perceptions of the state. In San Francisco's Chinatown, for example, New Deal legislation improved housing conditions, established public health clinics, and expanded educational and job-training programs, in addition to traditional public relief allowances. Furthermore, many of these federal programs provided professional opportunities for Asian-American women in the fields of education and social work in a time when few professional occupations were considered suitable for women.

The growing emergence of women professionals was part of a larger trend in which Asian-American women were gradually to become more visible in the workplace and in the public more generally. As a result of the Depression, many Asian-American women were forced to find employment Page 80  |  Top of Article outside of the home, mainly in low-wage, service-oriented industries. For some, this development only created additional work—wage labor during the day and household chores in the evening. Asian-American women, like many women across the country, had to work increasingly hard to keep the family together in these trying times. Yet, for other women, some of whom became household breadwinners, the Depression presented opportunities to challenge traditional gender roles. Indeed, some Asian-American women, albeit a limited number, actively participated in public affairs such as local politics, union organizing, and community reform.

As all this suggests, Asian Americans were active participants in the unfolding drama that was the Great Depression. Certain everyday scenarios—Japanese-American families applying and receiving federal aid, Chinese-American women walking to the garment factory to begin their workday, and Filipino-American workers organizing in California's strawberry fields—reflected important social and cultural changes taking place within Asian-American communities at this time. Yet these developments, prompted by the Great Depression, were only a prelude to even larger changes and struggles that lay ahead for Asian Americans. Nevertheless, the crisis of the 1930s prepared them for a future that included World War II, wartime internment, and the postwar struggle for equality.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3404500051