Asian Americans in Ann Arbor
Long discriminated against, they're now the city's biggest minority.
by France Kai-Hwa Wang
Published in August, 2019
"When my father first arrived in Michigan, the U.S. Census only counted about thirty Filipinos in the entire state," says Joseph Galura. "If you believe the government's figures, in 2010 there were 20,825 Filipinos in Metro Detroit alone--exponential growth."
Galura's father, Atilano, came to Michigan from the Philippines in 1928 as a self-supporting student, by way of Hawaii and California. He later worked as a production engineer during World War II. Galura's mother arrived in Detroit in 1954 as part of a postwar wave of medical professionals from the islands, doing her internship as a clinical dietitian at what is now Wayne State University. Today, Galura lives right on the Ann Arbor-Pittsfield Township border and teaches at the U-M School of Social Work; this spring, his daughter Genevra Galura graduated from U-M as a Doctor of Pharmacy.
For almost a century, the U.S. limited or even banned immigrants from most Asian countries. Atilano Galura was able to stay only because at the time, the Philippines were a U.S. colony. But since the door opened in the mid 1960s, growing numbers of Asians and Asian Americans of many ethnicities have made Ann Arbor home, drawn by opportunities at U-M, the auto industry, the health care industry, and family.
Today, Ann Arbor has one of the largest Asian American communities in the state. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, last year "Asian alone" residents were the city's largest minority, at almost 16 percent of the population (plus some portion of the 4 percent identified as two or more races). That's up from less than 12 percent in 2000. However, mirroring national trends, Asians are not new here.
"The first Michiganders of Japanese descent came to the state in the late 1800s," says Mika Kennedy, U-M PhD Candidate in English and curator of the recent "Exiled to Motown: Japanese Americans in Detroit" exhibit at the Ann Arbor District Library. A U-M online exhibit identifies the first Japanese student at the university as
Saiske Tagai, from 1872 to 1874. The first Chinese students, Mary Stone (Shi Mei-yu) and Ida Kahn (Kang Ai-de), attended from 1892 to 1896, and were among the first Chinese women ever to become Western-trained physicians. "Their future career," said then-U-M president James B. Angell, "will be watched with every expectation of their eminent success."
After Stone and Kahn returned to China as medical missionaries, U-M Regent Levi Lewis Barbour met them there and was so impressed that he created a scholarship for Asian women, the Barbour Scholarship, which was instrumental in bringing many Asian women to study at U-M and which continues to support Asian women studying at U-M today.
Angell had encouraged the enrollment of Chinese students ever since traveling to China to negotiate the Angell Treaty of 1880. According to an article on the U-M's heritage website by James Tobin, the treaty temporarily suspended immigration of Chinese workers while also offering protections to Chinese already in America. Though it was soon superseded by the much harsher Chinese Exclusion Act, after the U.S.'s participation in putting down the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, Angell urged American lawmakers to return its share of China's indemnity to create a generous fund to support more Chinese students at U.S. colleges and universities. Many came to Michigan, broadening U-M's relationship with China.
Students from the Philippines arrived after the Spanish American War. "Some sources say Santiago Artiaga, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in civil engineering in 1904, was the first Filipino to study in the U.S.," says Galura, who collaborated with the U-M Museum of Natural History to reimagine its permanent Philippines display. "However, the University's relationship to the Philippines during this period could be described as fraught. Prior to the Spanish American War, U-M faculty were doing research in the Philippines. When the Philippines became a U.S. colony, one researcher in particular, Dean C. Worcester, was appointed to one of the highest positions of authority in the colonial government."
World War II brought many changes that helped shape the Asian American community. While Japanese American families were incarcerated in concentration camps, the U-M hosted one of the Japanese language schools for the secret Military Intelligence Service (MIS). "Dr. Joseph K. Yamagiwa was a Japanese language professor at U-M during WWII, and was selected to head the MIS school at U-M," says Kennedy. "The program operated from 1943 to 1944. Students of the U-M language program were white, but the instructors were Issei and Nisei [first- and second-generation Japanese Americans] that came from the camps." Yamagiwa went on to oversee the creation of U-M Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literature.
After the war, the War Brides Act allowed U.S. military veterans to marry and bring back spouses from other countries. Because Chinese and Filipina women had not generally been allowed into the U.S., and because many states (although not Michigan) had laws prohibiting interracial marriage, this was the first time that many Chinese and Filipino American men were able to marry and start families in America. The GI Bill also made it possible for many Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese American veterans to attend college.
They were joined by new arrivals after passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which emphasized family reunification and attracting skilled labor to the U.S. As in the rest of the nation, the population of Ann Arbor saw a jump in many different Asian American ethnicities between 1960 and 1970, followed by another jump in the 1970s and 1980s due to a national medical personnel shortage and the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees.
Chien-An Yuan came to Ann Arbor with his family in 1978 when he was two months old. His parents came to America from Taiwan to study mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri, then moved to Chicago, and then to Ann Arbor where his father worked as a mechanical engineer at Bechtel and his mother worked at a local bank.
Yuan grew up on the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti border "Our neighborhood, which seemed like the entirety of the world then, was pretty mixed--Southeast Asian, Asian American, African American, Caucasian," says the multidisciplinary artist, cofounder of IS/LAND contemporary Asian American performing arts collective. "I really can't say that I felt the presence of an Asian American community outside of my parent's circle of friends--it was more of a mixed paradise, really--with all kinds of kids playing together."
And new people continue to come. "Most contemporary Japanese coming to Michigan have come for jobs in the automotive or related industries," says Kennedy. "Toyota and Subaru both have R&D centers in Ann Arbor." Korean automaker Hyundai also has a large technical center here.
The governmental preference for credentialed immigrants encouraged the model minority stereotype that casts Asian Americans as meek, quiet, and good at math and science. However, Asian Americans were and continue to be politically active and leaders in the community.
In the 1970s, Asian American students and the East Wind student organization joined other U-M students of color in protests and sit-ins for civil rights and ethnic studies. Some of those same students became national civil rights leaders in organizing for justice for Chinese American Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two autoworkers in 1982.
Sang-Yong Nam came from Korea in 1964, with only $4 in his pocket, for graduate school at U-M College of Architecture and Design. According to the website of U-M Nam Center for Korean Studies, "He found only a few books about Korea in the U-M library and a lack of Korean art in the U-M Museum of Art. It became his dream to correct the disparity and make U-M a premier center for Korean studies." After graduating in 1966, Nam invested in campus real estate and eventually became the largest benefactor of the center, pledging more than $4 million and making it one of the top programs in the country.
When Ayesha Ghazi-Edwin first arrived in Ann Arbor in 1988, she was placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes from third to fifth grades at Northside and Logan elementary schools. Though Ghazi-Edwin was born in London, England, and spoke English as her first language, someone just assumed she needed ESL instruction because her parents--both clinicians and professors at the U-M medical school--were originally from India.
"I actually loved it," says Ghazi-Edwin. "We went on field trips, did fun activities, etc. I was in the advanced reading class, but also in ESL--go figure! My older sister finally found out about it and was livid. She told my mom, 'This is racism!' and they finally pulled me."
After graduating from Huron High, Ghazi-Edwin went to Albion College. As one of only three Asian Americans in her class, she began to appreciate having grown up in a diverse community and how her racial and ethnic background helped shape her identity. After coming back to U-M for grad school, she began to find her place in politics, organizing, and immigrant activism. She's now a U-M social work lecturer and CEO of an Asian American civil rights group, American Citizens for Justice.
Taiwanese American community leader and retired librarian Amy Seetoo first came to Ann Arbor in 1980 from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to work at UMI (predecessor of ProQuest). She watched many successive waves of Chinese and Taiwanese come to Ann Arbor, shifting with the political priorities of the day. In 1994, she founded the nonprofit Chinese American Society of Ann Arbor (CASAA) to bring together Chinese from Taiwan, Chinese from China, and non-Chinese people.
"In 1957, the only Chinese restaurant in town was Leo Ping on Main St.," she says. Now the City Guide lists more than seventy Asian eateries (see p. 91), including Indian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Pakistani, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine. Then there are the Asian markets, newspapers, language schools, churches (see p. 75), and nonprofit organizations.
As communities grow, they are becoming more diverse as well.
"Back in the day there were a lot of Asian Americans, and most of them, like my family, had immigrated here to work at the university. The community is more socioeconomically diverse now," says Ghazi-Edwin. "I remember Asian Americans being more segregated by race, ethnicity, or religion while I was growing up. Today, especially among the young folks, I see Asian Americans organizing and socializing across ethnicities, be it Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, etc., and religious identities. It's great."
In 1912, a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press decried an interracial marriage between a Chinese international student and an "American girl," presumably white. The letter writer wrote that if U-M continued to accept "Oriental" (meaning Asian) and "Hindoo" (as it was spelled then and referred to South Asians regardless of religion) international students, white women students would inevitably be drawn to them, which in turn would make parents less inclined to send their daughters to U-M.
Today, however, for many, Ann Arbor's diversity makes it a reason to live here.
"Ann Arbor has transformed dramatically from the late 80's," says Yuan, who moved back to Ann Arbor from Chicago three years ago for his wife's work. "Gone are the DIY-ethos independent stores I frequented as a kid--Dave's Comics, Harry's Army Surplus, Schoolkids Records--replaced by more chains. Having said that, I love that Underground Sounds, Encore, Palm Palace, Zingerman's are around and killing it--and don't get me started on how much I love Ann Arbor District Library and all of the green space. Good times!"
After living in Detroit and Grosse Pointe, Ghazi-Edwin also recently moved back to Ann Arbor to raise her family. "I really wanted my son to grow up with the same diversity, tolerance, and acceptance that I experienced," she says. "I love the east side, but nowhere really compares to Ann Arbor in terms of cultural and intellectual progressiveness."
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