Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is celebrated nationwide during the month of May to honor the cultures, traditions, and achievements of Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States. Since 1999, Taiwanese American Heritage Week has been celebrated starting each Mother’s Day Weekend during the month of May.
It’s as good a time as any to take a look back at how far our community has come in the past half century that we’ve had a significant presence in America. Although our story is often complex and subject to much debate on the political front, here is a brief introduction of our history focusing on the community and grassroots organizations that are active in it.
A New Chapter
The Taiwanese American community has seen tremendous growth in the United States since the 1960’s. After the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was established, which repealed the 1924 Exclusion Acts that had effectively closed off immigration from the East, the stage was set for immigrants from Asia to come in equal numbers as from Europe. Taiwan was no exception as the first wave of young immigrants sought new opportunities in North America during the late 60’s and early 70’s.
The First Wave
The initial wave of Taiwanese immigrants came as well-educated physicians, health professionals, scientists and professors. Others came for graduate school education and to seek a better future for their families. The “American Dream” was real and desired by many. During an era of martial law in Taiwan (1949-1989), many of these early Taiwanese immigrants also sought refuge in America from the numerous arrests and executions of the ruling Kuomingtang party’s “White Terror.” Political activists also used this opportunity to promote Taiwanese independence, democracy, and reforms from overseas.
Taiwanese immigrants settled in major metropolitan areas typically around new industrial centers or cities where universities and graduate programs could be found. Early Taiwanese American communities were concentrated in areas such as Monterey Park, CA outside of Los Angeles (earning it the original moniker “Little Taipei”) and in Flushing, NY. They also settled in the suburbs of San Jose, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis, Houston, Kansas City, and Dallas. Unlike other Asian ethnic communities that created ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns or Koreatowns, most Taiwanese during that time tended to be dispersed in suburban regions. Monterey Park, CA and Flushing, NY were the exceptions where even today there are still significant numbers of recent immigrants of Taiwanese heritage.
A Strong Network
The Taiwanese American community remained strong in its association. New immigrant families would connect with the growing organizations that were established with the first immigrant communities. In the 1970’s, The Taiwanese American Association was one of the first nationwide networks of locally active chapters in most major metropolitan areas.
Other organizations serving varied interests would soon follow. Among them: In 1982, the North American Taiwanese Professors Association (NATPA) was created; in 1984, the North American Taiwanese Medical Association (NATMA) soon followed; in 1985, the Taiwanese American Citizens’ League was founded; and in 1988, the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association (NATWA) was established. Each of these organizations held local meetings, sponsored cultural events, and met at national conferences. Often, these were vehicles by which the community would voice their support for Taiwanese independence and support for democratic reform of an outdated system that the Republic of China government had established on Taiwan since 1949. Organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs and the Formosa Foundation were formed to support Taiwan on the political front and help establish its recognition on the international stage.
The Next Generation
As the community matured and immigration trends shifted and diversified over the following decades, the Taiwanese American community witnessed new waves of immigrants. The San Francisco Bay area’s Silicon Valley tech boom during the late 80’s and early 90’s drew more Taiwanese immigrants than ever before. Furthermore, what was once a community hub concentrated mostly in Monterey Park started to see an eastbound shift towards more suburban areas of Arcadia, Rosemead, San Gabriel, and surrounding areas.
Organizations and infrastructure established during this period reflect the change in demographics and a growing community that looked toward the future in America. Networks brought together by groups such as the Taiwanese American Chamber of Commerce, the North American Taiwanese Engineers Association, Taiwan Centers, Taiwanese Language Schools, the Taiwanese American Foundation, and several well-established summer camps from coast to coast reflected a generational shift and the diversity within the community.
In time, an emerging 2nd generation of Taiwanese Americans would begin to establish themselves as new organizations were founded: Taiwanese American Professionals (TAP), Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association (ITASA), and Junior Taiwanese American Student Association (JTASA, high school level network). A whole host of other organizations would reflect the visions and dreams of the parent organizations that spawned them.
From a Storied Past to a Promising Future
Taiwan continues to evolve from its decades-long history of one-party rule and a fearful martial law era to a now vibrant young democracy, which has seen two peaceful transitions of power between the two major political parties. Furthermore, the diversity of immigrants and those who declare themselves to be “Taiwanese” has also broadened in recent decades. It is estimated that between 500,000 to one million Taiwanese Americans reside in the United States, but this number is often undercounted due to overlap with those identifying as also ethnically “Chinese.”
The future is promising as a new sense of Taiwanese American identity and pride emerges, and ideas between generations are shared, molded, and transformed. Even as the young 3rd generation of Americans of Taiwanese heritage is blossoming, the community still finds ways to connect with a new demographic of bicultural Taiwanese 1st and 1.5 generation that come to settle in the United States.
As we move forward, one thing is for certain: Taiwanese America is a strong, proud, and growing community with a story to tell. And TaiwaneseAmerican.org is honored to be able to highlight some of these unique and amazing stories.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ho Chie Tsai is a founding Board Member who also wears many hats in the Taiwanese American community. As a frequent speaker on the collegiate conference circuit and youth summer camp programs, a past Program Director and current Board Member of the Taiwanese American Foundation, and a founder of the Taiwanese American Professionals chapter in San Francisco, he hopes to inspire a renewed sense of pride in personal identity and to increase activism and involvement within the greater Asian American community. Ho Chie holds an Electrical Engineering BS degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a Bioengineering MS and an MD degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he works as a pediatrician.