Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-19th century, when many Chinese came to the United States as laborers to work on the railroads or in mining. The earliest immigrants were almost exclusively men from south China’s Guangdong (Canton) province. Denied citizenship, they later became a target of the United States’ first anti-immigrant legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This led to a significant reverse migration in which perhaps as many as 2/3 of those who had come to America returned. Those who remained frequently faced prejudice and social exclusion, and established the first ‘Chinatowns’ in cities across the U.S.

U.S.-Chinese relations improved dramatically after 1912 when Sun Yat-Sen, who had been a medical student in the U.S., successfully led an overthrow of the Qing dynasty and established China as a republic. The two countries were allied in World War II and the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but this was followed by a four-year Chinese civil war that ended with the Communist Party taking control of the country in 1949. After the Communist takeover, many educated Chinese refugees were admitted to the U.S., but overall immigration remained low.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed racial barriers to immigration; this, coupled with the resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, led to a new wave of immigration as hundreds of thousands of Chinese came as students or to join family members who had come to the U.S. before 1949.

cover addressed from Canton, China to New York
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Canton China opium trade stampless cover, 1853

This letter was sent from Canton, China to New York by Augustine Heard and Company, one of many U.S. merchant firms that reaped enormous profits from the opium trade with China.

Wells Fargo postal stationery featuring Chinese Camp postmark
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Wells Fargo postal stationery with “Chinese Camp” postmark, circa 1854

Chinese Camp, California was founded during the California Gold Rush and became one of the largest Chinese communities in the state. The Chinese miners who lived there worked gold claims in the area. Wells Fargo Express established a station at Chinese Camp in 1854, from which this letter was sent. The notation “With Pack. $1485.00” indicates that this letter accompanied a shipment, most likely gold, that was worth approximately $36,000 in 2023 dollars. On September 2, 1856, White miners attacked Chinese Camp, killing one immigrant and injuring several others in one of the earliest documented instances of organized anti-Chinese violence in America.

Chinese American business cover
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Chinese American business cover from San Francisco, CA, 1903

As social segregation of Chinese Americans increased, they formed ‘Chinatowns’ in numerous cities. In these environments, some immigrants built successful restaurant, grocery, publishing, and other businesses. This cover is from the Tsue Chong Wing Market, a Chinese wholesale and dry goods business in San Francisco.

Chinese restaurant, Washington DC, cover, c. 1916
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Washington, DC Chinese restaurant cover, 1920

The China Restaurant was in Washington, D.C.’s original Chinatown, centered on 13th Street, Northwest. The Chinese community there was forced out in the 1930s to make way for the Federal Triangle complex of buildings that included the Post Office Department headquarters.

5 cent Chinese Resistance stamp featuring portraits of Sun Yat-Sen and Abraham Lincoln
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5¢ Chinese Resistance single, 1942

This stamp, issued during World War II to commemorate Chinese resistance against Japanese invasion and occupation, featured portraits of Sun Yat-Sen and Abraham Lincoln. Sun was greatly influenced by Lincoln, referenced him often in speeches and writings, and attributed to Lincoln inspiration for his “Three Principles of Peace.” The U.S. provided significant aid, equipment, and training to Chinese forces during the resistance.

Chinese World newspaper cover
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Chinese World newspaper cover, 1944

Chinese World was a daily, Chinese-language newspaper published in San Francisco between 1892 and 1969.

4 cent Republic of China stamp
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4¢ Republic of China single, 1961

The second U.S. postage stamp to feature Sun Yat-Sen, this stamp was issued during the thirty-year period (1949-1979) when the United States recognized Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic on the mainland, as the legitimate government of of China.

29 cent USA-China joint issue Endangered Cranes autographed envelope
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USA-China joint issue 29¢ Endangered Cranes autographed second day cover, 1994

Fifteen years after the U.S. opened diplomatic relations with mainland China, this joint stamp issue featuring Chinese and American cranes was issued by both countries. This commemorative cover was autographed by the stamps’ designer, Clarence Lee (d. 2015). Just two years earlier, Lee had become the first Chinese American artist to design a U.S. postage stamp, the 1992 Lunar New Year stamp.

stamp featuring celebrity chef Joyce Chen
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Forever Celebrity Chefs: Joyce Chen single, 2014

Joyce Chen (1917-1994) was a Chinese-born chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author who is credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in the United States. She immigrated with her family to the United States in 1949 and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She operated four restaurants, published several cookbooks, and hosted the first nationally televised cooking show, “Joyce Chen Cooks,” in 1967. By adapting traditional Chinese recipes and cooking utensils to modern kitchens, Chen paved the way for Chinese food to become mainstream American fare.

stamp featuring Chien-Shiung Wu
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Forever Chien-Shiung Wu single, 2021

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) immigrated to the United States in 1936. She received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1940. She held teaching positions at Smith College and Princeton University and worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. After the war, she was hired by Columbia, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to hold a tenured professorship in physics. She received the National Medal of Science in 1975 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. Her portrait was painted by Kam Mak.