5 Times the AAPI Community Resisted Racism in Court

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

It’s been a joy to see my feeds filled by posts about AAPI authors, theologians, and influences, or to hear of friends organizing communion services that involved pandesal and dduk. And it’s been an even greater joy in this season to experience greater AAPI representation in the media, whether it’s laughing at Korean jokes while watching Kim’s Convenience, admiring the BTS performance on Saturday Night Live, celebrating Sandra Oh being on the cover of TIME’s top 100 list, or getting a bit weepy while watching a trailer for The Farewell.

In a month of remembering, celebrating, and honoring, I wanted to highlight some of the historic moments in which the AAPI community resisted racist policies. As I was doing some research, I was struck by the ways that some of these moments of resistance came through our legal system, as our AAPI family boldly and courageously exhibited their agency by fighting unjust laws.

While there are plenty of examples of court cases which upheld discriminatory and exclusionary laws against the AAPI community, here are a few important historical cases that I have recently learned of that exemplify tenacious legal resistance and a refusal to comply with racist policies.

1) Chy Lung v. Freeman (1875)

Photo from Chy Lung v. Freeman Reenactment Project- Jury Group

Photo from Chy Lung v. Freeman Reenactment Project- Jury Group

In 1876, a group of 22 women from China, including Chy Lung, appealed a CA state decision that denied them entry into the U.S. and argued for their deportation. These women were passengers on the steamer Japan that arrived to San Francisco from China in 1875, and when they arrived, they were examined by the immigration commissioner, who identified them as “lewd and debauched women.” Consequently, they were detained, placed in custody of the Sheriff of San Francisco, and forced to await deportation. These actions were in accordance with a California statute passed in 1875, which gave an immigration commissioner the authority to inspect passengers arriving to California and deny them entry to the U.S. on suspicion of being “lewd and debauched.”

While this case is sometimes known as the case of the “22 Lewd Women,” and the dominant narrative around these Chinese women immigrants is that they were prostitutes, these women exhibited courage and determination in fighting against their exclusion, sexualization, and racialization in the courts. They fought against their deportation multiple times, and when the California High Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1875 statute, they appealed the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, where they actually won. In the ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the power to set rules surrounding immigration rested with the federal government, and not with the states. The Supreme Court also challenged the lack of due process around the immigration commissioner’s decision to mark particular immigrants as “lewd and debauched,” thereby condemning unconstitutional practices of both racial and gender profiling in California’s immigration process.

This was the first case to appear before the U.S. Supreme court that involved a Chinese litigant.

2) Ho Ah Kow v. Nunan (1879)

San Francisco Illustrated Wasp” Cartoon - 1879

San Francisco Illustrated Wasp” Cartoon - 1879

In 1873, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the “Pigtail Ordinance,” a law which forced prisoners in San Francisco to cut their hair to within an inch of the scalp for sanitary reasons. This law disproportionately targeted male Chinese immigrants, who were required by this law to cut off their queues- their waist-long, braided pigtails. Queues were an important identity marker for many Chinese immigrants and were necessary for men to be able to return to China, since they were mandatory under the Qing dynasty. To lose one’s queue was considered a mark of disgrace.

Due to this “Pigtail Ordinance,” a Chinese immigrant named Ah Kow had his queue forcibly removed while he was in jail. Outraged by this action, Kow sued San Francisco sheriff Matthew Nunan for damages, arguing that this ordinance had caused him irreparable harm. He described his pain in a statement by saying that he had been caused “great mental anguish… disgraced in his own eyes and in the eyes of his friends and relatives, and ostracized from the association of respectable members of his countrymen.

With the support and advocacy of the Chinese Six Companies organization, this case was eventually taken to a federal court. On June 14, 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Johnson Field found in favor of the plaintiff, condemning the ordinance as both discriminatory and unconstitutional, imposing a specific disgrace upon the Chinese and thus qualifying as a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Johnson cited the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to argue that all persons, including Chinese immigrants, should receive equal protection under the law and that the “Pigtail Ordinance” violated this amendment.

3) Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)

A Chinese Laundry in San Francisco- Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 14 May 1870.

In 1880, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance which made it illegal to operate a laundry in a wooden building unless one received a permit from the Board of Supervisors. At the time this ordinance was passed, approximately two-thirds of laundries were owned by Chinese people, and about 95% of those laundries were operated in wooden buildings. As a result of this ordinance, many laundry owners applied for permits, but faced clearly discriminatory policies. Only one permit was granted to the nearly 200 Chinese applicants, while virtually all non-Chinese applicants were granted a permit.

Yick Wo was one of these laundry facility owners, a Chinese immigrant who had managed his laundry facility for over 23 years before this ordinance passed. When he continued to operate his laundry in a wooden building, he was convicted and fined for violating the ordinance, and was consequently imprisoned when he refused to pay the fine. Yick Wo ended up taking up his case in court, arguing that the law was discriminatory.

When this case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, the Court ruled in a unanimous opinion that the San Francisco ordinance was discriminatory, and that Chinese laundry owners should be granted equal protection under the 14th amendment. Justice Matthews denounced the law as an attempt to exclude the Chinese from owning laundry businesses, and all the other laundry owners who had been jailed were eventually released and dismissed of all charges.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins has been cited in well over 150 Supreme Court cases since it was decided.

4) United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)

Photo of Wong Kim Ark- National Archives

Wong Kim Ark was born and raised in San Francisco in the 1870s, in a time of growing anti-Chinese sentiment and policies. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, Wong traveled back to China, and on his way back to the United States, Wong was detained on the grounds that he and his family were “Chinese persons, and subjects of the Emperor of China” and thus ineligible to return to the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion act.

As somebody born in the United States, Wong fought these actions, and his case was brought all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately decided in 1898 that Wong was born in the U.S. and was thereby an American citizen under the 14th Amendment, which states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United states, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United states and of the state wherein they reside.

This case was significant because it established the precedent that jus soli (citizenship by birthright) determined U.S. citizenship, not jus sanguiis(citizenship by descent), which affected many future 14th Amendment cases and continues to impact millions today.

5) Oyama v. California (1948)

Kajiro Oyama in court- 1945- San Diego Journal

Kajiro Oyama was an Issei farmer who moved to the U.S. from Japan as a teenager and grew up in California. In 1934, he bought six acres of land in the name of his son Fred, who was born in the United States, and appointed himself as the boy’s guardian. Managing this land as the “Oyama Quality Vegetables” farm, Kajiro lived peacefully with his wife and five children, until they were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned, as a part of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

When the Oyama family returned to their farm, they realized that their land had been confiscated and illegally purchased in accordance with the Alien Land Laws, which were passed in the early 1900s to prevent Japanese and other Asian immigrants from purchasing agricultural land. These Alien Land Laws prohibited persons who were ineligible to become citizens of the U.S. from owning any land. Many Japanese Americans found that their land had been confiscated and sold during their internment, and lost their land due to Alien Land Laws in the years following internment.

Oyama fought for his rights and for his farm by taking his case to court, with the support of the Japanese American Citizens league (JACL). Despite facing defeat at the local and state levels, they took their case to Supreme Court, arguing that the unfair confiscation of his land deprived Fred of his rights as a citizen and Kajiro of his rights to equal protection under the law. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Oyama was entitled to the land, and that the application of the Alien Land Law obstructed Fred Oyama’s rights as an American. The Oyama family received their confiscated land back.

Despite this ruling, it still took almost 40 years for the Supreme Court to render the Alien Land Laws unconstitutional.

What are some other historic examples of AAPI resistance in the legal system? Whose stories should also be highlighted?