Explore California’s Asian American History


From San Francisco to San Diego, California offers several opportunities to learn more about Asian American history.

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In 1918, Cirilo Juanitas arrived from the Philippines in Stockton, California’s Little Manila, then home to the largest number of Filipinos outside the islands. In the years that followed, he ran grocery stores, games rooms, a hotel — and, to the delight of her eight children, a candy store.

Today, his granddaughter Terri Torres helps run the Philippine American National Historical Society (FANHS) in the same neighborhood, where visitors can discover lesser-known stories of how Filipinos like Juanitas shaped California and the United States. “The museum tells all the story that is not told in textbooks,” says Torres.

The United States claimed the Philippines as a colony after the Spanish-American War in 1898, recruiting Filipinos to work on farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Many have found accommodation in Stockton off season in hotels like Juanitas. “It was the closest place they could go and be welcomed,” says Torres.

Filipinos in the valley were instrumental in the movement for farmworker rights, led by a resident of Little Manila Larry Itliong, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with famed organizer Cesar Chavez. “Everybody hears about Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but nobody hears about Larry Itilong,” Torres says.

But in the early 1970s, Stockton demolished Juanitas’ businesses, along with most of the neighborhood, for the Crosstown Freeway which connects parallel highways 99 and 5. “It went through Chinatown and Little Manila,” Torres recalls. “The elders – we call them Manongs – who had spent their lives in the fields were thrown out onto the streets.”

The FANHS Museum shines a light on the Manong and other Filipino Americans across the United States through photos and artifacts such as farmworker furniture made from crates of produce, a uniform from the 1st Philippine Infantry Regiment in World War II, and artwork by Marvel and DC Comics artist Tony DeZuniga.

“We’ve lost a lot of our seniors” to age and COVID-19, Torres says. “How can we make young people want to learn the history of their parents or grandparents so that they can pass it on? If we don’t say it, we will forget it. »

In May, visit the FANHS Museum (on weekends, by appointment) and other notable locations across the Golden State to Asia Pacific American Heritage Month.

Tule Lake Internment Camp offers a sobering reminder of the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Lake Tule

Lake Tule, near the Oregon border, was the largest of the 10 camps where the United States imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II and the center of the internee resistance. It held nearly 30,000 internees who answered “no” to a government loyalty questionnaire, including Tatsuo Ryusei Inouye, who kept a diary. On a guided tour by a ranger, you can enter the camp prison and see the site of a makeshift stockade where authorities locked Inouye and others after a series of protests. “This afternoon we ate a portion of rice too small to even feed a cat,” Inouye wrote: in November 1943. Also visit the barracks of the Civilian Conservation Corps which housed internees and later German POWs forced to work in the surrounding fields. Tule Lake was the last camp to close – seven months after the end of World War II. Tours run from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Chinese Historical Society of America MuseumSan Francisco

Housed in a former YWCA designed by Julia Morgan, this museum is the oldest in the country dedicated to Chinese-American history. A new exhibition, “We Are Bruce Lee”, which opened in April and is expected to run for three years, highlights the martial arts film legend, born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1940. It features rare on-set photos, Lee’s yellow tracksuit from his latest film “Game of Death”, his handwritten notes about life and community, and a documentary about his influence on hip-hop. “During the pandemic, with many racial attacks, especially in the Bay Area, it made sense to feature a Chinese-American hero who was a unifier,” says communications manager Nathaniel Jue. “In his films, he brought in actors from all walks of life. It was rare in the 60s to see protagonists from different backgrounds working together.

Little Saigon, San Jose

The city of San José is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnamnumbering some 180,000 people. Sample broken rice dishes at Com Tam Thien Huong or beef pho at Pho Pasteur – or browse the food court at Grand Century Mall. At Boat People and Republic of Vietnam Museum, trace the journey of South Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In front is one of the small wooden boats that transported families overseas to escape persecution. “If we don’t collect these [artifacts] and by creating new art about it now, the history and experience of millions of people will disappear,” said museum founder Loc Vu. Spotlight on San Jose.


After completing the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, immigrants from China’s Pearl Delta built the sprawling levees that tamed the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. Their descendants settled in nearby towns, including Locke – but xenophobic laws prohibited them from owning land or bringing their families. “Many don’t know the struggles of the previous two or three generations,” says Darwin Kan, grandson of Lee Bing, the man credited with founding Locke in 1915. “They need to know – where you are are because of them.” A four-block stretch of timber-frame buildings includes Lee’s Dai Loy School, Boarding House, and Game Room – now a museum with original Pai Gow and Fan-tan tables. Stop for a drink at Al’s Place Saloon or sample Cantonese cuisine at Locke Garden Restaurant. At the Asia-Pacific Spring Festival on May 21stwatch the lion dance, cooking demonstrations and tea ceremony.

Museum of Ethnic Art of the Pacific IslandsLong Beach

Painted on all sides with a mural depicting blue skies, palm trees and a thatched-roof meeting house in the Yap Islands, the museum is as fascinating on the outside as it is on the inside. See artifacts and textiles from across Oceania, including Samoan kava bowls, Fijian barkcloth and the mouth — a traditional currency of Yap made of shells and whale teeth. A new art exhibit tells stories of Pacific Islanders affected by COVID-19.

China Camp State Park tells the stories of Chinese shrimp fishermen.

China Camp State Park, Saint-Raphael

At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese shrimp fishermen in San Pablo Bay, just north of San Francisco, were so successful that California banned their traditional nets and banned them from exporting their catch. Hike and picnic among preserved wooden fisherman’s cottages and, at a small museum, learn how China Camp locals harvested and dried millions of pounds of shrimp annually. On weekends, grab a shrimp cocktail and a coke at a 50s-style beach cafe. Until 2016 it was run by Frank Quan, the last Chinese shrimper in the area. China Camp was the setting for John Wayne’s Red Scare-era film ‘Blood Alley’ – and appeared in the Netflix drama ’13 Reasons Why’.

Japanese Friendship GardensSan Diego

Sprawling over 12 acres of historic Balboa Park near downtown, the gardens feature ornate bonsai trees, kaleidoscopic koi carp, and a grove of over 200 cherry trees. In 1957, San Diego established one of the first Sister City relationships on the west coast with Yokohama, Japan – the gardens commemorate their exchange of culture and ideas. Wander the gardens on your own, take a tour led by a guide, or attend events such as origami classes, Reiki sessions, or the celebration of World Bee Day on May 21st.

>> Next: Road-trip through the history of Asian American women in California


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