Indy-Chinese New Year: Early Chinese-Americans & The Holiday, Hooiser Style

A Chinese New Year parade led by the traditional dragon.

A Chinese New Year parade led by the traditional dragon.

Seeing a dragon parade the streets of San Francisco or New York this time of year might not be shocking, being the symbol of Chinese New Year, which began several days ago, with festivities continuing for about two more weeks.

The Chinese New Year Parade in New York (shutterbucket).

The Chinese New Year Parade in New York (shutterbucket).

Seeing a tiger dance in Indianapolis might be a bit more unexpected, though not to the self-identified “Indy-Chinese.”

As in people from Indiana, not people from “Ind0china.”

How diversity influences the general American Pop Culture is more often obvious when one considers the evolution of holidays:

Oktoberfest, which started in Germany in the 1810s only rooted itself in the U.S. almost two centuries later and spread out from upper-midwestern cities with large German-American populations to even southern California where one such annual celebration is especially popular with Central Americans and Filipino-Americans.

Columbus Day was initially marked by both American Revolutionary War veterans and Native Americans as “Discovery Day,” was dropped for almost centuries, turned into a full-fledged civic holiday by Anglo-Saxons in 1893, and then used by Italian-Americans as a point of pride in the 1910s.

An ad for a St. Andrew's Day celebration.

An ad for a St. Andrew’s Day celebration.

St. Patrick’s Day was initially celebrated with more importance by Irish immigrants and their descendants living in the United States; as a result it only later caught on in a big way in Ireland.

The first celebrations of St. Andrews Day in Arizona in the mid-20th century might not be all that surprising given the fact that, over the course of some two centuries since the first heavy immigration of Scottish to America, their descendants  had mostly inter-married with other nationalities and migrated out to live in every town across the country.

So, perhaps only in America does it make perfect sense that Chinese New Year is celebrated in West Lafayette, Indiana.

With the first large community of Chinese immigrants forming in the late 1840s in San Francisco,  the annual two week celebration of Chinese New Year has been part of the American Pop Culture, in one form or another, for over 150 years.

Also known as the Spring Festival, it begins on the first day of the year as designated by lunar movements, and concludes fifteen days later with the Lantern Festival.

The Chinese Lantern Festival marking the end of the Spring Festival.

The Chinese Lantern Festival marking the end of the Spring Festival.

While different provinces of the vast land now ruled as one People’s Republic of China dictate variations on New Year traditions and foods, in the U.S. it has evolved and blended into a pattern of familiar customs.

The night before New Year is usually reserved for family gatherings, where children are given gifts of money in red envelopes. Red is the predominant color of the New Year, seen everywhere from lanterns to paper cut-out symbols to the shade of clothing worn by most people.

Chinese New Year Cake.

Chinese New Year Cake.

Among the traditional foods is a cake made of glutinous rice, sugar and flavored with red bean paste. Sliced thinly, dipped in egg and pan-fried for a crisp coating but remaining soft inside, it’s called “leen go” (in Cantonese), meaning “to progress more and reach higher every year,” according to an editorial about the holiday on CNN.

Chinese New Year is heavily based around the idea of renewing one’s luck. Gambling at cards and the racetrack hits its peak over the holiday weeks.

In Taiwan, many young people stay up the night before New Year into the morning, believing it will give their parents a longer life.

The one staple of the holiday which draws not only Chinese-Americans but many outside the community is the Dragon Parade. Various associations work to create the paper and wire dragons and carry the full length of it at the head of a parade. In theaters and auditoriums, there’s also the Tiger Dance and traditional music concerts.

The 1928 Chinese New Year  in L.A.'s Chinatown (vintage everyday)

The 1928 Chinese New Year in L.A.’s Chinatown. (vintage everyday)

In San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago the Chinese New Year parades are held in Chinatown.

In Indianapolis, however, where the Chinese population has always been comparatively smaller, there were only certain neighborhoods where many immigrants lived, rather than entire sections of downtown. More quickly than in larger cities, the generations there assimilated into the general population.

Like all immigrants, the Chinese faced bigotry because they didn’t speak English or looked differently than the majority population. For the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America, however, the reality of life in this new country was even harsher.

Not permitted to own land, they found shelter only in the poorest urban sections. Since many wore their hair in a long queue and shaved their heads as an act of fearful loyalty to an ordinance issued in their home country, under threat of beheading, they were easier targets for the violent acts of the ignorant.

Chinese gold miners.

Chinese gold miners.

The first known Chinese immigrant arrived in the U.S. in 1815. Although his name is not recorded, it was known that he worked as a cook, in Monterey, California, when that region was still a Spanish colony.

The small and early first wave of Chinese immigrants came mostly as crew members on the ships of mariners doing trade with China. Numerous instances also include stories of young children being sold to traders by their impoverished parents, and others stowing away or being kidnapped by sea captains. Settling in the United States, many of these children adopted the Anglo names of the adults who raised him, thus making it difficult to trace them all individually.

By 1849 there were some 325 Chinese men living in the U.S. Within just three years that number shot up to an astronomical estimate of 25,000, most coming to mine for gold during the California Gold Rush in the northern part of the state.

An 1881 drawing of a San Francisco Chinese laundry.

An 1881 drawing of a San Francisco Chinese laundry.

Almost all of them were poor and uneducated and willing to take any menial work that could be found, including the one labor-intensive back-breaking job almost nobody else would assume, that of cleaning clothes.

Since it was also considered to be the work of women it was thus deemed demeaning for many white men, no matter how poor or how desperately they needed the work. Further, it required no immediate ability to speak English.

Saving and building a moderate income this way, opening laundry businesses became the one line of work which they felt could never be denied them a means of support.

By 1900, it was estimated that a full 25 percent of all Chinese nationalists working in the United States did so in the laundry business.

A typical workday was sixteen hours.

Chinese workers were depicted in a drawing. only allowed to watch the ceremonial opening of the transcontinental railorad they helped build from afar.

Chinese workers were depicted in a drawing, only allowed to watch from afar the opening of the transcontinental railroad they helped build.

As the gold rush in California began to wane, many soon moved to Nevada and Utah and other western territories, following work where it was soon offered.

The project providing the jobs was the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, extending what would be the first transcontinental railway line eastward from California to meet the line being built westward.

Finding that these Chinese men were willing to undertake the dangerous and physically exhausting work for lower wages than white and black men, one of the four leading partners in the project, financier Charles Crocker of San Francisco, ordered recruiters to hire thousands of Chinese men for the project.

These workers were drawn not only from among those Chinese already in California but hired directly from China, primarily from six districts of Guangdong Province.

The work required them to level ground, blast through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to make passages and dig tunnels.  Those that died doing the dangerous work were simply replaced by more cheap labor.

When the Central Pacific Railroad was completed, not one Chinese worker was permitted to attend the ceremony linking the rails from both coasts.

Not even the idealized 1881 painting The Last Spike by Thomas Hill depicted any of the CHinese workers who physically built the Central Pacific Railroad.

Not even the idealized 1881 painting The Last Spike by Thomas Hill depicted any of the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad.

Just two of the Chinese soldiers who fought in the American Civil War.

Just two of the Chinese soldiers who fought in the American Civil War.

Even a dozen years later, when the scene was idealized for the ages in a large canvas, among the white men, three women, and half-dozen Native American, African-American and Mexicans depicted, not one figure was included to symbolize the Chinese men who built it. Yet they had composed 90 percent of the railroad workforce.

Chinese nationals fought in the Civil War for both the Union Army and the Confederate Army, yet were denied citizenship.

If their children were born in the U.S. they were automatically granted citizenship.

With Chinese women prevented from coming to the U.S. in large numbers and laws preventing Chinese men from marrying white women, however, the population never increased substantially by generations.

Despite this, of course, there is evidence of a small number of Chinese men who married women of different racial backgrounds, finding alternative legal means to establish their unions, share homes, have families and jointly own property. Since the men so often Anglicized their names, however, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to trace their descendants.

The economic depression of the 1870s, along with more immigrants arriving from European countries and white natives now demanding any available work, the atmosphere in California and the West turned intolerant towards Chinese workers, most of whom were victimized by acts of violence intended to push them out of their homes and jobs.

Chinese people being forced from their home in Seattle.  (Washington Historical Society)

Chinese people being forced from their home in Seattle. (Washington Historical Society)

By 1880 there were estimates of as high as a quarter of a million Chinese laborers in the U.S. but the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbid any further immigration for ten years. In 1892, a second law required Chinese nationals to register and keep on them at all times this certification or risk imprisonment or deportation.

Many headed east to Chicago where the situation was more tolerable and workers were needed in shoe and cigar factories. In time, however, bigotry again arose against the Chinese and some looked to nearby smaller cities for work and homes.

In 1880, the first natives of China settled in the state of Indiana. They were ten working-class men who moved to Indianapolis, eight of whom worked in the laundry business.

K.K. Chen, pride of Indy-Chinese

K.K. Chen, pride of Indy-Chinese

The shift from a demographic employed mostly in manual labor, grocery-store and laundry-business ownership to those coming to the U.S. to either pursue higher education or already having professional training and a university degree was symbolized by the career of perhaps the most revered of Indy-Chinese-Americans, the world-renowned scientist Ko Kuei Chen, known as “K.K.”

Born outside of Shanghai in 1898 and initially educated in Peking, he came to the U.S. in 1918 to earn both his bachelor’s of science and PhD at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then study medicine at John Hopkins. In 1929, he relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana to accept the position of Director of Pharmacological Research at the Eli Lilly and Company.

For a third of a century, K.K. Chen led ground-breaking pharmacological experiments, pioneering work on ephedrine, poison antidotes and steroid development, helping to make Lilly the global leader in drug production. Also a faculty member at Indiana University, he was not just a role model for many Indy-Chinese but a prominent civic leader.

Chinese-American community leaders, 1943. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Chinese-American community leaders, 1943. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

On December 13, 1943, with World War II underway and China and the United States as allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally repealed the restrictive Chinese immigration laws and the ban on naturalization. With the 1965 Immigration Act further removing limitations placed on the number of immigrants from various countries, a second wave of Chinese immigration began. According to the 2006 census, eight-five percent of the 1.3 million China-born people in the U.S. had immigrated to the U.S. only since 1980. And more than half had become naturalized citizens, a higher percentage than the general U.S. population of those born in a foreign country.

The third-largest among immigrant nationalities (Mexico and the Philippines are the two largest), most people from China have settled in California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, but their population is increasing in Wyoming and Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.

In 1970, there were only 2,500 people born in China living in Indiana. Forty years later, there were approximately 12,000. China is second leading nation-of-origin among immigrants settling to Indiana.

The Chung Wah Chinese School Drum and Bugle Corps performs in the Chinese New Year parade in L.A.'s Chinatown 1955 vintage everyday

The Chung Wah Chinese School Drum and Bugle Corps performs in the Chinese New Year parade in L.A.’s Chinatown 1955. (vintage everyday)

Unlike the earlier age of intolerance when they were denied citizenship, the majority of Chinese immigrants in the last half-century are settling in the United States as naturalized citizens. There is less of the institutionalized bigotry which marked earlier times and more legal ways to now challenge it. Two in five foreign-born Chinese adults in the U.S. have a bachelor’s or higher degree and nearly twenty-five percent of Chinese-born men are “white-collar” workers in the fields of management, business, finance, and information technology, creating not only greater wealth and property ownership but civic activity.

They are also coming from more diverse regions of China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong than those who came in the past. Nor are the majority of them living in communities among themselves, but rather in higher-income, traditionally-white suburbs. There are also now many first- and second-generation children with one parent who was born in China and one who was not, be they of the same or different racial origins.

For many of those self-identified as Chinese, whatever their racial background or nation of birth, Chinese New Year has consistently remained an important part of their lives. In Indianapolis, Indiana and its suburbs, several organizations help maintain the traditional celebration of the holiday.

A singer at the 2010 IACA Chinese New Year event (Henry Fu, IACA)

A singer at the 2010 IACA Chinese New Year event. (Henry Fu, IACA)

The Indiana Association of Chinese-Americans (IACA) was created in 1973, however, to go further, serving not just Chinese immigrants and descendants but with outreach to the non-Chinese community as well, stating its mission, “To foster constructive citizenship on the part of Chinese-Americans in the Greater Indianapolis area, the State of Indiana, and the nation…cultivate the understanding and the appreciation of both American and Chinese cultural heritages…enrich the Indiana society with Chinese-American contribution.”

Carmel Indiana's Chinese New Year's celebration, a performance at the Palladium Center for Performing Arts.

Carmel Indiana’s Chinese New Year’s celebration, a performance at the Palladium Center for Performing Arts.

The Indianapolis Chinese Community Center (ICCC) was founded in 1994 by Singapore immigrant Kit Yong who initially sought a way for his children to learn Chinese. With a volunteer teacher and the Lawrence Township’s international magnet Forest Glen Elementary School providing use of their facilities, a school for language classes, and then art classes, was established, open to all. It created a second division, a Culture Activity Group, providing instruction in Tai Ji, table tennis, martial arts, orchestral music and the traditional lion and dragon dance.

Musicians performing at a Chinese New Year concert in Valparaiso. Indiana.

Musicians performing at a Chinese New Year concert in Valparaiso. Indiana.

Like the IACA, the ICCC participates in demonstrations throughout the year at public events in Indiana, such as the Indy 500 Parade and the International Festival of Indiana.

Guests at the 2010 IACA Chinese New Year dinner. (Henry Fu IACA)

Guests at the 2010 IACA Chinese New Year dinner. (Henry Fu IACA)

Based in the town of Carmel, Indiana, the ICCC has played a “critical role in promoting the awareness of Chinese culture to mainstream Americans and building a more vibrant, multi-cultural landscape in central Indiana.”

In addition to these two groups, the Eli Lilly Chinese Culture Network in Indianapolis, the business-oriented China American Society, Purdue University’s Confucius Institute in West Lafayette, and Valparaiso University’s Chinese Studies Program in Valparaiso, are sponsoring Chinese New Year events this year, as they have in recent years, offering an array of venues for the general public, including musical concerts, dinners, tiger dance demonstrations, dragon parades, street displays of red lanterns, and acrobatic performances.

A family enjoying the IACA 2010 Chinese New Year-sponsored dinner. (Henry Fu IACA)

A family enjoying the IACA 2010 Chinese New Year dinner. (Henry Fu IACA)

Looking outward from the state and local level, in that uniquely American way of customs adapted from foreign countries and then reverberating back across the globe is another unique precedent involving Chinese New Year.

Peja Stojakovic, who played for the Indiana Pacers.

Peja Stojakovic, who played for the Indiana Pacers.

For the first time in its history, the National Basketball Association will pay tribute to its Chinese fans by hosting its largest international tribute ever with the NBA Chinese New Year Celebration from February 8th to the 15th.

The league will usher in the Year of the Snake with a record twenty-three live games televised and streamed in China over eight consecutive days. Five NBA teams will host in-arena Chinese New Year-themed celebrations and two additional teams will have signage recognizing the holiday.

And who did the NBA send last week as a representative from the United States to Beijing, accompanying Chinese fans to watch a match between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers?

The six-foot ten-inch forward Peja Stojakovic, who played for the Indiana Pacers in 2006 and retired in 2011 from the Dallas Mavericks.

Who was born in Serbia.

The traditional dragon parade at the Indiana Chinese Cultural Center Richard Brytant Picasa

The traditional dragon parade at the Indiana Chinese Cultural Center (Richard Brytant Picasa)

Categories: Diversity, History, Holidays

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