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10 Instances Of Asian American Activist History They Didn't Teach In School

AAPI activism didn't start with #stopasianhate.

Nothing about the recent “spike” in AAPI hate crimes is new — except that Asian people are now established enough in America for people to care. Every generation or two, there has been a “yellow scare,” and the populace reacts to it the same way we see it happening now.

In 2021, a select group of East Asians was lucky enough to come over as grad students and have children who are doctors, lawyers, and engineers. American Oscar winners, musicians, and astronauts have Asian faces. Our dollars count. More of us can vote. Few of us are scared.

But the violence continues, the same way it has every generation since immigration officials created the first “oriental” box on visa applications. Daniel Dae Kim flexing his beautiful chiseled jawline for a good cause and Gemma Chan shooting some tweets is great, but representation is not enough. To break the cycle, education on intersectional civil rights is paramount, both for police and society at large.

“There is a range of education out there that has not been accessed by the general American public,” says Michael Chang, a University of California, Berkeley, lecturer specializing in Asian American studies. “That’s the important thing — that this is about our own history. How did this particular moment get triggered?”

Here we delve into 10 key AAPI trailblazers, landmark cases, and historical instances of exclusion and violence that you probably didn't learn about in school (at least I didn't, and I went to a highly ranked public school):

1. Grace Lee Boggs

Illustration of Grace Lee Boggs
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) was, and remains (RIP) a queen of activism and activist philosophy. Her seven decades of political activism span all of the major US social movements of the past century. The long history of her activism includes anti-war organizing after World War II, organizing Black autoworkers in Detroit with her husband James Boggs, and forming a revolutionary Asian American study group — just to name a few. In some of her FBI files, she was described as "probably Afro Chinese."

Even more revolutionary is her philosophy, which in her later years centers around the human experience and the individual ability to transform their world, rather than overthrowing a system. Boggs challenged people to share their experiences and to question everything around them, rather than reactionary responses. The call for individual responsibility and continuous questioning, learning, and growing is especially important right now, when reactionaries from all sides of the political spectrum often capitalize on content without context.

2. Yick Wo v. Hopkins

Illustration of a clenched fist crushing a permit
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Yick Wo v. Hopkins was a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Supreme Court ruled that laws with discriminatory intent were unconstitutional. Many Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush owned laundries, mostly in wooden buildings, and Yick Wo was such a laundromat. To eliminate competition with white laundromats, San Francisco's board of supervisors passed legislation requiring laundries in wooden buildings to have a permit. Every single Chinese laundromat was denied permits, while only one white owner was denied a permit. Yick Wo laundry continued to run without a permit and was charged with violating the law.

Rather than keep his head down and figure out ways to bribe the cops under clearly racially targeted laws, the owner of Yick Wo litigated all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction and made a critical ruling on the unconstitutionality of discriminating against a specific group of people in the passage or enforcement of legislation. This trailblazing ruling would later be vitally used to strike down other discriminatory and Jim Crow laws in cases like Brown v. Board by establishing the "disparate impact standard."

3. Massacre of 1871

Illustrated profile of an Asian man, with fire and torches inset
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Chinese immigration to the US first spiked during the Gold Rush in the 1840s. China had just lost the "Opium Wars" with the British, resulting in widespread famine and poverty, which drove many poor villages to pool their money and send young men westward where they could fill their families bellies and their own. A few struck it rich, and some of them discovered that the real gold was in the fertile California soil (land that California later ruled could not be owned by Asian immigrants).

Resentment against their success culminated with the massacre of 1871, where 17 Chinese men were tortured, mutilated, and hung to a cheering crowd. Two others were killed outright. The dispute started when a saloon worker was caught in the crossfire between two rival Chinese factions, igniting the smoldering anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment. Only white men could testify in court at the time, and the nine men convicted had their convictions overruled by the California Supreme Court and let go with no time.

"One really important message of the past year is that Asian Americans and African Americans share a history. They share a history around exclusion...which the model minority myth detracts from," says Chang.

4. Dalip Singh Saund

Illustration of a US Congressional pin
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Born in India to Sikh parents, Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian to be elected to the United States Congress in 1956 as the representative of California's 29th Congressional District, which then comprised Imperial and Riverside counties. Saund held many firsts in Congress: First South Asian, first believer in a non-Abrahamic religion, first Sikh...

Saund immigrated to the US when he was 19 to study agriculture at UC Berkeley. While working on his master's degree and PhD at Berkeley, Saund lived at the Stockton Gurdwara hostel with a community of Indians and Sikhs, and in the summers he worked at canneries and as a farmer in the Southern California desert valley.

Saund's contributions illustrate his belief in government action for individual autonomy; he helped overturn laws prohibiting South Asians from naturalizing into citizens, emphasized the struggle against discrimination paralleling the Indian caste system and Jim Crow laws, and led the first conference of the Mexico-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group in Guadalajara.

5. No-No Boys

Illustration of a hand writing NO on a form
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Many people today may be familiar with the Japanese internment camps of World War II, where the US government placed more than 110,000 people of Japanese origin (most were American citizens) into internment camps while confiscating their properties. Although all of their other citizenship rights were stripped away, Japanese Americans were drafted into the US military to fight for the country that held their families hostage. Many Japanese American soldiers served willingly and bravely in World War II, but a group of men resisted the draft.

The moniker "No-No Boys" came from answering "no" to two questions regarding military service on a survey that Japanese Americans were forced to take in concentration camps. Outraged that the US government demanded their loyalty after confiscating their civil liberties, some Japanese Americans refused the draft. Frank Emi, along with six other internees at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming formed the Fair Play Committee (FPC) to protest draft notices. In March 1944, the FPC declared: "We, the members of the FPC, are not afraid to go to war. We are not afraid to risk our lives for our country. We would gladly sacrifice our lives to protect and uphold the principles and ideals of our country as set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for on its inviolability depends the freedom, liberty, justice, and protection of all people, including Japanese Americans and all other minority groups. But have we been given such freedom, such liberty, such justice, such protection? NO!"

6. Vietnamese Fishermen v. KKK in the Gulf Coast

Illustration of a Klan hood underwater
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

A group of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War in the 1970s and 1980s settled along the Gulf Coast in Texas, and many of them took up shrimp fishing as an occupation familiar to them. Their success in the industry sowed resentment in white competitors, who declared that "I think they ought to be put on a reservation somewhere a compound to teach them our laws and our ways, the way we live, our courtesy as a people."

Several Vietnamese-owned shrimp boats were burned in the Galveston Bay area between 1979 and 1981, and things came to a head when a group of white fishermen organized a rally on February 14, 1981, against the Vietnamese fishermen and the KKK got involved. Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, announced that he would give the government until May 15, the beginning of shrimping season, to forcibly remove Vietnamese fisherman from the area, and that if they did not comply, the Klan would "take laws into our own. hands." On March 15, a group of armed, hooded Klansmen and their military arm, known as the Texas Emergency Reserve, paraded in the waters near Seabrook, threatening non-whites and hanging an effigy of a Vietnamese fisherman on the rear deck.

The case was brought to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the KKK could not form private militias and disbanded the Texas Emergency Reserve in an unusual legal argument, combining antitrust, civil rights, and contract laws.

7. Angel Island

Illustration of a US flag behind a chain-link fence
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

In the 19th and 20th century, millions of immigrants flocked to America, chasing the American dream. Most of the white ones got through Ellis Island, while non-white faces (along with some Latinos, Jews, and Russians) were shipped off to Angel Island, detained, separated according to race, and inspected in an effort to restrict Asian immigration to the US. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first (and to date, only) US law to restrict a group of immigrants solely on the basis of race, all arriving Chinese immigrants had to be examined by immigration or customs agents as part of a national system for specifically regulating "oriental" immigrants.

Even after the main waves of Chinese immigration, Angel Island was used to hold Japanese immigrants during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government sent close to 700 Japanese immigrants from Hawaii to the mainland. Almost 600 of these people were initially detained in the old immigrant barracks on Angel Island prior to being interned in camps around the country, with 98 mainland Japanese immigrants later being arrested and detained on Angel Island.

8. Larry Itliong and the Filipino Labor Movement

Illustration of a crate of grapes with a pro-union sticker attached
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Filipino American labor organizer Larry Itliong immigrated to the US when he was just 14 years old as a farm laborer with a sixth-grade education, and by the time he was 15, he had joined his first strike. As an adult, Itliong was so good at recruiting members for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee that union leaders asked him to organize Filipino grape workers in Delano, which started the Delano Grape Strike. Over 2,000 Filipino farmworkers marched off the vineyards on September 7, 1965, demanding 25 cents a box, $1.40 an hour, and the right to unionize. Itliong asked Cesar Chavez and the Mexican farmworkers to join the strike, and a year later AWOC and the Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW).

The Delano Grape Strike was one of the biggest social justice and economic labor movements in American history and a standing example of inter-cultural class solidarity succeeding; after 5 years of strikes, more than 30 growers gave in to raises, medical insurance, and controls over toxic pesticides.

9. Chin Lung "The Potato King"

Illustration of a hand unearthing a potato
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Hong Dai Chin, aka Chin Lung, immigrated to the US at the age of 18, just a year before the Chinese Exclusion Act. He sacked rice for his brother's food import-export business during the day and studied English at night, quickly becoming fluent. Growing up as a farmer in Southern China's abundant Pearl River Delta, he introduced his farming methods to the similarly fertile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region. Thanks to his English skills and the ability to borrow money from the Chinese community, he successfully negotiated supply and sharecropping contracts with white land owners. His main crop was the potato, and he grew to be so successful that he was dubbed the "Chinese Potato King," supplying potatoes to most of the West Coast.

In 1913, California passed the "Alien Land Law," which prohibited aliens ineligible for naturalization (all Chinese and Japanese farmers) from purchasing farmland, and limited that group from leasing farmland for longer than three years. Forced out of California, Hong Dai Chin moved his farms to Oregon, but Oregon followed suit with the same restrictive land law.

Hong Dai Chin did get to live out the rest of his dream: He moved back to San Francisco, started a luggage business, and retired in Macao, China, among children and grandchildren before peacefully passing at the ripe old age of 79.

10. The Murder of Vincent Chin

Illustration of a framed memorial photograph of Vincent Chin
Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Perhaps no other event in the 20th century awakened racial awareness and solidarity in the Asian American community as when a 27-year-old Chinese American was beaten to death with a baseball bat and the killers walked free. Vincent Chin was out with his buddies, celebrating at his bachelor party, when former Chrysler plant workers Ronald Ebens and stepson Michael Nitz caved his head in because they thought he was Japanese and part of the Japanese auto manufacturers they blamed for the Detroit economy.

The judge gave each man a $3,000 fine and no jail time, because they "weren't the kind of men you send to jail."

The lenient ruling ignited a wave of Asian American demonstrations across the country, resulting in the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. In the final ruling, Nitz was cleared of all charges, and Ebens served none of his 25 years due to allegations of witness coaching. As a cornerstone of modern Asian American activism, the Vincent Chin case became a rallying cry for stronger protections against hate crimes.

Check out how BuzzFeed is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! And follow @buzzfeedapop on Instagram!

BuzzFeed / Kathy Hoang

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