Chinese immigration to the United States has come in several waves. During the mid-19th century many Chinese emigrated from Guangdong province to the United States in order to work on the railroads and several Western states had large populations of Chinese. These Chinese, who mostly spoke Cantonese and its variant Toisanese clustered in Chinatowns, the largest population was in San Francisco. This immigration (encouraged by the Burlingame Treaty of 1868) was stopped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 which made Chinese immigration illegal until 1946.
With the loosening of American immigration laws in 1952 and 1965, a second wave of Chinese immigration began. These Taiwanese Americans consisted of professionals from Taiwan who arrived in the United States on student visas. With the improving economy in Taiwan, immigration from the island began to decrease in the 1970s and was accompanied by an increase in immigration from professionals from Mainland China, which began to allow for emigration in 1977. Both groups of Chinese tend to cluster in suburban areas and tended to avoid urban Chinatowns. These Chinese tended to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese often in addition to their native dialect, which in the case of the Taiwanese Americans was the Taiwanese language.
A third wave of recent immigrants consisted of undocumented aliens, chiefly from Fujian province who came to the United States in search of lower-status manual jobs. These aliens tend to concentrate in urban areas such as New York City and there is often very little contact between these Chinese and the professional group. They generally speak some Mandarin but mostly Min dialect, which is close to the Taiwanese language although this fact does not produce much affinity between this group and Taiwanese Americans. The amount of immigration from this group has begun to decrease as the economic situation in Fujian improves.
Cities with large Chinese American populations include New York, New York, San Francisco, California, Los Angeles, California, and Houston, Texas. In these cities, there are often multiple Chinatowns, an older one and a newer one which is populated by immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. In some areas, Chinese Americans maintain close relationships with other Asian groups particularly Vietnamese-Americans. These relationships are helped by the fact that many Vietnamese-American are ethnic overseas Chinese, although most ethnic Chinese Vietnamese-Americans do not classify themselves as Chinese American.
In addition to the big cities, smaller pockets of Chinese Americans are also dispersed in rural towns, often university towns, throughout the United States.
Among Americans at large, there has been a perceived mystery about the politics of Chinese Americans. Part of this is perhaps the overloaded use of the word "Chinese" for ethnicity, politics and culture. Unfamiliarity with the nuances of being "Chinese" can lead to misperceptions. Chinese Americans respecting Chinese ethnicity and heritage have come under scrutiny, often having to be differentiated from Chinese nationalism or the Chinese Communist government. Another factor is that Chinese-Americans do not have uniform attitudes about the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the United States, or Chinese nationalism, with attitudes varying widely between active support, hostility, or indifference. Finally, many see the People's Republic of China as a potentially powerful rival to the United States.
Two incidents have energized some Chinese Americans in recent years -- the murder of Vincent Chin by white auto workers in 1982 and the unsubstantiated charges of spying against Chinese American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1999, whom many believe was a victim of racial stereotyping. Both of these cases helped increase the political activism of many Chinese Americans.
Among Chinese in Mainland China and Taiwan, second-generation Chinese Americans known as American-born Chinese are often perceived as being a bit exotic. Chinese Americans have also strongly influenced politics in Taiwan and to a lesser but still significant degree in the People's Republic of China. A large number of major political figures in Taiwan (including Peng Ming-min, Shi Ming-te, and Lee Yuan-tze) have had either permanent residency or citizenship in the United States, and many Taiwanese political figures including Lee Teng-hui, Ma Ying-jeou, and James Soong have advanced degrees from the United States.
The large number of Taiwanese with either dual American citizenship or relatives with American citizenship have led to some concerns about political loyalty and has resulted in the requirement started in the 1990s that high government officials (although not ordinary people) must renounce any dual citizenships. However, Taiwanese-Americans make up important bases of support for both the pan-Green coalition and pan-Blue coalition and neither party appears interesting in pushing this issue much.
On Mainland China, once influenced by American-educated Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the top leadership contains few persons educated in the United States: the Cold War period made for tenuous China-America links and the Cultural Revolution disrupted academic exchanges with the rest of the world. However, the middle ranks of the People's Republic of China government contain very large numbers of people who received their education in the United States, and a graduate degree from an American university has become an important benefit to political and economic career advancement. In addition, the sons and daughters of many Chinese political leaders are students in the United States.
Many immigrants from the PRC benefited from the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 which granted permanent residency status to immigrants from the PRC. One unintended side effect of the law was that the primary beneficiaries of the law were undocumented Fujianese immigrants, who unlike the Chinese graduate students, would have had no chance to gain permanent residency through normal means.
In the late 1990s, large numbers of professional Chinese Americans began to return to the PRC creating a brain gain. In a typical career pattern, a Chinese graduate student would emigrate to the United States and enter the job market and return to the PRC after reaching a perceived glass ceiling. The number of Chinese graduate students returning to the PRC increased dramatically after 2000 and the dot-com bust resulted in worsening job prospects in the United States.
First generation Chinese Americans vary widely in political stance -- some support Taiwan independence, some support the Republic of China and Chinese reunification, some support the People's Republic of China and many (particularly American-born Chinese) identify more with American politics than any politics in Asia. Because of these divisions, Chinese Americans have since the late-1970's generally been unable to maintain any coordinated influence on U.S. foreign policy in contrast to other ethnic groups. In addition, Chinese Americans who have American citizenship tend to be professionals who are uninterested about labor and immigrations issues which affect undocumented Chinese immigrants. American-born Chinese tend to be apathetic about Chinese politics.
One institution well known among Chinese Americans is colloquially called the Love Boat, a cultural and educational study tour to Taiwan whose overt purpose is to reacquaint American-born Chinese teens with their cultural roots. However, it also has a side motive for Chinese American parents wanting to stem outmarriage by increasing the chances their children meeting other Chinese Americans.