TSLAC joins the rest of the country in recognizing the contributions of those Americans with Asian/Pacific Islander heritage throughout the month of May. Though primary source documentation may be sparse at the State Archives, secondary sources like Nancy Farrar’s 1972 study, The Chinese in El Paso offer valuable descriptive information and data pulled from newspapers, census records and city directories.
The earliest arrival to Texas of Asians in any significant number were laborers from China who worked on the rail lines that were rapidly expanding across the state and connecting the country during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Chinese migrants were young men who worked together on construction teams and would typically move from one site to another and often planned to eventually return home to China.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1881, the border city of El Paso was on the route to and from the west coast. While many laborers departed once the railroad line was built, some remained and established Chinese-run businesses located within a few city blocks of each other. A neighborhood referred to as “Chinatown” developed in downtown El Paso. A popular business to open was a laundromat, as the Chinese steam method had little competition in town
Image: Farrar, Nancy. The Chinese in El Paso. Texas Western Press, The University of Texas at El Paso, 1972. Texas Documents Collection, ZUA590.7 SO89 NO.33. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Socially, the immigrants lived separately from the rest of the city early on. Because of strict immigration laws aimed specifically at Asians, women were not joining the men who had made the journey. The area was therefore comprised almost entirely of men. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stemmed the flow of laborers coming to the U.S. and the exclusion continued with the Geary Act of 1902. Some exceptions were made, such as for merchants and teachers, and the prohibition was not always strictly enforced.
While the Chinese population in El Paso would start to decline in the early twentieth century, other groups from countries in Asia were creating communities in Texas. Farmers had arrived from Japan to work the rice fields of Southeast Texas and other Japanese immigrants opened restaurants and shops in Houston and the surrounding counties, for example.
Discovering information about the growth of Asian communities in Texas can sometimes occur by chance. A closer look at this Houston streetscape from about 1927 reveals a restaurant called the Chop Suey Café on the right side of Travis Street.
Here is a close-up view of the sign for the Chop Suey Café. The restaurant is in the shadow on the right-hand side of the street.
After the immigration laws changed in 1965 and restrictions on Asian immigrants were lifted, many more groups from regions across Asia would make their way to Texas. Houston emerged as a particularly attractive destination for various groups and is today one of the most diverse cities in the country.
Learn more about Asian Texans with resources from TSLAC.
TSLAC has in our collections publications related to the history of Asian communities in Texas, along with historical newspapers, city directories, and other sources.
Search the library catalog for more titles.
Image: Brady, Marilyn Dell. The Asian Texans. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2004.Texas Documents Collection, Z TA475.7 T312AS. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Find online events through the Library of Congress’ page dedicated to Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month https://asianpacificheritage.gov/