May: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month


The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continues to strengthen the fabric of American society. From the arrival of the first Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants 150 years ago to those who arrive today, as well as those native to the Hawaiian Islands and to our Pacific Island territories, all possess the common purpose of the fulfilling the American dream and leading a life bound by the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we remember the challenges and celebrate the achievements that define our history.

--President Barack Obama, May 1, 2009

January  February March

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Hawaiians in the Oregon Country
by Jean Barman and Bruce McIntyre Watson

Native Hawaiians were among the earliest outsiders in present-day Oregon. The future state’s first resource to be exploited by outsiders was animal pelts, highly valued for trimming garments and making hats. Prevailing winds meant that ships heading to Oregon for that purpose routinely stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, also known as the Sandwich Islands, to renew provisions and possibly acquire some Hawaiians, prized for their hard work and amenable dispositions. “Took on board four Sandwich Island men to go to the coast to strengthen the ship’s company,” ran a typical journal entry.

In the late eighteenth century, ships traded seasonally with coastal peoples for sea otter furs, and their successors provisioned permanent posts in the Pacific Northwest to acquire beaver pelts. Until the time of the American annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, over a thousand indigenous Hawaiians, sometimes called Kanakas after the Hawaiian word for a person, made the crossing to the Pacific Northwest for this or other work, with others of varied backgrounds following them into the present day.


Chinese Americans in Oregon
by Douglas Lee

The Cantonese-Chinese were the first Chinese in Oregon. They immigrated to America primarily from the Pearl River Delta region in southeast China in the century from 1850 to 1960. This region forms the central third of their home province of Gwongdung (Cantonese pronunciation; Guangdong is the standard Pinyin "Mandarin" Chinese spelling, formerly spelled in Wade-Giles Mandarin as Kwangtung.) This group decisively shaped the first century of Chinese experience in Oregon.

Small groups of Cantonese-Chinese miners, who arrived in Oregon Territory in 1850-1853, represented the first Chinese migration beyond northern California, the earliest and primary location of Cantonese-Chinese settlement in America (1850-1860). In the early 1850s, these miners and a handful of merchants settled in two different but widely separated parts of Oregon Territory.

They went first to southwest Oregon, with the largest number settling in Josephine and Jackson Counties; fewer went to Douglas and Grant Counties. These Chinese formed a geographical and chronological extension of Cantonese-Chinese mining activity in northern California’s Shasta and Trinity Counties. The second location was in northeast Oregon, which became the gateway to the Inland Empire in the southeast corner of Washington Territory (1859-1889), with specific reference to Walla Walla and the Boise Basin in present-day Idaho (1863-1890).

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Japanese Americans in Oregon
by George Katagiri

Resting in the shade of the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, there is a grave marker with the name Miyo Iwakoshi. The name is not widely known in Oregon, but it is historically significant since Iwakoshi was the matriarch of the first Japanese family to settle in the state. Her arrival in 1880 spawned the immigration of thousands of people from Japan who would contribute to the state's economic development as they struggled against discrimination and tested America's civil rights. Iwakoshi arrived with her Scotsman husband, Andrew McKinnon, and their five-year-old adopted daughter, Tama Nitobe. Oregon was growing rapidly at the time, and McKinnon built a steam sawmill called Orient. The community of Orient still exists near Gresham.

Since the 1850s, laborers from China had arrived in Oregon to work primarily on the railroads. They lived in crowded quarters, spoke a language that was unfamiliar to most Americans, and did not assimilate readily. To appease West Coast working-class resentment against the cheap labor and what many considered the racial impurity of Chinese laborers, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The immigration of labor from China came to a halt. Still, workers were needed, so the labor market in Japan was exploited.

Hmong Immigration
by Sami Scripter

During the 1960s, the Hmong in Laos aided the United States in the Vietnam War, providing intelligence, monitoring Communist forces that used the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, and helping to rescue downed American airmen. When the U.S. pulled out of the war in 1975, thousands of Hmong families fled to refugee camps in Thailand. In 1976, relief agencies resettled many of these families in the United States, including Oregon. By December 1981, about 4,500 Hmong lived in the state, one of the largest such populations in the country.

Hmong refugees arrived in Portland and surrounding communities with few possessions. They spoke little English, and they were among the least educated and poorest minorities in the United States. Most brought with them only a bundle or two of clothing and household goods. At first, they relied on government assistance and, when possible, did farm work to support themselves. During harvest times, school buses took women and children to Willamette Valley farms, where they picked strawberries and cucumbers and women sold their beautiful batik, counted cross-stitch, and reverse appliqué fabrics to collectors. For the men who had worked as soldiers, finding work proved more difficult.

East Indians in Astoria  

East Indians of Oregon and the Ghadar Party
by Johanna Ogden

In the early twentieth century, five to six hundred men and one family of East Indians lived along the Columbia River, from The Dalles to the coast, with the largest numbers settling in St. Johns and Astoria. A small group also worked for the railroads in southern Oregon. The men were often called “Hindus” by the newspapers and others—a derogatory term, a misunderstanding of their faith, and a reference to Hindustan (roughly present-day India and Pakistan). East Indians, mainly Sikh men from Punjab and Hindus and Muslims from other regions of India, migrated to the United States because of the harsh conditions—plagues, famines, and political conflict—in Hindustan under British colonial rule. Part of an international diaspora, the East Indian community in North America worked primarily in lumber mills and worked and lived from British Columbia to the California-Mexico border. 

Shinzaburo Ban
by Barbara Yasui

Shinzaburo Ban was a Japanese businessman who was instrumental in bringing people of Japanese ancestry to Oregon. Though primarily known as a labor contractor, he was a jack of all trades, with business interests in a variety of enterprises: several mercantile stores, a newspaper, a post office, a sugar beet farm, shingle mills, and a livestock ranch. 

Ban was born and educated in Tokyo. He studied English with American missionary James Hepburn and served with Japanese Consul-General Taro Ando in Honolulu. While in Hawaii, Ban became aware of the growing demand for railroad workers on the American mainland. He resigned his position and returned to Japan to set up a contracting business, then immigrated to Oregon, arriving in 1891 with his wife Kiyo.

As a Japanese labor contractor, Ban recruited workers in Japan for railroad companies in the United States, put them under contract to him, and arranged for their passage. Once they arrived in America, Ban provided housing and transportation and acted as a go-between, connecting the workers and the railroad companies. For that service, Ban collected a commission of ten cents a day from each worker.


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Ing Hay ("Doc Hay")
by Jodi Varon

Ing Hay (Wu Yunian), also known as Doc Hay, was a partner of Kam Wah Chung (Jin huachang) and Company in John Day from 1887 to 1948.  Born in Guangdong Province, Toisan (Daishan) County, China, he emigrated first to Washington State, then to eastern Oregon in 1887. His immediate family remained in China, including his wife, a son, and a daughter, with whom he was never reunited.

Ing Hay practiced pulsology, a traditional Chinese method of diagnosis and treatment of ailments based on pulse signals. He also prescribed traditional Chinese herbal remedies at the Kam Wah Chung store and performed Buddhist rituals. His clientele included the many Chinese laborers who lived in Grant County and worked in nearby mining areas. After 1910, when most Chinese workers relocated, increasing numbers of non-Chinese patrons sought Ing Hay’s confidential treatments for a variety of ills. His gentle manner and his unorthodox treatments, as well as their success, made him a highly regarded and respected practitioner.


Lung On
by Jodi Varon

Lung On (Liang Guanying, also known as Leon) was a partner with Ing Hay in the Kam Wah Chung and Company general store and apothecary in John Day from 1887 to 1940. Born in 1863 in Guangdong Province, China, he arrived in California in 1882 and formed a business partnership with Ing Hay, a Chinese herbalist, in 1887.

Lung On, from a prosperous Chinese family, was an educated Chinese classicist, and his fluency in Chinese and English made him invaluable to both the Chinese in John Day and the non-Chinese who contracted labor and traded with the store. He served as interpreter and translator, scribe, and business mentor for the Chinese in John Day. He was noted for his conviviality, his knowledge, and his love of games of chance, including horse racing.


Japantown, Portland (Nihonmachi)
by Henry Sakamoto

Portland's Japantown, or Nihonmachi, is popularly described as having existed before World War II in the area known today as Old Town-Chinatown, between Northwest Broadway and the Willamette River. It is not widely known that Southwest Portland had a Japantown, too. Those borders were the Willamette River on the east, West Burnside Street on the north, Southwest Broadway on the west, and Southwest Montgomery Street on the south.

During the 1890s, labor contractors found jobs for Japanese immigrants on the railroads, on farms, and in the forests. Many of those immigrants were processed through Portland, creating a demand for hotels, bathhouses, laundries, and other services. Businesses that formed in the city’s Japantowns thrived in the low-rent areas near the river.


Benjamin Tanaka
by Morgen Young

Benjamin Tanaka was a prominent physician in Portland’s Japantown in the early twentieth century before he was imprisoned in a federal detention center during World War II. Following the war, he established a successful practice in Ontario, Oregon.

Benjamin Masayoshi Tanaka was born on the Island of Hawaii in 1887. His parents had been recruited from Japan to work on sugar cane and pineapple plantations. As a child of laborers, Tanaka could not attend school. While working in the plantations, he was beaten by the foreman when he was caught trying to teach himself to read.



Frank Hachiya
by William G. Robbins

The name Frank T. Hachiya will forever be linked to Oregon’s Hood River Valley, a setting hostile to returning Japanese American servicemen and families at the end of World War II.

Born in the upper valley town of Odell in 1920, Hachiya was a member of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), translating enemy documents and interrogating prisoners, when he was killed on Leyte Island in the Philippines in January 1945. Caught up in the war in the Pacific after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hachiya’s family was scattered—his mother and brother Homer were in Japan, his father Junkichi in the War Relocation Authority camp in Minidoka, Idaho.

Japanese-born Junkichi Hachiya had worked for orchardist Henry Rodamar near Odell until 1936, when the family returned to Japan to take up property Junkichi had inherited. When Junkichi Hachiya returned to the United States in 1940 to follow the fruit harvests, Frank followed, boarding with the Rodamar family and attending Odell High School. He enrolled in Portland’s Multnomah College for a year and in 1941 entered the University of Oregon, where he signed up for political science classes.

Baker City Chinatown
by Gary Dielman

For over seven decades, Baker City had an area referred to as Chinatown by Chinese and whites alike. Founded in 1864, the town owed its existence to the gold rush of 1862, which brought the first settlers to eastern Oregon, including Chinese laborers and businessmen who lived in a compact area a block from the town’s main business district. Chinatown occupied two sides of Auburn Avenue for a block, bounded by Resort Street on the west and Powder River on the east.

The 1870 census counted 307 residents of Baker City, 29 of them Chinese. Ten years later, the population of Chinatown had doubled to include merchants, butchers, physicians, cooks, woodcutters, gardeners, gamblers, tailors, and prostitutes. Wesley Andrews, a local businessman, estimated that in the late 1800s Chinatown’s population swelled to several hundred during the winters, when bad weather forced miners out of mountain mining camps.

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Iwao Oyama  

Oshu Nippo
by George Katagiri

For early Japanese immigrants to Oregon, a Japanese-language newspaper was their only contact with the world. In Portland, Shinsaburo Ban was a major labor contractor who placed thousands of men in jobs throughout Oregon, Idaho, and states as far away as Montana and Colorado. His store, located on Northwest Third Avenue and Couch Street, supplied his men with food, clothing, and all the needs for living in remote areas. In 1906, Ban started a private newspaper, called the Oregon Shimpo (Oregon News) to keep in touch with his charges. Many other Japanese who were working on Oregon farms and railroads and for lumber mills relied on Ban and the newspaper to provide what they needed to live in isolation from populated areas.

In 1909, Ban terminated his publishing interests, and the paper was taken over by Toyoji Abe, who changed the name to Oshu Nippo (Oregon Daily News). Six years later, Abe was offered a job in San Francisco, and Iwao Oyama, a fresh face to Oregon, became the editor. Oyama was a journalism major who had graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo before coming to America. With the exception of the war years, he edited the paper for thirty-four years.

Hazel Ying Lee
by Heather Burmeister

Hazel Ying Lee, who was born and educated in Oregon, was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military, one of two Chinese Americans in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs)—the other was Margaret “Maggie” Gee from California—and one of thirty-eight WASPs who died in service. Known for her skill and courage, her peers considered her to be an excellent pilot.

Lee was born in Portland on August 24, 1912. Her parents, Yuet Lee and Ssiu Lan Lee, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the United States, and then raised eight children in Portland at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was prevalent. Hazel Ying Lee graduated from Commerce High School (now Cleveland High School).

Hazel Ying Lee was drawn to flying while still a teenager. She took a job as an elevator operator at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland and saved money for private flying lessons. She later enrolled in the flying program sponsored by the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society and was flying by the time she was nineteen.

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kwan hsu  

Kwan Hsu
by Lisa Donnelly

Kwan Hsu arrived in Portland in 1964, a newly minted professor tasked not just with teaching at Portland State College (now Portland State University) but also with creating a new biophysics program in the Physics Department. When the United States normalized relations with China, Hsu’s connections on both sides of the Pacific Ocean placed her in a position to foster business and cultural connections between two very different worlds.

Born in Guang-Xi province, China, in 1913, Hsu grew up in Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia. Educated in Catholic missionary grammar and high schools, she spoke fluent French and English when she matriculated at the University of Shanghai, a four-year university founded and supported by Baptist missionaries from the United States. She graduated in 1936 with a bachelor of science degree with honors in physics.