2011-12-22 02:08:52

Significance: Hawaii is one of only four U.S. states in which residents of European ancestry do not form a majority, and it is home to large Asian immigrant communities, including Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Koreans. Many of Hawaii’s native-born citizens are descendants of Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese immigrants who came during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to work the islands’ sugar cane plantations, and immigration from Asia has continued into the twenty-first century.

Hawaii was originally settled by Polynesian islanders. Western traders first arrived during the late eighteenth century, bringing with them Chinese sailors, who began settling in Hawaii in 1789. These early Asian settlers, who were virtually all male, intermarried with Hawaiian women and assimilated into Hawaiian culture. Intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and native Hawaiians was common well into the nineteenth century.

Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890

Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890. (Hawaii State Archives)

In 1887, American and European businessmen in Hawaii forced King Kal kaua I to abdicate his power by signing a constitution that gave voting rights exclusively to wealthy Americans, Europeans, and the few native Hawaiians who had achieved significant wealth. The new constitution disenfranchised the islands’ many Asian immigrants. Kal kaua’s sister, Queen Liliuokalani, was deposed when she attempted to regain sovereignty for Hawaiians. In 1900, the United States annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory.

Sugar Cane Industry

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white plantation owners imported numerous workers from Asia. Initially, most of these workers were from China and Japan. The first labor recruits came from China in 1850; by 1887, 26,000 Chinese were working on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations, but about 38 percent of them eventually returned to China. Between 1868 and 1924, 200,000 Japanese workers came to Hawaii; eventually, about 55 percent of them returned to Japan. During this same period, 7,300 Korean workers came to Hawaii; 16 percent eventually returned home. Asians were not, however, the only labor immigrants. Almost 13,000 Portuguese workers had also been imported by 1899, and 5,000 Puerto Ricans by 1901. Meanwhile, the white plantation owners established a hierarchical system that kept workers divided by ethnic groups to make it difficult for them to organize.

Recruitment campaigns in the Philippines brought the first Filipinos to Hawaii in 1906. Called "Hawayanos,” these first Filipino immigrants were Tagalog-speaking sugar cane workers. Like the earlier Asian immigrant workers, Filipinos came to Hawaii to earn money to take home. The numbers of Filipino workers immigrating to Hawaii increased dramatically over the next fifteen years, from 150 in 1907 to approximately 3,000 per year between 1911 and 1920. By the 1930’s, Filipino workers outnumbered Japanese in the sugar plantations, even though 7,300 of them were repatriated to the Philippines during the Great Depression.

Sugar cane plantation owners preferred Filipino workers because they worked for the lowest wages. Moreover, as Filipinos were technically considered U.S. nationals because the United States administered the Philippines, they were not restricted by federal laws that barred importation of workers from other Asian countries. The Filipino workers could also be used as levers in labor disputes again Japanese plantation workers.

Filipino immigrants to Hawaii were typically rural and poorly educated, and were often unaware of their legal rights. The harsh conditions they endured on the sugar plantations were unexpected, and linguistic differences between different Filipino groups and from the Japanese and Chinese plantation workers meant that communication among immigrant workers was difficult. However, after Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900, immigrant workers enjoyed more rights and were no longer effectively indentured. Consequently, labor costs rose, and workers began to unionize.

Profile of Hawaii


South Pacific Ocean

Entered union


Largest cities

Honolulu (capital), Hilo, Kailua

Modern immigrant communities

Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos



Percent of state

Percent of U.S.

U.S. rank

All state residents





All foreign-born residents





Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract for 2006. Notes: The U.S. population in 2006 was 299,399,000, of whom 37,548,000 (12.5%) were foreign born. Rankings in last column reflect total numbers, not percentages.

Pablo Manlapit, who came to Hawaii as a laborer in 1909, became the first Filipino lawyer in the United States during the 1920’s. He helped organize the Filipino Labor Union in Hawaii and advocated for the rights of Filipino workers. He also worked with the Japanese Federation of Labor (later the Hawaiian Federation of Labor) during a sugar workers’ strike in 1920. His work as a labor agitator led to his being deported to the mainland United States in 1924. He returned to Hawaii in 1933 and continued to agitate, but his deportation to the Philippines two years later ended his career in the Hawaiian labor movement.

Hawaii’s rich multicultural mix of immigrant workers led to the creation of a Hawaiian form of Creole English, sometimes called "Hawaiian Pidgin.” It combined native Hawaiian, English, Japanese, Chinese, Ilocano, Tagalog, and Portuguese vocabulary, allowing plantation workers of all ethnic backgrounds to communicate with one another. Hawaiian Creole was still being spoken during the early twenty-first century.

Japanese Americans and World War II

The United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, immediately after Japan launched a sneak attack on the great Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. By that time, roughly one-third of Hawaii’s population, about 150,000 people, were Japanese or of Japanese descent. In contrast to the Japanese residents of the western states of the United States, almost all of whom were interned throughout the war, only about 1 percent of Hawaii’s Japanese residents were interned. The federal government declared martial law in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack, but attempting to intern one-third of the islands’ population would have been a logistical nightmare and caused an economic disaster. Nevertheless, Hawaii hosted two internment camps: Sand Island, in Honolulu Harbor, and Honouliuli, on the southwestern shore of Oahu. Some Japanese immigrants in Hawaii were sent to internment camps on the mainland.

Postwar Immigration

During the 1990’s, an influx of nearly 50,000 new immigrants brought Hawaii’s total foreignborn population to 212,000, accounting for about 48 percent of the state’s overall population increase. Between 1985 and 2000, approximately 4,800 immigrants from newly independent Micronesia and the Marshall Islands moved to Hawaii. This led the Hawaiian government to sue the federal government for inadequately reporting the impact on Hawaii of unrestricted immigration from these territories to Congress.

Melissa A. Barton

Further Reading

Ch’oe, Yong-ho, ed. From the Land of Hibiscus: Koreans in Hawai’i, 1903-1950. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007. Collection of scholarly essays on Korean immigration to Hawaii and immigrant culture. 

Duus, Masayo Umezawa. The Japanese Conspiracy: The Oahu Sugar Strike of 1920. Translated by Beth Cory, adapted by Peter Duus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Narrative account of the 1920 sugar strike by Japanese and Filipino workers originally written for Japanese readers. 

Kerkvliet, Melinda Tria. Pablo Manlapit: A Filipino Labor Leader in Hawai’i. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Historical account of one of Hawaii’s most controversial labor leaders, who fought for the rights of sugar cane workers before World War II. 

Odo, Franklin. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai’i During World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Tells the story of Japanese American college students barred from serving in World War II and of their immigrant community. 

Patterson,Wayne. The Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii, 1896-1910. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988. Useful survey of the earliest years of Korean immigration to Hawaii. 

Young, Nancy Foon. The Chinese in Hawaii: An Annotated Bibliography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1973. Comprehensive bibliography of material on Chinese Americans in Hawaii up to the date of its publication. 

See also: Anti-Japanese movement; Chinese immigrants; Filipino immigrants; Imingaisha; Immigration Convention of 1886; Japanese immigrants; Korean immigrants; Portuguese immigrants; Puerto Rican immigrants; World War II.