America Travel

12 essential sites to learn about Asian American history

Asian and Pacific Islander people have played a profoundly significant role in shaping American history, contributing to the rich heritage of the United States in countless ways. But although the past year has been difficult for everyone, the Asian-American community is experiencing an additional, anguish-filled sense of anxiety and panic. Many are fearful for their safety and for the community’s elders.

There’s never been a better time to check in on your Asian friends and let them know that they are seen, they are safe and they are supported by countless other communities. And it’s always a good time to learn more about the contributions of AAPI Americans and their experiences in the US, from vibrant Chinatown districts and museums to the sobering Manzanar National Historic Site.

Here are 12 destinations in the USA where you can learn more about Asian-American history and culture.

Though new AAPI communities are cropping up in other parts of New York like Flushing, Manhattan’s Chinatown remains an integral part of the city © Ryan DeBerardinis / Shutterstock

1. Chinatown in New York, New York

There’s no better cultural immersion experience than stepping into New York City’s bustling Chinatown, a lively neighborhood rich with history, built on the backbone of immigrants and carried on by multiple generations of families, entrepreneurs and organizations.

“Chinatown is one of the US’s most iconic cultural enclaves for Asian Americans. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a local resident, every corner of Chinatown has its gems. We encourage you to stop and learn the stories of the small business owners. It means so much to them when visitors offer a smile and acknowledge their entrepreneurial efforts. Shopping in Chinatown is unlike anywhere else – you can find household goods, special gifts made by hard-working people and of course, delicious, authentic eats,” explains Jennifer Tam and Christina Hui, co-founders of Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots initiative supporting Manhattan Chinatown in light of COVID-19’s economic impact.

Chinatown Meals Avenue

2. Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California

With a steadfast mission of bringing Asian art and culture to everyone, this must-see museum houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world, with more than 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection; as well as a functioning authentic Japanese tea room on the second floor. There are 2500 works on display in the permanent collection, in addition to an impressive offering of virtual events all year round. Described best as a “vibrant hub for discovering the magnificent artistic achievements and intriguing history of the world’s most populous continent, the Asian Art Museum continues to bridge cultures, engage the imagination, and inspire new ways of thinking.” In short, it’s a must-see for anyone curious about Asian artistic endeavors.

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3. The Panama Hotel in Seattle, Washington

Built in 1910, this six-story hotel is deemed a National Treasure by the National Park Service, remains impressively intact, and still holds the original belongings, suitcases, trunks, boxes and more of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in relocation centers during World War II and never returned to retrieve their goods.

The first floor plays host to an authentic tea room that is open to the public, and the basement houses the best surviving example in the US of an urban Japanese-style bath house, or sento, that was designed by Sabro Ozasa, commonly regarded as the first Japanese American architect to practice in Seattle. For even more detail about the difficulties Asian Americans faced during this time, check out the best-selling historical novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which masterfully utilizes the Panama Hotel as the backdrop for the storyline.

4. Angel Island in San Francisco, California

Referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as an active military installation during the Civil War and World War II, and was later transformed as an immigration station in 1905. Between 1910 and 1940, the site, which is located on the largest island in San Francisco Bay, processed up to an estimated one million Asian and other immigrants into the US, including 250,000 Chinese and 150,000 Japanese people. Today, visitors can step back into time and peruse historic photographs, artifacts and a life-like recreation of immigration living quarters and interrogation rooms there.

5. The Pendleton Underground in Pendleton, Oregon

In the late 1800s, the Chinese built the essential railroads that connected the west coast to the east coast, but once that work was done, they also built a network of underground tunnels in eastern Oregon, creating a fascinating place to visit in the present day. Unbeknownst to many, Underground Pendleton was home to many secret and controversial businesses at the time including saloons, apothecaries, bordellos, a butcher shop, opium dens and more; and this hidden gem was discovered by city workers fairly recently in the 1980s. Back when Underground Pendleton was booming, the Chinese were harshly discriminated against by the white population, and for their own safety, they built an underground environment where they could move about freely and still conduct business. Today, you can visit this world-famous secret spot and see how the other half lived when they were sadly not embraced above land.

6. Golden Spike National Historical Park in Corinne, Utah

On May 10, 1869, US history was made when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, an enormous feat, primarily due to the hard work of Chinese immigrant workers (an estimated 11,000 of whom were employed at below-average wages while managing unfair working and living conditions.) The Chinese workers were tasked with laying 10 miles of track in one day, which is a record that still stands to this day; and though they were paid a lower rate than the other native and European workers, they reliably delivered higher quality work, oftentimes sacrificing their health, safety and even their lives. The Golden Spike Monument strives to honor the Chinese immigrant workers that died and their accomplishments. The Chinese Arch, which is composed of unique Cuprous Quartzite stone, is easily visible in the rock work of the external walls. There is also a dedicated plaque in the park to commemorate the fallen Chinese laborers.

7. The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington

The only community-based museum in the United States dedicated exclusively to the history of pan-Asian Pacific Americans, the Wing Luke Museum (named after the first Asian American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest) is located in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown Historic District. The museum, also known as “The Wing,” sits in a historic building constructed in 1910 by Chinese immigrants and features a realistic glimpse into life for the early Asian settlers, with artifacts, photographs, documents, books, oral histories and more to add more color to this important time in history. Guests can travel back in time and walk through a preserved immigrant apartment and a full reproduction of the Yick Fung Company Store, one of the oldest general stores in Chinatown.

8. Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, California

As the first museum in Southern California dedicated to the Chinese American experience and history in the region, the Chinese American Museum serves as a research center on the 150-year Chinese American experience in California. Housed inside the oldest surviving Chinese building in Southern California, the 1890 Garnier Building, the CAM boasts unique artifacts ranging from antique furniture and children’s toys, to herbal store furnishings and traditional wedding gowns. Discover delicate, faded photographs and yellowing letters from loved ones in China and listen to precious audio recordings from elderly Chinese Americans sharing their memories of growing up in Old Chinatown.

9. Manzanar Historic Site in Independence, California

Asian Americans have a complicated history with feeling welcome in the US, and it makes perfect sense when you look back in history. In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children (many of whom were American citizens) to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II, and it’s certainly worth a visit today to gain a deeper perspective on the past. This historical site offers photographs, artifacts, two reconstructed barracks, a reconstructed women’s latrine and a remodeled WWII era mess hall so you can really grasp what it was like to live here against your will. If you have more time to explore, make it into a day excursion and take in the natural surroundings (including Japanese gardens, orchards, a baseball field, and the Shepherd Ranch) with a self-guided 3.2 mile bike or driving tour.

10. Asia on Argyle in Chicago, Illinois

For an authentic taste of Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures in Chicago, head to Uptown’s Argyle Street, where you can find a steady stream of mouth-watering restaurants and bakeries, and booming grocery stores and small businesses. Designated as a historic district thanks to its transformation in recent decades – an effort by Asian immigrants and refugees – this culturally rich area also boasts several impressive murals that colorfully depict the community’s journey.

11. USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California

One of only four US institutions dedicated to the arts and culture of Asia and the Pacific Islands, the USC Pacific Asia Museum is a must see with its impressive collection of more than 15,000 objects, spanning more than 4000 years from the region of Persia to the Pacific Islands. Decorated with lotus and peony flowers, the building resembles a classic Chinese pagoda complete with a visually stunning courtyard. The arched entrance is an exact copy of the Buddhist library in Beijing, and the upturned roofline is meant to prevent evil spirits from invading. Antique ceramic dogs on the roof keep watch for enemies.

12. Museum of Chinese in America in New York, New York

Named one of America’s treasures, the Museum of Chinese in America aims to “redefine the American story one narrative at a time.” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, fondly described his visit there: “The Museum of Chinese in America helps fill a void in our understanding of America.” The MOCA once proudly housed nearly 85,000 treasured artifacts and collectibles chronicling Chinese American history before falling victim to an unexpected fire in January 2020, and was swiftly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic shortly thereafter. The museum is now back open and welcoming guests in person though don’t sleep on their robust online exhibits, ongoing virtual events and thought-provoking webinars featuring prominent voices in the Chinese-American community.

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Chiron Koskovich May 18, 2024 at 4:56 am

Chiron Koskovich

graliontorile August 18, 2022 at 9:13 am

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog. An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.


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