Moments of Asian American Resistance and Activism You Should Know About

By Lansing Clark

Asian Americans have long resisted exclusion and racism in the U.S., despite the common assumption that many are passive and compliant. Less is known about Asian American resistance and protest in U.S. history, but it is absolutely imperative that we learn about it. This list gives diverse examples of resistance but is by no means extensive. Less obvious and more indirect forms of protest are included in order to expand this definition of activism.

  1. Community organizations in the 19th and early 20th centuries

In the 19th and early 20th c., Asian American immigrants turned to ethnic organizations for community and support as they were navigating the difficulties of life in America. Huigan for Chinese immigrants aided in housing and provisions, medical care, funeral arrangements, among other things. Huigan did exploit its members, though, through mandatory registration and debt accumulation, but nonetheless they were necessary for immigrants’ survival as they provided services unavailable anywhere else.

Japanese immigrants had a similar form of huigan called kenjinkai. These associations promoted the material wellbeing and social enrichment of members, without exerting control over its members. The Korean National Association (KNA) emerged out of calls for Korean independence from Japan and whose goal was also to support and uplift the community it serves. For Asian Indians, the Hindustani Welfare Reform Society of 1918 was established for all Indians regardless of religious affiliation. This society provided mutual aid and helped mediate civil suits on behalf of its members. Lastly, there were many associations available for Filipino immigrants, one being the Caballeros, which promoted Philippine liberation from the U.S. Its chapters gave out food, clothing, and money for medical and burial expenses to its members. Thus, these associations, while not wholly or explicitly about protest and radical response, worked towards ameliorating the well-being of their members and creating an atmosphere of community among them, proving essential for later forms of resistance and activism.

Headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in San Francisco (the Chinese Six Companies).
Headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in San Francisco (The Chinese Six Companies).

2. Wong Chin Foo

In 1847, Wong Chin Foo was born. A largely overlooked character in Asian American history, Foo was actually integral to advancing civil rights for Chinese in America. Foo established New York’s first Chinese newspaper, Chinese American, thus coining the term “Chinese American.” In The Cosmopolitan magazine in 1888, Foo wrote a piece called “The Chinese in New York,” rebuking many stereotypes of Chinese people and Chinatown. He’s known for rebutting anti-Chinese racism in his writing, but also in speech, as he did in debate against the infamous Denis Kearney in 1887. In addition to writing many articles, he organized Chinese voters and testified before Congress to repeal laws denying their citizenship. Foo lived a very full life of protest and activism, a truly lesser known trailblazer.

Wong Chin Foo in Harpers Weekly, May 26, 1877.
Wong Chin Foo in Harpers Weekly, May 26, 1877.

3. JMLA strike in Oxnard, 1903

In 1903, five hundred Japanese and two hundred Mexican sugar beet workers in Oxnard, California joined forces to create the Japanese Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) in order to fight reduced wages and confront the Western Agricultural Contracting Company (WACC). The WACC prompted protest when it recruited 120 Japanese workers and assigned them to work for subcontractors at lower wages. The strike began in March and up to 90% of the labor force participated. On March 30, the company and workers reached an agreement that ended WACC’s monopoly on labor and its subcontracting, but not without violence and injury to a few Mexican and Japanese workers. A successful strike and a moment of interethnic solidarity, JMLA applied for a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). AFL agreed to support them on the condition that no Chinese or Japanese workers would be included, so JMLA declined. However, without the AFL’s support, the union fell apart shortly thereafter.

Sugar beet workers in Oxnard, California.

4. 1909 Oahu sugar strike

Labor rally in rural Hawaii during the 1909 strike.

In May 1909, the first major organized labor strike occurred in Hawaii. Laborers working on sugar cane plantations protested low wages, forming the Higher Wages Association (HWA). What is perhaps more surprising is that the beginnings of this strike began in a theater, the Asahi Theatre, and the first Japanese theater in Honolulu. It was there that members of the HWA held meetings and rallies, growing in size each time. At the same time that the Asahi Theatre was a space for organizing, it also showed Japanese entertainment, productions that spread HWA’s message, and more general popular films. In response to this first organized labor strike, sugar planters expanded social welfare reform efforts to regulate workers’ leisure, but they would later see how these community spaces would still be a threat.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the film industry was very substantial in Hawaii and many Japanese were in the business. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) was increasingly interested in this form of leisure for its workers, as long as they were in control of the theaters. As it happened, people were just showing films without licensees. Not only were the films themselves harmful for HSPA because of the pro-Japanese messages and thus potential for ethnic solidary among Japanese workers, but the spaces they were shown in became a point of convergence for workers from different plantation towns. With the popularity of the silent film, workers from different backgrounds were brought together, including Portuguese, Japanese, and Filipinos. It was clear how the theaters were contributing to the labor movement, evidenced in later strikes of 1920 and 1924. The sugar planters would try to censor and suppress the activities of theater-going, but ultimately, they would not be able to fully contain what was happening in these spaces.

5. Ghadar Party and Taraknath Das

The Ghadar Party was formed in early 1913 in Oregon and made official in November 1913 in San Francisco. The Party consisted of South Asian, especially Punjabi and Sikh, farmworkers, mill-laborers, seamen, intellectuals and students, all who were committed to India’s independence. It circulated a revolutionary newspaper, Ghadar, that spread the word. Some Ghadar Party followers travelled to North America hoping for a better life and more political freedom, but there they faced racism and violence.

Taraknath Das was one of these people. Das echoed the Ghadar Party’s beliefs in his journal Free Hindustan. He also directly stood up to British colonialism and urged Indians to resist exclusion. In Vancouver, Das worked with the U.S. immigration service and advised other immigrants on how to pass interrogations and led them through habeas corpus processes if they were detained.

Original headquarters of the Ghadar Party in San Francisco.

6. Taxi dance halls

These spaces in the 1920s and 30s were popular among working-class people looking for entertainment, and were especially associated with Filipino men, but brought together many minorities, including Italian, Black, Chinese, Mexican people, and white working-class women. Taxi dance halls were special to those who frequented them because it allowed them to form their own identities unrestricted by ethnicity, class, or nationality. For immigrant men, it was a place to find belonging. The dance halls did get backlash though, looked down upon because they fostered interracial relationships, especially between white women and Filipino men and other non-white men. From the inside, though, taxi dance halls meant a sort of freeness and social acceptance.

A taxi dance hall ticket.

7. Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee

In February 1943 at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, a group of internees called the Heart Mountain Congress of American Citizens protested the registration of Nisei for the U.S. military and objected to the JACL’s cooperation with the government. In a questionnaire for Nisei, question 28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, or any foreign government, power, or organization?” 126 men at Heart Mountain refused to answer question 28, 104 provided qualified answers, and 278 replied negatively. The rest who answered affirmatively were still planning to resist because they felt that they had never violated their loyalty to the U.S. and shouldn’t be deprived of their freedom.

Kiyoshi Okamoto of the Fair Play Committee began the organized resistance. Six other men joined him and then the number of total draft resisters got to 85, all of whom were arrested expect for one. In December 1945, the seven convictions of the Fair Play Committee leaders were overturned.

Frank Emi (right), one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, stands with a supporter in 1944, Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

8. Vincent Chin

After the murder of Vincent Chin by two white men, Ronald Ebens and his step-son, in Detroit, Michigan, 1982, the first state criminal case decided on 3-year probation and a $3,000 fine for Ebens. Obviously heartbroken, outraged, and devastated, Chin’s mother, Lily, with the help of activist and journalist Helen Zia, galvanized the nation into action as a result of this gross injustice, and specifically pursued a federal civil rights trial. Some Asian Americans interviewed in the documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” describe how they have been taught to lay low and not be outwardly political by their parents. However, on May 9, 1983, a big rally occurred in support of justice for Vincent Chin. Among calls of support for Chin, speakers and Lily Chin accused the criminal justice system for failing to adequately punish the murderers. The marches continued, turning Vincent Chin’s murder into a moment of reckoning for Asian Americans on their place in society and for the first time for some, acknowledging the real discrimination they face.

Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, speaks at a meeting to demand justice for her son.

9. TWLF and the San Francisco State Strike

TWLF strike at San Francisco State University, 1968.

The Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition organization made up of young people of color, many of whom were students, formed in 1968. It spearheaded a strike, known as the San Francisco State Strike, in 1968 when a Black professor, George Murray was suspended. Strikers demanded the establishment of an autonomous Ethnic Studies college, open admissions, and the reinstatement of George Murray. In these demands, TWLF was fighting for rights of the Third World with relation to education and combatting racism in institutions. This historic strike, the longest student strike in history, lasted five months and did indeed establish an Ethnic Studies college at SF State.

Resistance and activism are reoccurring themes in Asian American history, definitely debunking the model minority myth. These times in history point to the racism Asian Americans faced and continue to face, despite the efforts of those who try to undermine discrimination against Asian Americans. The examples in here that are not a strike or protest movement, but are just Asian Americans building a life for themselves, suggest that the very presence of Asian Americans was subversive and needed to be defended in all facets of life.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.


Choy, Christine, dir. Who Killed Vincent Chin?. Filmakers Library, 1990.

Khor, Denise. “Dangerous Amusements: Hawaii’s Theaters, Labor Strikes, and Counterpublic Culture, 1909–1934.” In The Rising Tide of Color, 102–120. The University of Washington Press, 2014.

Lee, Shelley Sang-Hee. A New History of Asian America. Taylor & Francis, 2014.

Ling, Huping, and Austin, Allan W.. “Draft Resistance, World War II,” Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, 395–6.Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. Accessed May 7, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Ling, Huping, and Austin, Allan W.. “Japanese-Mexican Labor Association,” Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia,425–6. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. Accessed May 8, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Seligman, Scott D.. First Chinese American : The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013. Accessed May 6, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Upadhyah, Nishant. “Ghadar Movement: A Living Legacy, Sikh Formations,” 10:1, 1–3, DOI:10.1080/17448727.2014.895546



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.