Significance of Asians and Asian Americans in Idaho History
Gold discoveries in Idaho beginning in 1860 attracted numerous Chinese, mostly men, as miners or as providers of support services such as laundries, restaurants and stores. In later years, many worked on the railroads, either in the initial construction or on later track maintenance. Still others were doctors, interpreters, hotel keepers or gardeners. By 1870, Idaho Territory had some 4,000 Chinese residents, about 28.5% of the total population. People of Japanese ancestry began coming to Idaho by the 1890s. They worked mainly on the railroads and in agriculture, although some ran restaurants and laundries. A ten-year-old Filipino boy attended public school in Boise in 1902. Census records provide additional information about Idaho's residents of Asian ancestry.
On the national level, anti-Chinese feelings culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It prohibited any new Chinese laborers from arriving. This and other racist laws, not repealed until 1943, meant that all immigrant Chinese, as well as people from other Asian and Southeast Asian countries, were forbidden from becoming U.S. citizens, no matter how long they had lived here, how well they spoke English, or how "Americanized" they had become. Even the Chinese pioneer woman, Polly Bemis, married to a Euroamerican man, Charlie Bemis, could not become a U.S. citizen.
Male Chinese laborers who entered before 1882 generally could not bring their families over after that date. They became known as a "bachelor society," but of course most were not bachelors at all. Once the gold played out in Idaho, they moved to larger towns to work, or returned to China if they could afford to do so; sadly, however, many died here without ever seeing their families again.
Once Chinese immigrant numbers had dwindled enough that they no longer were an economic threat to Euroamerican workers, they attracted less and less anti-Chinese sentiment. Some remained in local communities into the 1920s and 1930s, and longer in cities such as Boise and Lewiston. One man, Jung Chew, whom the Euroamericans called "Ah Sam," was even known as the "honorary mayor of Warren."
Today, many traces of Idaho's Asian pioneers still remain. Documentary accounts, particularly mining records, deeds to property, and vital statistics; and city maps showing "China Town" or buildings labeled "Japanese"; archaeological remains, including mining ditches, dugout-type dwellings, and scattered Chinese artifacts; and cultural manifestations, particularly Chinese restaurants, place names such as "China Gardens," and gravestones in Chinese or Japanese, attest to their importance and influence. Present-day Asian Americans surnamed "Eng," "Fong," "Ikeda" and "Lee," some of whom are lineal descendants of Idaho's earliest Asian residents, remind us that Asian names were in the census records from 1870 on, along with the Staintons, Vollmers and Weisgerbers. Such evidence heightens our awareness of the significant contributions made by Asian and Asian American people to both the economic development and the cultural heritage of Idaho for well over 150 years.