St. Louisans of Chinese descent reflect on their heritage and experience in America today | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louisans of Chinese descent reflect on their heritage and experience in America today

Apr 25, 2017

U.S.-China political and economic relations may make headlines frequently today, but the connection between the two countries is hundreds of years old in terms of immigration, business and culture.

In the St. Louis area, there are between 20,000 and 50,000 people of Chinese descent, said Caroline Fan, a past president of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) in St. Louis. That number has grown dramatically in the last 20 years and the community now plays home to 12 churches and places of worship with membership of Chinese descent, three different Chinese schools and countless restaurants.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the experience of people of Chinese descent with members of OCA St. Louis. In addition to Fan, Lucy Burns, the current president of OCA St. Louis, and Min Liu, a professor of communication at SIUE and Community Outreach Director at the Chinese Modern School, joined the program. 

Fan said that while people of Chinese descent are embraced in the community now, that has not always been the case. She pointed to the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which limited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. May 6 marks the 135th anniversary of that act, which OCA St. Louis will mark with a celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage at the Missouri History Museum on May 4.

“It is an unfortunate piece of history,” Fan said. “It is not a big surprise that amongst the three of us, all of us came after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Acts. My parents came after those acts, which lifted the quota on Chinese and Asian Americans.”

Burns, who moved from China to the United States 30 years ago and became a naturalized citizen 22 years ago, said that she appreciates the diverse environment in St. Louis. She said she had always been impressed with Chinese Culture Days at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which marked its 20th year this past weekend.

Liu, who moved to the U.S. 20 years ago as an international student, said that as a person and a parent, she felt St. Louis was a welcoming place, but that didn’t rule out instances of micro-aggressions.

“These are subtle insults oftentimes well-intended,” Liu said. “… racial micro-aggressions are often assumed to be targeted at racial minorities other than Chinese. This may be things like ‘oh, I didn’t realize you were Chinese, you speak English so well.’ Cultural integration and understanding is a long journey that takes investment from all parts.”


Fan, who was born in the United States, moved to the St. Louis region three years ago and said that generally Chinese Americans are well-received here, but that there is a lack of social and government services that are language and culturally competent. For example, only one municipality in the region, University City, translates government documents and forms into Chinese.

“Part of the difficulty is: We don’t have a lot of Asian Americans either in legislature or local levels in elected office,” Fan said.

OCA St. Louis, which serves people from all Asian ethnicities, recently started a civic engagement project to encourage people to vote and get involved politically.

Fan became concerned about xenophobia toward people of Chinese descent during the election – not just on the national level, but on the local level too.

“There were two ads that ran on stations across the state,” Fan said. “One was xenophobic towards Chinese Americans in regards to farming. We heard from regular parents, professionals, who were concerned about what their kids were seeing. That xenophobic tenor is concerning given all of the past policies that the United States has previously passed, including the exclusion acts. OCA St. Louis is part of a coalition working to address immigrant and refugee concerns.”

Fan said her father came to the U.S. as a student and brought her mother and, later, her grandmother and uncle and his two children.

“Xenophobic rhetoric translates, unfortunately frequently, into policy,” Fan said. “Some of that immigration policy being discussed would get rid of sibling preference that allows my family, and many other Asian families to be here.”

Liu said that the Chinese Culture Days celebration last weekend was encouraging because Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and First Lady Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens were in attendance.

“They are new to our audience, but as soon as Dr. Greitens took to the stage to address the audience, she spoke to us in Chinese,” Liu said. “That was such a memorable moment. As soon as we realized that our leaders are willing to make an effort to reach out to us in our language, make an effort to understand our culture … that had a powerful impact on me, on our children in the audience that day.” 

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.