These Chinese Americans built New York — here’s their life advice

BY: Arturo Ruiz

They built New York. What advice do they have for future generations?

Since the 1800s, Chinese immigrants have come to the United States seeking work and opportunity — and not always under the most favorable circumstances.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Credit:

The first wave of Chinese workers came to the United States in the 1800s to work in jobs such as agriculture, mining and railroad construction. However, immigration came to a halt in 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese people from entering the U.S. It was the first non-wartime law to bar immigration based on nationality.

Chinese immigrants were not eligible for citizenship until 1943, over 60 years later. The 1965 Immigration Act helped create a pathway for Chinese to immigrate to the United States through the reunification of families and attracting skilled workers. This lead to the second wave of Chinese immigration during the 1970s and 80s.

In the 1970’s, New York City was in an economic slump and crime was high. Many industrial buildings were closed down. Chinese entrepreneurs took the opportunity to open up their own garment factories, following in the footsteps of other immigrant groups such as those of Jewish and Italian heritage. Asian workers from China, Korea and Southeast Asia increased the New York garment trade by 265 percent between 1970 and 1980.

Garment factory in NYC’s Chinatown, 1983. Photo: Bud Glick, (The Tenement Museum)

The contributions of Chinese immigrants are essential to the fabric of New York and the country as a whole.

To highlight Chinese American history in New York and the U.S., we collected first-person narratives from Chinese Americans in New York City, many of whom worked in factories in the garment industry, for our series We Built New York: Honoring Chinese Workers.

After decades of adapting to a new environment, building community and fighting against discrimination, they have a lot to say about finding opportunity and creating a full life.

You can read their full personal essays here.