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by Ken Colson

Context for Chinese Immigration

History and Government

China’s Dynastic Period begins with the Shang Dynasty (1500-1000 B.C.), initiating China’s written history, includes the Chou Dynasty (1122-249 B.C.), with Confucius and Lao-tse founding Chinese philosophical thought, the reign of Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti (246-210 B.C.), commencing the Great Wall, the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), opening commerce with the West, the T’ang Dynasty (618-907), the golden age of Chinese painting, sculpture, and poetry, rule by Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), established by Kublai Khan, and ends with Manchu rule during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Republican China (1911-1949) began with the uprising against the emperor in 1911. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, became the first president of the Republic of China in 1912. The Republic disintegrated with a takeover by warlords, ending with the Kuomintang and Communist Party forming a United Front against the other warlords (1912-1927). The Kuomintang government under Chiang Kai-shek was established in Nanjing (1928-1937). The Nationalist government allied with Communists during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists ended in 1949.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) founded in 1949 led to Mao Zedong’s election as Chairman of Central Government Council in 1950. The new PRC looked to the Soviets as an economic model and for technological and financial aid. The Communist Party initiated a series of land, industrial, and social reforms including village industrialization under the Great Leap Forward in 1958. This resulted in a power struggle within the Communist Party leading to the closing of schools and ideological purification under Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the year of Mao’s death. The U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Deng Xiaoping assumed leadership the same year. Mao’s economic policies were abandoned. An internal power struggle over the political and economic future of China led to a people’s protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. China had one of the fastest growing economies in the world in the 1990s. When Deng Xiaoping died in 1997 Jiang Zemin replaced him. In 1997 Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China, and in 1999 Portugal turned over Macao to China. In 2001 China was selected as the site of the 2008 Olympics.


Since 1960 China’s social system has undergone major changes in composition and structure. There is a new rich peasantry in the countryside, urban entrepreneurs, itinerant skilled and unskilled workers, casual laborers, and a variety of other trades working on the fringe of the official economic system. In 1998, 60% of the labor force worked in agriculture, 17% in industry, and 23% in services. As of 1990 the unemployment rate in urban areas was estimated at 3-10% with substantial unemployment and under-employment in rural areas. Estimates from 1998 indicate a per capita income of $3,600 per person with 8% economic growth and a negative inflation rate.

Chinese Immigration

From 1840 to 1882 Chinese laborers came to U.S. for jobs. Many were employed to work on railroads. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended all immigration of Chinese to the United States, an overtly discriminatory law. Low immigration quotas for Chinese set by the 1924 National Origins Quota Act ended in 1965. By 1970 Chinese population increased in the U.S. by 84%.

Two-thirds of the Chinese immigrants from the random sample stated that they have been in the county less than 11 years. In the public benefits sample, the majority arrived less than six years ago. Interviews in the Chinese focus group indicated that in recent years immigrants have left China for a better life due to economic hardship, because China is overpopulated, and for freedom of speech, religion, and freedom of choice. Santa Clara County is a particularly popular choice because “… high-tech companies pay more and with stock options, they can get better houses and advance into a better level.” (Eva Lee) The main reasons stated in the random sample for wanting to leave China for the U.S. were economic problems (60%), family reunification (51%) and political problems (10 %). For recipients of public benefits, the key reason for immigrating was family reunification (48%).

Social Characteristics of the Chinese People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

Ethnically, about 92% of Chinese are Han and the other 8% are Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Korean, and many other nationalities. The PRC is officially atheist but has religious minorities of Taoists, Buddhists, and Muslims (2%-3% each) and Christians (1% estimate).

Family Life

Two or three generations often live in the same household. The wife is expected to become part of the husband’s household. As in every patriarchal society, the oldest males make most decisions. Males are usually more highly respected and valued than females. Children are highly valued. Elders are very respected and honored. In extended care families, grandparents are often responsible for the care of grandchildren. Families are expected to care for children and elders, rather than leave them in day care or institutions. Mothers are often expected to stay at home to raise their children if another family member is not available to baby-sit. However, gender roles have been changing, especially in urban settings.

Respondents to the random survey indicated that a high percentage of mothers cared for their children (45%). However, in 19% of the cases fathers looked after their children. In 13% of the cases children were with nannies, 19% in a child care facility, and 2% with baby-sitters. While the custom is to care for one’s family at the time of old age or disability, families responding to the random survey indicated that only 30% would take care of them at home. Institutional care or no preference was indicated by 53% of the respondents in the random survey.

Health Care Practices

Traditional folk medicine such as acupuncture and herbs is commonly used by older Chinese. Chinese immigrants typically use both traditional and Western medicine. First and second generation Chinese Americans are most likely to rely solely on Western medicine.

A fundamental cultural theory of Chinese foods relates the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of the body (the heart, liver, spleen/pancreas, lungs, and kidneys), and stresses their role in maintaining good physical health. It is believed that one must maintain a balance of Yin (cold) foods and Yang (hot) foods. Imbalance of Yin and Yang are believed to cause illness. Yin foods include, fruits, vegetables, cold liquids, and beer. Yang foods include meats, eggs, hot soup and liquids, and oily or fried foods. Illnesses caused by Yang excess are treated with Yin foods, and vice versa.

Mental health problems are often viewed as shameful and not readily discussed. Mental illness is thought to be caused by a lack of harmony of emotions. In some cases mental illness is thought to come from evil spirits, which can be dispelled by a healer.

For the immigrant population, the Chinese group had a high access to health insurance: 92% in the random sample and 78% in the public benefits survey possess insurance.

Educational System

Education is highly valued in China. An estimated 85% of the population is literate. Since 1978, China has adopted the education policy of “nine-year compulsory schooling.” During the period, students finish both primary school and junior high school. For higher education, students must pass entrance examinations for high schools or technical schools. After two to four years students may sit for the national college entrance exam that usually takes place from July 7 to 9. With harsh weather and high stress, July is widely nicknamed “black July”.

Pre-School Education

Children aged 3 to 6 usually attend kindergarten near home, where they learn the basics of the native language. They play games and learn to dance, sing and act. Imparting values and virtues such as “Truth, Kindness and Beauty” is one of the top priorities on the teaching agenda at this stage throughout the country.

Primary School Education

Primary school education has been lengthened from 5 to 6 years. Pupils are required to take a variety of subjects such as Chinese, basic math and moral education. They also take part in sports and extra-curriculum activities. In recent years, foreign languages such as English have become optional in the later years of primary school.

High School Education

The three-year junior high school curriculum includes science (such as chemistry, physics and biology), Chinese history, world history, geography, and physical education. Educators attach great importance to English, the official second language in most of the high schools. In senior high school students begin to take greater interest in a specific subject. A variety of contests are organized annually, such as the “Olympic Series.” The most important is preparation for national college entrance exams.

Higher Education

The main task of higher education in China is to train specialists for all sectors of the country’s development. Universities, colleges and institutes offer four-or five-year undergraduate programs as well as special two-or three-year programs. Students completing a first degree may apply to enter graduate school.

Chinese Immigrants in Santa Clara County


The average family size for respondents in both the random and the public benefits sample is three. About 23% of the families in the random sample have one or more non-family members living in the home. In the public benefits survey this rises to 41%. The level of education for the respondents in the random group is relatively high, with 83% having 13 or more years of formal education. Of respondents in the benefits sample 58% had 13 or more years of formal education. In terms of annual income, 38% of the households in the random sample had income of $50,000 or less and 32% had incomes of $130,000 or more, leaving only 30% in the middle $50,000 to $110,000 range. For the public benefits sample, the overwhelming majority of households had very low incomes. The average age for respondents in the random sample was 51, and for the public benefits sample 66.

The resident distribution of respondents in the random survey indicated that the top 3 cities of residence were: Cupertino (33%), Los Gatos (25%) and Morgan Hill (17%). Chinese immigrants reported living in other cities in the following order: Campbell, Saratoga, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, San Jose, and Milpitas. The residence pattern for respondents in the benefits sample was different: 51% San Jose, 14% Sunnyvale and 9% Cupertino.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Older and some recently arrived Chinese cannot communicate well in English. Of respondents in the random sample, 73% said they communicate mostly in Chinese, with about 6% using English or English and another language (19%).

Among older Chinese and the recently arrived, eye contact with authority figures is a sign of respect. Asking questions is seen as disrespectful, and silence may be a sign of respect. Chinese people are often very shy, especially in unfamiliar environments. Older Chinese should be addressed as Mr. or Mrs. and last name. Use of the first name could be viewed as disrespectful. The Chinese language is very expressive and often appears loud to non-Chinese. This “loudness” may occur when speaking in English and may sound harsh and abrupt. Chinese with limited English may nod politely at everything being said, but not understand what is being said.

Except for intimate relationships, hugging, kissing, and touching are not common in interactions.

Emotional Support

When asked who they talk to if they have emotional problems, respondents in the random sample stated that they mostly talk to their spouses (50%) or friends (41%), but 33% said that they talk to “no one”.


Most Chinese immigrants tend to wear westernized clothes. For some holiday celebrations many people, including children, wear traditional clothes. Jade pendants are commonly worn by women for good health and luck.


Chinese food can be roughly divided into northern and southern styles of cooking. In general, northern dishes in the styles of Tientsin, Shantung, and Bejing use more oil, vinegar and garlic. Noodles, dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, fried meat dumplings and steamed bread are common flour-based dishes. Southern cooking includes Szechwan, noted for using chili peppers, and Hunan, Chekiang, and Cantonese styles, which use more rice and rice based dishes, such as rice noodles, rice cakes, and rice congee. The Chinese have a number of rules and customs associated with eating. Chopsticks are preferred to forks. Food is commonly placed with rice in the individual’s rice bowl.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

By tradition most Chinese are Bhuddist. However, many Chinese, especially younger Chinese, belong to Christian and other denominations. Particularly in the Bhuddist tradition, it is common for Chinese families to honor their ancestors. Most of the holidays celebrated by immigrants are so-called traditional holidays. The most notable are the Lantern Festival, marking the end of the New Year season and held on the 15th day of the first month; Qing Ming, originally a celebration of spring, now a day dedicated to the dearly departed; Duan Wu, the Dragon Boat Festival, held on the 5th day of the fifth month, celebrating the great patriot poet Qu Yuan of the State of Chu; the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated the 15th day of the eighth month when the moon is the fullest and largest to the eye (second only to the Chinese New Year in significance); and the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, the biggest and most celebrated festival held on the 1st day of the first month.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top five needs identified by respondents in the random sample were: 1) learning more English (63%); 2) help in becoming a citizen (42%,); 3) immigration legal assistance (41%); 4) vision care (37%), dental care (34%), and medical (28%) care; and 5) child (20%) and elder (17%) care. The top five needs identified by respondents in the public benefits sample were: 1) medical (89%), dental (85%) and vision (83%) care, 2) learning more English (73%), 3) help in becoming a citizen (68%), 4) housing (48%), and 5) food (36%). In the PRC focus group, the top needs identified were affordable medical care and insurance, coping with INS procedures and the INS backlog, lack of good public transportation, affordable housing, and taxes.

An overlapping issue in all categories was the need for service agencies to have forms translated into Chinese and to have personnel who can “speak Chinese”. Also noted was the lack of information about existing health care programs, transportation, and tax forms and resources.


The level of discrimination experienced among respondents in the random sample was mixed. While only 43% said they felt respected by police when stopped, only 2% said they were mistreated. About 19% felt discriminated by job interviewers and co-workers.

Among the public benefits recipients, the response was also mixed. While none reported being mistreated by the police, only 32% stated they felt respected by police when stopped and 24% said they felt discriminated by the police. Discrimination also occurred with public transit drivers (17%) and INS officers, job interviewers, co-workers, and landlords.

Barriers to Education, Services, and Benefits

When asked what prevents them or their families from obtaining education, services, or public benefits, 60% from the random sample said not enough English, 30% said no time, 28% said lack of information, 22% said a scheduling problem and 10% said the services or programs were too expensive. For respondents receiving public benefits, the two main reasons for not utilizing educational services or public benefits were lack of English (77%) and lack of time (16%).

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data

About 30% of the respondents to the random survey are working in the engineering/math/computer science/electronics fields and 5% are managers. Before coming to the United States, 30% of the respondents worked in engineering/math/computer science/electronics, 15% were in education, and 8% were students. Reasons given for not following the same career in the United States were limited English skills (58%), different requirements for the occupation (25%), and an opportunity to get a better job (19%).

Of the respondents in the public benefits survey who had a career in China, 25% were retired, 24% were homemakers, and 12% worked as custodians. Before coming to the United States 16% responded that they were educators and 9% said they were retired. Reasons given for not following the same career in the United States were lack of employment training (19%) and occupational requirements being either different or too high (10%).

Working Conditions

The average family in the random survey had two (51%) or one (30%) family members who worked. They averaged 43 hours a week, more hours than any other immigrant group or the U.S.-born in the county. About 86% worked for a single employer. For the respondents in the random sample, 36% had no pension plan, 36% had to work overtime, 27% had no medical benefits, and 23% had no sick leave or paid vacation.

The average family of individuals receiving benefits had two (40%) or one (36%) family members who worked. They averaged 32 hours a week and 71% worked for one employer. Compared to the random sample, a significant number of workers in the public benefits sample did not have paid vacation (52%), sick leave (48%), a pension or retirement plan (48%), or medical benefits (43%).

Small Businesses

For the respondents in the random survey 41% owned a business or were self-employed. The three obstacles to starting a business were: knowing how to get started (58%), getting a loan (39%), and knowing what business idea might be successful (36%). For respondents receiving benefits, only 29% owned businesses or were self-employed. The three obstacles to starting a business were: getting a loan (60%), knowing enough English (50%), and information on how to get started (26%).

Public Benefits in the Chinese Community

Of the benefits available to immigrant residents of the county (e.g. SSI, CalWORKs, food stamps, MediCal, CAPI and General Assistance) respondents in the random sample indicated that MediCal (21%) and SSI (20%) were the two benefits having the most recipients. Over 2/3 of the respondents did not know the requirements in order to receive benefits. Respondents for MediCal (67%) and SSI (55%) felt that the levels of benefits received were adequate.

Of the public assistance recipients, the majority knew the requirements for MediCal (86%) and SSI (63%) and a minority knew the requirements for food stamps (49%), G.A. (37%), and CAPI (30%). Only 16% knew the requirements for CalWORKs. Most recipients felt that the amounts received were adequate.

Of those receiving benefits, the majority (92%) felt they were treated with respect by agency staff. The majority (91%) also felt that agency staff communicated with them effectively. As for understanding their culture background, 73% said agency staff knew about their culture. On the other hand, 70% of those receiving the above benefits indicated that information they received by phone, in writing, or at orientations was not presented in a language they understood.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

The great majority of respondents (71%) in the random sample did not have children under 18 in school. Of the respondents that had children under 18 in school, 90% wanted their children taught in English and Chinese and 10% wanted their children to be taught in English and another language. None of the respondents preferred English-only instruction. When asked to indicate the kinds of services desired for their children, 60% of the respondents in the random sample said school lunch and breakfast programs, with after school programs (20%) and tutoring (20%) being the next important.

Of Chinese receiving benefits, 76% did not have children under 18 in school, but of those who did have children, 90% wanted their children taught bilingually in English and Chinese or English and another language. Only 10% wanted their children taught only in English. The major need identified in this group was also school lunch and breakfast programs (59%), with parent meetings (37%) and after school activities (26%) being the next important.

Employment Training

Of the random sample survey respondents who reported receiving employment training in the U.S., most training occurred in service and semi-skilled occupations with only 14% specifying engineering/math/computer science/electronics and 7% indicating such areas as education and finance. The focus in occupational training reported by respondents receiving benefits was in the professional and service areas.

Respondents in the random sample received their educational training at a university (33%), community college (14%), or adult education (10%). Also 24% received their training from “multiple training” sites. For respondents receiving benefits 42% received their educational training at a university, 21% at adult education, and 13% at a community agency. Only 4% had gone to a community college.


Most Chinese in the random sample said their English skills were average (34%) to excellent (22%). Of the Chinese in the public benefits survey only 2% said their English skills were excellent. The majority said their skills were average to poor (26% and 39%). The random sample survey indicates that the main reason for needing better English skills is for employment (68%) and daily living (56%). The public assistance recipients survey indicated a counter pattern: 83% said they needed to improve their English for daily living situations and only 14% said they needed better English for employment purposes. This was probably so because most were elderly.

As for different techniques to improve their English skills, 50% of the random sample said having English-speaking friends is the biggest help. About 1/3 of the respondents said that having courses on TV or courses offered closer to home would be helpful. For those receiving benefits, having classes closer to home (50%), longer classes (29%), better weekday schedules (27%), and having English-speaking friends (27%) were the major means identified to learn English quickly, with less interest in such approaches as TV (17%) and audio cassettes (13%).


Whereas 58% of Chinese responding to the random survey are naturalized citizens, only 14% of Chinese receiving public assistance are citizens. When asked what citizenship services they need, the top response was for citizenship classes: 46% in the random sample and 52% in the public assistance sample. The second biggest need was to have literacy classes in Chinese: 14% in the random sample and 31% in the public assistance sample. The third biggest need was getting legal advice and dealing with issues pertaining to INS processing of their applications. About 23% in the random sample and 21% in the public benefits sample said they need legal help, and 23% in the random sample and 20% in the benefits sample need help tracking their INS applications.

Communication & Outreach in the Chinese Community

The random survey indicates 63% of the respondents get news and information from Chinese language newspapers and television. The survey of Chinese receiving public benefits also shows that the respondents get news and information primarily from Chinese language newspapers (84%) and Chinese language TV (82%). Media sources little to never used as sources of news and information are English language radio (3% for both), English language TV (9% and 3%), and the internet (5% and 3%). Information from church, community organizations, and government publications do not inform these communities. About 97% of Chinese families in both survey groups owned a television. More families in the random survey had radios and VCRs (94% and 84%) than in the public benefits survey (72% and 60%). Families in the random survey were slightly more likely to have a telephone (99% to 91%), and significantly more likely to have computers (81% to 51%), fax machines (63% to 30%), e-mail (60% to 19%), and internet connections (52% to 21%). Newspaper subscriptions were about the same for both groups at 53%.

Chinese in Action: Allen Lew

Chinese respondents in the random survey indicated a significant involvement in civic activities such as neighborhood organizations (28%), social issue campaigns (16%), and school or parent organizations (16%). By far the major focus for involvement outside the family is church participation (53%). About 48% reported that they are registered to vote. A major reason given for not participating in voting was not enough time (83%) and/or language barriers.

As of December 2000, 14,061 registered voters in Santa Clara County were born in China, and 6,179 voted in the March 2000 elections. This number of voters is a great increase from the 2,558 who voted in November 1990.

There are many active and successful Chinese immigrants in Santa Clara County. One of them is Allen Lew. Mr. Lew came to the United States in 1981. At the beginning he had two jobs and went to school at the same time. Mr. Lew worked in electronics and sauna cleaning businesses and took ESL classes at De Anza College. Very soon he started his own landscaping business and continued with school for two years. This wasn’t an easy period. However, Mr. Lew is a self-taught artist and he established an art design and trade show business in 1983. The name of the company was changed from Art Mark to Silicon Exhibits in 1999.

At Silicon Exhibits, Mr. Lew designs office space, makes office furniture, prepares trade shows and displays, and produces some of the most outstanding graphic art in all of Silicon Valley. For a period of time Mr. Lew even taught a class in his office. About 15 students learned how to use their talents and apply computer programs for graphic design.

Preparing one exhibition per month on average, Mr. Lew usually works more than 16 hours per day. However, he obviously has a lot of love for this type of work and enjoys having a medium to express his creativity. His understanding family, friends and community play an important role in supporting Mr. Lew as one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative entrepreneurs.