Chinese American press

2011-09-14 07:54:33

Definition: News media in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English published for new immigrants from China and for ethnic Chinese communities in the United States

Significance: The existence of Chineselanguage newspapers and other media gives new immigrants access to necessary information in their native language and fosters greater integration of the immigrant and ethnic communities. Chinese-language news media allow for the strengthening of cultural ties within the milieu of a new culture and for easy assimilation into the mainstream without losing cultural and ethnic identity.

Between 1849 and 1882—the year during which a new federal law forbade Chinese immigration— large groups of Chinese male laborers came to California to work in the mining industry and on the transcontinental railroad. While most worked and sent money to relatives in China, some settled in cities and towns in California and established businesses. The establishment of these new Chinese immigrant communities created a need for information in the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, giving rise to the creation of Chineselanguage newspapers. The first such paper was the Golden Hills News, a weekly published by William Howard in San Francisco for a few months in 1854. It was followed by The Oriental, an English and Cantonese weekly published from 1855 to 1857 byWilliam Speer, a Presbyterian missionary who had spent time in China. Although neither of these early papers had Chinese owners, both were edited by recent Chinese immigrants, and a later version of The Oriental was owned by ethnic Chinese.

The first Chinese-owned newspaper was the Sacramento Daily News, published by Ze Tu Yun from 1856 to 1858. Although none of these individual enterprises lasted more than a few years, San Francisco and Sacramento consistently had Chineselanguage papers throughout the period leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law barring the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and not allowing Chinese-born residents already in the United States to become naturalized citizens. Indeed, despite the racial violence and economic discrimination that the Chinese community suffered in California, a Chinese American press continued to thrive.

Move East and Coverage of the Revolution

With conditions deteriorating for Chinese residents in California after the early 1880’s, many immigrants moved to Hawaii, where racial discrimination was not as virulent and work could be found in agriculture. Other immigrants relocated to such midwestern cities as Chicago and St. Louis. Newspapers were published in each place to serve the local Chinese communities. In Chicago, Protestant missionaries and Catholic parishes hired Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking editors to publish newsletters that served not only to proselytize but also to provide much information about the burgeoning nationalist movement that sought to overthrow the imperial system in China during the early twentieth century. Indeed, the revolutionary movement of Sun Yat-sen in China was funded to a significant extent by donations from wealthy Chinese American businesspeople, many of whom learned about the revolution from the Chinese American newspapers.

The dual focus on Christian evangelization and Chinese nationalism has continued to color the social and political views of Chinese Americans in larger cities into the twenty-first century. In 1883, the Chinese American, the Chinese American paper with the widest circulation, was launched in New York City. Meanwhile, even after many Chinese Americans had started moving to the Midwest and the East, significant numbers remained in California where papers such as the Chinese Free Press— which was founded in San Francisco in 1903 by Chinese Freemasons—exerted the same influence on public opinion about China’s revolution as their midwestern counterparts.

Chinese Political Influence

By the 1920’s, most Chinese American newspapers had standardized their formats along the lines established by mainstream English-language newspapers. News reporting within the papers was arranged under local, national, and international headings, and each issue of the papers had an editorial page. During the era of the Chinese CivilWar (1927-1950), however, individual papers tended to become formally affiliated with one or the other side in the conflict. Operatives from the Kuomintang and Communist Parties living in the United States exerted significant editorial influence on the content of Chinese-language papers. Papers that sided with—and in some cases received funding from—the Chinese Communist Party were routinely monitored and harassed by the federal government during the 1940’s and 1950’s. New York City’s China Daily News and San Francisco’s The China Weekly were both hounded out of business during the Korean War of the early 1950’s.

Late Twentieth Century Trends

Not all Chinese American newspapers during the first half of the twentieth century had strong affiliations with Chinese political parties. To serve the growing numbers of newly naturalized Chinese American citizens and ethnic Chinese who resided legally in the United States, independent weekly newspapers arose in many large cities. New York’s Chinese Journal of Commerce (1928-1944) focused on issues of interest to Chinese American business owners. The Chinese American Weekly had a similar focus but featured a state-of-the art pictorial section. The Hawaii Chinese News, an English-language paper, was established in 1926 to serve the bilingual Chinese population of the islands. The trend toward English language and bilingual publications continued into the 1960’s and 1970’s with publications such as Boston’s Sampan and Houston’s Southwest Chinese Journal. These newspapers also featured a strong commercial focus. The 1970’s also saw the rise of national Chinese newspapers in the United States. Although previous attempts to publish Chinese American newspapers in more than one market had met with limited success, publishers in Taiwan and Hong Kong successfully entered the U.S. national market with publications such as the daily Sing Tao Jih Pao.

Twenty-first Century Markets

The modern market for Chinese American newspapers and bilingual news published in the United States by news corporations from China reflects the same trends affecting the American news business in general. In the face of competition from the Internet, long-established newspapers are shutting down and those that survive seem to do so because they have invested in a strong online news reporting presence. However, an increase in Chinese immigration to the United States since the 1980’s has led to record numbers of start-up ventures for newsweeklies and Chinese-language magazines. Additionally, China Daily, an English-language newspaper owned and operated by the Chinese government, serves readers in the United States through its print and online services, as does CCTV, an English-language television and online news service. It may be argued that no other ethnic group in the United States of comparable size has the variety of news reporting venues that the Chinese community has. Indeed, the volatility of the market is belied by the yearly increases in advertising revenues collected by the Chinese American press as an industry.

William Carney

Further Reading

  • Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. General study of the political, social, economic, and cultural history of Chinese Americans from the midnineteenth century into the early twenty-first century. 
  • Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington, 1988. Scholarly examination of the first two major groups of Asians to come to the United States. 
  • Ling, Huping. Chinese St. Louis: From Enclave to Cultural Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. The first comprehensive study of an ethnic community in the Midwest, this groundbreaking work proposes a “cultural community” model to interpret the new type of ethnic community that is defined more by its cultural boundaries than by geographical ones. 
  • Miller, Sally, ed. The Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Broad collection of essays on the journalism of many different ethnic communities within the United States. 

See also: Asian American literature; California; Chinatowns; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Filipino American press; Japanese American press; Television and radio.