World War II brought momentous change to America’s Chinese community. For decades, Chinese were vilified in America, especially in California, the center of the U.S.’s anti-Chinese feelings. The Chinese had initially come to California for the Gold Rush and later the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, but public sentiment quickly turned against them. Competition for jobs and a depression in the 1870s all led to a racist backlash against Chinese. Eventually Chinese immigration was ended with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese in America found themselves a hated minority segregated in Chinatowns. The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 changed all of that.
After Pearl Harbor perceptions of China and Chinese Americans were suddenly transformed. China went from being known as the “sick man of Asia” to a vital ally in the United States’ war against the Japanese. Likewise, Chinese went from the “heathen Chinese” to friends. In 1943 a congressman said if not for December 7, America might have never known how good Chinese Americans were.
Motivated by fear and indignation, Chinese Americans also tried to distinguish themselves as much as possible from the Japanese and “prove their undivided loyalty to the American war effort”. Mere days after Pearl Harbor, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco started issuing identification cards, and Chinese Americans began wearing buttons and badges with phrases like “I am Chinese” on them. Hoping to prove their loyalty to the United States beyond any doubt, Chinese periodicals also adopted the inflammatory anti-Japanese rhetoric and racial epithets used by the mainstream press.
Although there was some sentiment of pan-Asian solidarity, it was definitely not the norm. Chinese Americans, fueled by anger at Japanese aggression in their home country, their American patriotism, and their desire to be seen as American patriots, were, consciously or not, complicit in the persecution of their Japanese neighbors.
The internment of the Japanese was more or less ignored by the Chinese community, with the exception of a few individuals. In fact, Chinese periodicals also participated in spreading the belief that Japanese Americans were guilty of treason or aiding Japan .
Japanese internment actually presented an opportunity for economic and social advancement to the Chinese. Chinese merchants moved into formerly Japanese-owned businesses. And when the Japanese were removed from their farm jobs, the United States Employment Service issued a call for Chinese Americans to replace them.
World War II was an opportunity for the Chinese to gain economic and social standing in mainstream American society; however, the shift in white America’s perceptions of the Chinese Americans must also be remembered as a consequence of racist attitudes directed towards the Japanese Americans and the ensuing internment of a whole ethnicity. Tides quickly shifted after World War II, when the United States declared another war, this time on communism. Power, given rather suddenly to the Chinese during the war, was just as quickly taken away afterwards.