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10 facts about Asian American religion that you might not know as found in a new Oxford University Press publication

Also, check out our new features on religions in Flushing, Queens!

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Interior of Puchao Temple, afternoon prayer service on Eldridge Street, Chinatown, Manhattan. Sketch by Darilyn Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


1. Did you know that the first “Asian Americans” may have been North and East Asians who settled in the American landmass before there was an America or Asia?

These people, who may have been of diverse races, likely are the ancestors of the Amerindians of the Americas.


2. Did you know that "The Legend of Fusang" recounts how the Buddhist missionary Hui Shen with a party of monks reached lands beyond the known ocean around China? Some earlier scholars speculated that this story records the first appearance of Buddhism in North America.

Although this identification is now discounted, the story well illustrates the ebb and flow of religious interests between Asia and America.


3. Did you know that Catholic Christianity from the Philippines is one of the earliest occurrences in the historical record of Asian American religion?

In the 16th Century, Filipino sailors aboard the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope) with the Catholic priest Martin Ignacio de Loyola landed on the California coast, probably at Morro Bay near modern San Luis Obispo. A young Japanese, who may have been training to take vows to a Catholic religious order, was also the first known Japanese in America.


4. Did you know that an “East Indian” is listed as one of the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, around 1635?



5. Did you know that one of the first public notices of Asian American religion took place right here in New York City?

The New York Herald reported that a Chinese worship service on the boat Keying in New York Harbor may well have been the first publicized Chinese religious event in the United States. The Herald announced on July 14, 1847, “the city of New York will have an opportunity to day of witnessing Chinese idol worship with all its concomitants of kneeling, sacrificing, and offering of gifts.” According to the paper, the public attended in great numbers.


6. Did you know that over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith?

To what religious faith do most Asian Americans adhere? Check out the new entries in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia on American Religions.


7. Do you know what was the first Chinese American Christian church?

In 1853 several Chinese Christians from Macau and the missionary Reverend William Speer established the first Chinese American church. Lai Sam, the son-in-law of famed Chinese preacher Leung A-fah, was the first elder at the San Francisco Chinese Presbyterian Church (also at various times called Chinese Presbyterian Mission Church, the Chinese Chapel, the First Chinese Church, and the San Francisco Chinese Church).


8. Do you know when the first Chinese American temple erected?

1853. The first Chinese temple, T’ien Hou, was erected in San Francisco by the Sze Yap Company. The temple’s Buddhism included a mix of Taoism, Confucianism, and probably local gods popular in Toisan, Gwangdong. The temple was named after the Queen of Heaven (Tien Hou or T’ien Hou). The next year, the Ning Yeong Company built a second Chinese temple, called Kong Chow. The principal deity was Guang Gong (Kuan Kung).


9. Did you know that a Japanese American Quaker challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court the government's right to round up Japanese Americans and put them into concentration camps after World War II broke out?

A Japanese Quaker, Gordon Hirabayashi, challenged the presidential order by refusing to evacuate. Eventually, he was given a thirty-day sentence to a camp in Arizona. The government wouldn't provide transportation to the camp, so Hirabayashi hitchhiked to the Tuscon Federal Prison in Arizona (otherwise known as the Catalina Federal Honor Camp). He had to persuade the disbelieving officials to take him into custody.

Defying government disgruntlement, he then went back home to Spokane, Washington after serving his ninety-day sentence for refusing the evacuation order. His civil rights activism earned him posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and the camp area in Arizona was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. Read about the case Hirabayashi v. United_States.


10. Do you know what is the oldest continuous operating Buddhist temple in New York City?

In 1963 the Eastern States Buddhist Association established what today is the oldest continuous temple in New York City’s Chinatown. At the same time, the Hawaiian Buddhists established Han Yun Temple, and in San Francisco, a lay group built Buddha’s Universal Church. In 1964 another group also established the Buddhist Association of the United States.


For much more on the fascinating facts about Asian Americans and their religions, dip into the brand new entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia on American Religions.


Also, check out our new features on religions in Flushing, Queens!

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