Was there an Asian influence in Pittsburgh's history? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Was there an Asian influence in Pittsburgh's history?

Question submitted by: Kimberly Miller, Wilkinsburg

This is the kind of question you hate to answer "no" to. And if you ever stop by the Homewood Cemetery, you'll see enough Chinese-language tombstones in the "Chinese plot" to realize they've been around for some time.

But at least until recently, Asians have had a minimal impact on Pittsburgh history. Unless, of course, you believe that the Japanese wiped out our steel industry -- which I don't. The truth is, we were doing fine on that score all by ourselves.

For much of the city's history, though, Asians have been a source of resentment for working-class whites. The first Asians to settle in the Pittsburgh region were brought in as strikebreakers. Around 1872, a Beaver Falls cutlery plant brought a group of Chinese workers in to settle a labor dispute the old-fashioned way: by replacing all the laborers. This gambit -- using workers of different ethnic groups to prevent a sense of solidarity from developing among laborers -- became a common device for Pittsburgh employers.

Asians themselves, however, remained rare for decades. Only Chinese workers came here in any real numbers, and like the immigrants from Europe, they tended to be an insular group. In her essay "Immigrants and Industry" (collected in the book City at the Point), Nora Faires notes that most of the immigrants "were natives of two counties in Kuangtung province, and virtually all were male."

At first, this was due to the demands of industry; later, it was due to the dictates of bigotry. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Faire writes, forbade the immigration of new Chinese -- including wives -- into America. You can see how that might keep the local population from growing. Principal backing for the measure, sadly, came from a Pittsburgh convention of the American Federation of Labor held the year before. Supported by such nativist concerns, the measure froze the Chinese population here for more than half a century.

There were enough Chinese to create their own Chinatown, however, located just off Grant Street near the present-day Boulevard of the Allies. (The Chinatown Inn, once the headquarters of a local fraternal organization, is the last survivor of this district, which was wiped out by the Boulevard's construction.) As Faire points out, however, discrimination "severely restricted these immigrants' choice of employment. … [T]he region housed only 435 Chinese residents in 1930 but boasted 185 Chinese laundries and restaurants."

Pittsburgh's Chinatown was never large – only a couple city blocks – but it was big enough to be divided by a series of "tong wars." Tongs were fraternal organizations, which often served as the only real connection many immigrants had to home. But the groups competed for control of Chinatowns across the country, sometimes with fatal results. Local newspaper stories warned that the tongs were "a tide of Oriental rottenness" that threatened to drag whole communities under.

Historically speaking, many immigrant groups have been convulsed by such tensions, of course. But I suspect few of them had to contend with stereotypes that were quite so bizarre. Consider this 1935 article in the local Bulletin-Index magazine, asserting that Chinese could be recognized "by their hats which, because of a general noncomformity of Oriental craniums to American headgear, are inevitably either under-sized or over-sized."

Immigration restrictions were lifted after the Second World War, Faire writes, and "several hundred Chinese professionals, both men and women, settled in Pittsburgh." They, too, encountered prejudice. In his profile of local immigrant groups, They Came to Pittsburgh, Clarke Thomas interviews Chinese who weren't able to swim in the Kennywood pool, and who couldn't get their hair cut even in Pittsburgh's Chinatown, because of bias.

More importantly, by the time Asian immigrants were allowed into America, there wasn't much to come to Pittsburgh for: Jobs in manufacturing were drying up. Today, less than 3 percent of the Pittsburgh area's population is Asian, but that's actually better than some other Rust Belt cities.

In fact, Asians are increasingly playing a part in shaping the local history of today: Dr. Freddie Fu has made Pittsburgh a leader in sports medicine – the only kind some of us are interested in. And one of the region's largest manufacturing plants makes high-definition TV sets for Sony. Millions of Americans are able to watch Steelers games with crisper resolution and color, thanks to Sony's investment. And really -– how much more of an impact on history could anyone hope to have?

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