Oriental in Minnesota

I purchased several books during my recent visit to the United States, but none was more interesting (or cheaper) than this 63-page booklet, published in 1949 and found in the inventory of a small bookshop in Moorhead, Minnesota.


Based upon that title, and that cover, I wasn’t expecting much. And, considering the sad state of race relations in much of the United States in 1949, I was expecting even less. But lurid historical interest got the better of me, and I purchased it. Several days later, when I actually bothered to read the text, I found myself on the receiving end of a blunt lesson in books and whether one should judge them by their covers:

Many of the existing prejudices against the Orientals in Minnesota would disappear if the members of the majority group would try to get to know members of the Oriental group personally. Such contacts are excellent dissolvents of race prejudice. During the last war the Chinese and Filipinos were our allies. And during the same war many Japanese young men served valiantly in the American armed forces despite the fact that their parents had been despoiled of their property by the military government.

If a Minnesotan now discriminates against the Chinese, Japanese, or Filipinos, the logical inference is that he has the ethics and moral code of Stalin. He will use a group one day and destroy it the next.


The booklet is a report, personally commissioned by Governor Youngdahl, to assess “discrimination practiced against the Chinese, the Filipinos, and the Japanese who reside in Minnesota.” It is divided into three sections concerning each group, respectively, and ends with a brief conclusion on what steps should be taken to assure that the three groups can continue to live in Minnesota, unmolested by discriminatory people and practices.

This is a laudable stuff, and much of it seems just as relevant today as it was in 1949. But for my money (admittedly, very little: I paid US$4 for the book), the most interesting passages concern the history and daily life of the 550-member Chinese community living in Minnesota in 1949. It was not California or New York: there was no Chinatown, nor even a China neighborhood. Like many of the immigrants who preceded and followed them, the Chinese were majority male.

A few [men] married white women and it is estimated that between fifteen and twenty Chinese in Minnesota did so. Others went to a Chinese marriage broker who supplied them with a number of possible pictures of brides to be found in China. Inquiries would be made concerning the family of any girl in whom the man showed interest and if both families were agreeable to the match a marriage was arranged and the young man went to China to claim his bride. He might remain for several months, even years. But in almost every instance he would come back to America to earn money to support his family. There would be further trips to China when he could afford to take them. The young man might grow old without ever being able to bring his wife and children here.

The report pointedly blames discriminatory US immigration laws for this sad state of affairs, noting that the 1943 Exclusion Act allowed only 105 Chinese per year to enter the United States. In 1948, 10 managed to arrive in Minnesota. The report also notes:

In light of the above legislation it is not surprising that some Asiatics began to enter the United States illegally over the Mexican and Canadian borders. The Interracial Commission has been informed that some of the wives of the Minnesota Chinese were smuggled in but the number of illegal entrants was not large.

Later, an extended chapter focuses upon Chinese employment and businesses, with a special emphasis on laundries and restaurants:

The Chinese is either an employer or is employed by a Chinese. The origin of the Chinese employment pattern stems from the fact that years ago when the Chinese first sought work after the termination of their railroad contracts they found almost all lines of work closed to them … It occurred to the Chinese that European immigrants who could work in the mines, on farms, or in factories would not be anxious to spend long hours bending over washboards or ironing clothes. They reasoned that it would not take much capital to invest in a few tubs and a board and iron and rent a small space in a low rent area.

The report then offers a brief profile of the owner of “Yang’s Hand Laundry” in South Minneapolis.

Mr. Yang has been in Minnesota for about thirty years. During that time he has made four trip to China to visit his wife and children. With patience and frugality he he has gone on year after year working sixteen hours daily and preparing his own simple meals in the small room in back of his shop which serves as his living quarters. It is a lonely life but had enabled him to maintain his family in comfort in China until the apartment building they owned in Shanghai was bombed by the Japanese. The family escaped injury and moved to Canton. Mr. Yang says things are not good in Canton now. He does not hear from his family but reads the papers anxiously trying to ascertain the true situation in his home area. With the small quota for Chinese Mr. Yang has little hope of bringing his family here.

The section on Chinese restaurants is more upbeat. It is also lengthy. So, keeping in mind that much has already been written about Chinese food in America, I’ll pass on the history and jump to a passage concerning Margaret Chin, the American born niece of the founder of the much loved (so says the report) “John’s Place,” a restaurant founded by the late, “genial” Ye Sing Woo.

She thought that she had been given much less freedom than most American girls in the manner in which her mother reared her. Consequently she was much surprised when she returned to China to attend a Christian college to find that Chinese girls from the large cities were bolder in their attitudes and conduct than she [!!!]. But the girls from the villages were shy and retiring.

This latter point sets up one of the more poignant passages in the report.

In discussing the Chinese G.I. brides who have recently come to Minnesota, Mrs. Chin expressed the wish that something could be done to teach them American ways of living. Many of them come from the villages of China and were very shy. Mrs. Chin felt they shouldn’t be allowed to bury themselves in two small rooms in back of a laundry or upstairs over a cafe … She wished that there were enough of the older Chinese girls in the cities to act as “big sisters” to show them American customs and cookery.

The report notes that recent steps were taken to address these issues:

In April 1949, a club consisting of the members of the younger group of the Chinese community with elders acting as advisers was started in Minneapolis. The club is helping to integrate new G.I. brides into American life. Courses in home nursing and nutrition are offered and a crib service is provided so mothers may attend the classes. Dancing and bridge lessons are also available.

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