California's Chinese immigrants helped build ships, levees, irrigation systems and the transcontinental railroad. They worked in farm fields and mines and helped develop the abalone and shrimp industries.
For their efforts, they were rewarded with special taxes, forced out of towns and denied the rights to own property, marry whites and attend public schools. They also were subjected to violence and intimidation and denied equal protection by the courts. In 1882, they were made the targets of the nation's first law limiting immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act.
State Assemblyman Paul Fong, a Cupertino Democrat whose maternal grandfather was subjected to immigration restrictions, thinks it's time the state and the federal governments formally apologize for mistreatment of the Chinese.
"It was a double standard all the way" until the mid-20th century, Fong said Tuesday. "They couldn't marry who they wanted. They couldn't buy property until the 1950s. Asians couldn't become (naturalized) citizens."
It's not the first time that state lawmakers have sought to make amends for past mistreatment.
Earlier this month, Connecticut became the seventh state to apologize to blacks for the wrongs committed under slavery. Alabama, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia are the others.
The Chinese started coming to California in large numbers during the Gold Rush, hoping to strike it rich and return home. Many stayed and more came, working in the mines or taking other jobs, including helping build the transcontinental railroad.
Eddie Wong, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, said Chinese immigrants made "tremendous contributions to building society, building the economy of California. That should be recognized along with an apology."
Fong has introduced a resolution in the Assembly that cites the contributions made by the Chinese and expresses California's deep regrets for the discrimination. The measure is scheduled to be considered next week by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the first step in winning approval from the Legislature.
He has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to publicly announce his efforts.
Fong said he also plans to seek an apology from the federal government and some form of reparation, such as a contribution to maintain the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. The center housed Chinese immigrants between 1910 and 1940 as they tried to prove they were eligible to enter the U.S.
The island is a state park that could be shut because of California's budget problems.
Federal apologies rare
Apologies for government mistreatment and reparations have been rare in Congress. In 1988, Congress apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and offered $20,000 payments to survivors. It also issued an apology in 1993 to native Hawaiians for the unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Legislation is pending in Congress to apologize for slavery, and for years of mistreatment to Native American Indians.
Fong's maternal grandfather experienced the discrimination in California firsthand. When he arrived in the United States in 1939, he spent two months on Angel Island undergoing questioning to determine if he was eligible to enter the country, Fong said.
He wasn't eligible, under the immigration restrictions that allowed Chinese to immigrate if they were members of certain professions, were the children of immigrants in those professions or were the children of Chinese-Americans who were citizens because they were born in the U.S.
Fong's grandfather paid about $2,000 for fake identification papers and took a new name of Chan Share, becoming a "paper son." The term referred to immigrants who purchased fake identification papers from the Chinese who claimed they were citizens and wanted to help their children in China immigrate to America, a practice that blossomed after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed many birth records.
"There were discriminatory laws on the books at the time, and he had to get around them," Fong said. "That was the way they did it."
His grandfather settled near San Mateo and became a flower grower, later becoming one of the founders of the Chinese Bay Area Chrysanthemum Growers Association.