The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

Unpacking the Untold: Legacies of Chinese American Figures


The United States is commonly known as “a nation of immigrants.” Chinese immigrants began arriving in the US as early as the 19th century, seeking opportunities, especially during the California Gold Rush. Chinese Americans make up the largest number of the Asian population in the US, with 5.2 million people in 2021 being of Chinese (not including Taiwanese) descent. Their contributions span various fields, influencing the trajectory of Chinese American communities. Some figures that have left a lasting impact on society include:


Suellen Cheng

Suellen Cheng came to the US as a graduate student studying at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the founding curator of the Chinese American Museum and the current museum director and curator of El Pueblo Historical Monument; she has uncovered many untold stories of Chinese American history. Many Chinese Americans had to make difficult choices in what to bring with them to the US; for Cheng, her sister packed her a homemade first aid kit to ensure Cheng’s well-being.


Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong was a Paper Son—a Chinese immigrant who used fake documents to claim a familial relationship with a Chinese-American citizen—who immigrated to the US through Angel Island at the age of nine in 1919. He endured over a month-long interrogation at Angel Island and due to poverty was only able to hone his artistic skills by practicing calligraphy with water and old newspapers. He eventually earned a scholarship from the Otis Art Institute and worked at Disney and Warner Bros. as a local painter, greeting card illustrator, kite enthusiast, and, most notably, an animator for Disney’s iconic film, Bambi.


Ow-Bue Lew

In 1891, Lew founded Sun Wing Wo store, an herb shop or general store critical for goods and services. Its banking, letter-writing, and postal services helped the community connect with family and friends in China; it also provided traditional health advice and treatment. Eventually, the Sun Wing Wo Company became an extended family partnership with up to 20 partners. By gaining this merchant status, each member could send for family members back in China to come to the US.


Wong Kim Ark

Wong Kim Ark was a Chinese American born in San Francisco but was denied reentry when returning from abroad under the Chinese Exclusion Act for looking Chinese. In United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court ruled in Ark’s favor, marking a significant progress in civil rights by ruling that the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to all individuals born in the US, regardless of race.

From art to politics, these individuals have left an indelible mark on both their communities and American society. Their journeys highlight the challenges faced and the triumphs achieved by Chinese immigrants in their pursuit of opportunities and equality. 



Photo by Rachelle Witarno

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