Updated: Mar 11, 2021
American Chinatowns have served as a pinnacle of social life and civic participation for Chinese immigrants since the 1850s, when economic prospects abroad and political upheaval at home quickly brought tens of thousands of Chinese to America. Faced with racial animosity and limited opportunity, Chinatowns quickly became the only avenue through which America’s Chinese population could foster a sense of culture and belonging. This foundation gave way to the small businesses and communities that would make up Asian America—and the permeation of social and economic exclusion that set the stage for the chaos of COVID-19.
Chinese laborers, who largely immigrated to the US in the mid-1800s to pursue promises of unprecedented wealth (like the California Gold Rush), were met with both legal exclusion and physical mob violence. White laborers became virulently intolerant of economic competition, which they believed was evidenced by the considerably lower wages Chinese workers were forced to accept. Among these tragic riots was the Rock Springs Massacre, in which a racially fueled fight erupted into a White mob that burned down an entire Wyoming Chinatown and killed 28.
In the face of vitriolic racism, immigrants had no choice but to continue depending on communal small businesses in order to make a living for both themselves and their families abroad. This need for entrepreneurship continued to grow as Chinese communities spread throughout the West and across the nation. By the year 1920, 48% of all Chinese in California worked in small business.
Despite widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, Chinatowns nationwide filled a much-needed niche within both the Chinese communities themselves as well as the American nation as a whole. The only group barred from entry into the country and from naturalized citizenship solely on the basis of ethnicity in 1882, Chinese migrants depended on each other to establish their own labor unions, fraternal associations and other means of mutual aid. In addition to sustaining themselves, Chinese immigrants and businesses were also critical in developing the early American economy.
Countless Chinese-run businesses catered to a largely non-Chinese clientele. For example, laundries filled a dire need when scarce cleaning services were expensive enough to incentivize Californians to ship their clothes to Hawaii for cleaning at a lower cost, despite having to wait months for them to be returned. Family-run restaurants and chop suey houses also served to feed countless masses of White workers and laborers. 19th-century activist Wong Chin Foo reminds us that arduous service businesses like laundries and restaurants were not optimal choices for the mostly-male immigrant population, but rather the only way members of Chinatown communities could “make money as surely and quickly” as possible.
The Model Minority Myth
Navigating the murky waters between the divisive Black and White racial binary, Chinese and other Asian Americans’ hardships were rendered largely invisible in public discourse during the mid-20th century Cold War era. Neoconservative leaders and policymakers, desperate to refute accusations of racism abroad and civil unrest at home, held up Asian Americans’ successes as proof of American democracy and “race-neutrality,” effectively conflating Chinese and all other Asian Americans as a single racial group for the first time. The fabrication of the “model minority” myth and its propagation during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement not only functioned to blame Black Americans for their continued hardships in contrast, but also effectively masked the economic and political struggles of nearly all Asian American ethnic groups, even today.
The construction of the "model minority myth" served not only to blame Black Americans for their continued inequity, but also to mask countless Asian American communities' continued contention with economic hardship.
Despite the widespread, erroneous belief that Asian Americans are the most fiscally successful and least impoverished racial group in the U.S., disaggregated data from the turn of the 21st century tells a different tale. Since the Great Recession of 2008, AAPI Data reported a 60% increase in poverty within Asian American communities, over double the national average of 27%, making Asian Americans the fastest-growing population in poverty since. However, these communities only received 1.4% of NYC social service funding between 2002 and 2014.
Additionally, the conflation of all Asian ethnic groups further masks the disproportionate economic hardships of Southeast Asian refugee populations including Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian Americans, whose median household incomes were drastically lower than the national average between 2008-2012. The propagation of the model minority myth within public discourse, which posits all Asian Americans as a single, self-sufficient and problem-free racial other, is critically detrimental to Asian ethnic communities in effectively denying them access to crucial federal funding, services, resources and opportunities.
The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic
Unchallenged racial stereotypes have ultimately led to an unprecedented struggle within Asian American communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asian-owned small businesses, especially restaurants, are struggling immensely at the intersection of unemployment, lack of government assistance, social animosity and racial violence. As early as April 2020, hardly a month into the lockdown, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a memo advising GOP candidates to strategically and “aggressively attack China” on all related concerns. President Trump’s virulent scapegoating of the crisis onto the “Wuhan virus” in public discourse has led to a tremendous spike in Asian Americans’ experiences of hostility, harassment and even violence in public spaces, particularly public transit. Xenophobic stigma, in addition to the exponential loss of revenue and the systematic lack of federal assistance, has been nothing short of detrimental to Asian-run small businesses.
As victims of xenophobic discrimination increasingly overrepresented in small business, particularly restaurant ownership, Asian Americans have suffered tremendously in the wake of COVID-19 in ways unique from other racialized groups in the US. A recent report conducted by researchers from several UCLA-affiliated organizations, including the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, unveils the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on Asian American employment and labor, particularly in New York and California.