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Tompkins County's first recorded residents of Asian descent date to the mid 1800's. Immigrants from the Pacific Islands came in more limited numbers in the twentieth century, and are harder to find in historic record due to the lack of a "Pacific Islander" category in the U.S. census until 1960 (these records are sealed until 2032). 

The first Asian business on record, a Chinese laundry opened by John and Mahong Lee as early as 1885, was located at 105 N. Aurora St in downtown Ithaca. Many early Asian residents came to the area to study at Cornell University, or to support family members and children studying at the college. Cornell’s first Japanese student, Kanaye Nagasawa  (birth name Hikosuke Isonaga) was one of the first eight recorded Japanese individuals to come to the United States. Nagasawa was one of the 'Kagoshima Fifteen,' a group of young Japanese sent to study Western culture. Nagasawa studied Natural history at Cornell in 1870. The most illustrious Asian student from Cornell is undoubtedly Hu Shih, sometimes called “the father of the Chinese literary renaissance,” who graduated from Cornell in 1914.

Records for the City of Ithaca show small but increasing populations from Asian, Asian-Indian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) nations from the 1890's into the twentieth century, although multi-generation AAPI immigrant families do not appear consistently until after the 1930's. These records can be explored at

Beginning in the 1970s, the Asian immigrant population of Tompkins County began to grow more expansively, with more people arriving from the Indian subcontinent as well as from Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Tibetan refugees first arrived in Ithaca in 1991 when Ithaca was sited as one of 10 "cluster sites" in the U.S. for Tibetan resettlement. The Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies was established in 1992 as the North American Seat of the Personal Monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Over recent decades Ithaca and Tompkins County have attracted dozens more Tibetan families and a rich community has grown around revitalization and preservation of Tibetan culture. In the 1990's and 2000's Ithaca also became the permanent home for a number of former refugees from Myanmar (Burma) who settled permanently in Ithaca.

Today Ithaca and Tompkins County are home to many first, second, third, and fourth generation Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander families and communities. Groups like the Ithaca Asian American Association and the Tibetan Association of Ithaca coordinate and host public annual celebrations and community events celebrating Asian history and culture.

President George H. W. Bush designated May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month on May 7, 1990, following the passage of Pub. L. 101-283 by Congress. This law also recognized the significance of May 7th and May 10th in the history of Asian and Pacific Islanders.

  • May 7, 1843, is the date on which the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States.
  • May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed with significant contributions from Chinese pioneers. 
In 1992, Congress passed Pub.L.102-450, which permanently designated May of each year as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama arrives at the Ithaca Airport in 1979 during his first trip to the United States. Picture by Elaine Mansfield.

Karen Mural Project - Part of the "History & Art Walking Tour of Downtown Ithaca" - was completed over the course of a month in 2019 by Karen and Burman teen members of the 4-H Urban Outreach Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County with help of local artist Dan Burgevin. The mural depicts Karen-Burman refugee families journeying to Ithaca to escape genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

On February 18, 2021, Indian-American Swati Mohan narrated the historic landing of the NASA Perseverance rover on Mars after a 292.5 million-mile journey. Dr. Mohan graduated from the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University College of Engineering in 2004. As an undergraduate, Mohan studied with Mark Campbell, the John A. Mellowes ’60 Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell. 

Pearl Buck worked on the third volume of the trilogy that she had begun with The Good Earth while living at 614 Wyckoff Rd. in the early 1930s. First edition pictured, published in 1931, cover artist Matthew Louie. 

Learn about the lives of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Tompkins County from the resources on our website, by visiting our Exhibit Hall, and through exploring our Archival Collections



Oral Histories available in our Research Library*

  • Tal Oron Cohen (2019)
  • Ooy & Bonner Herren (2019)
  • Baldev & Kamaldeep Sekhon (2019)
  • Amy Somchanhmavong (2019)
  • Mimi Melegrito (2018)
  • Hiroko Takashima (2021)


      Image by Sol Goldberg of children reading at the library. Taken between 1956–1965 in Ithaca, NY. From the Sol Goldberg Photograph Collection.



      HistoryForge is an innovative digital history project combining maps, archival records, and census data that allows any community to explore its local history through the individuals who lived there and the buildings and neighborhoods they lived in.  

      Ithaca HistoryForge includes over 70,000 digitized census records of Ithacans from 1900–1940, and is in the process of adding tens of thousands of building records to the database. 

      By searching the database using the "Race," "Place of Birth," or "Foreign Born" filters on different census years you can learn about Asian, Asian-Indian, and Pacific Islander residents of the City of Ithaca between 1900–1940.

      Each red dot indicates an Asian (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, or Korean) household from the City of Ithaca 1930 Census. Learn more about these residents at

      Learn more about these residents of Tompkins County at


      Questions of “color” or race on the census were initially limited to “White” and “Black” when the first records were taken in 1790. Additional categories were added beginning with the 1850 census. The first Asian category, "Chinese" was added in 1860 (other categories: Black, White, Indian). However, more expansive and inclusive Asian and Pacific Islander options were added minimally over the next century, with the first option for a Pacific Islander being "Hawaiian or Part-Hawaiian" added in 1960, a full century later. Enumerators did not ask respondents for their racial identity, but were expected to determine race by visual identification. This created inconsistency in some records, and a lack of specificity for those whose racial, national, and cultural identities were not represented in the available categories. 


      “Filipino” was one of three new racial categories added to the 1920 census. No one on the 1920 census for Ithaca was recorded with the race “Filipino.” One enumerator did, however, encounter a man, Zack N. Dapula, who was born in the Philippines, as were his parents. Without specific instructions on what constituted Filipino as a race, the enumerator visually determined that Dapula was “Mulatto.” In 1930 six people were recorded on the census for the City of Ithaca as "Filipino." Highlighting the inconsistencies of racial categorization on the census, all six also appeared on the 1940 census, but there they were recorded as "White." 


      N. Aurora and E. MLK St. (previously State St.) BlockThese two streets—especially around the area currently known as “Restaurant Row”—were home to several Asian and Asian American-owned businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The first Asian business on record, a Chinese laundry opened by John and Mahong Lee as early as 1885, was located at 105 N. Aurora St, which later became the first location for Ithaca’s longest-running Chinese laundry, Joe Sing’s laundry. In the 1920s, several other businesses opened on Aurora Street: the first Chinese restaurant on record, Yung Lo (corner of Aurora and Seneca), Asai’s grocery (209 N. Aurora and 212 N. Aurora), and Shanghai Restaurant (123 N. Aurora). In the 1930s, the Asiatic Garden Restaurant opened at 313 E. State St., and Hong Ong’s laundry opened a couple doors down at 324 E. State.


      Florence Finch (1915–2016) was a Filipino-American who worked for the resistance against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII. Florence risked her life to divert fuel from the Japanese army, supplying the Filipino resistance and buying food and medicine on the black market for POWs. In 1944, Florence was arrested by Japanese authorities and endured confinement and torture. After her liberation in 1945, she moved to the U.S. and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard for a year. In 1955, she came to Ithaca, where she stayed for the rest of her life, raising two children and working in Cornell’s Southeast Asia program. Florence was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon in 1945, the first woman to receive the honor, as well as the Medal of Freedom in 1947, and in 1995 the Coast Guard named their Pacific headquarters building in Hawaii after her.

      Hu Shih (1891–1962) was a prominent Chinese philosopher, diplomat, and scholar who helped establish the vernacular as the official written language of China in 1922. He also promoted the concept of building a new China through mass education instead of political revolution. Hu Shih enrolled as a student at Cornell University in 1910 to study agriculture, but later changed his major to philosophy, graduating in 1914.

      Hu was the Chinese ambassador to the United States from 1938-1942, the chancellor of Peking University from 1946-48, and the president of the Academia Sinica from 1957-1962. 

      Learn more: The Greatest Cornellian: Hu Shih, Class of 1914 (2015, Cornell University)

      In 1867, Kanaye Nagasawa  (birth name Hikosuke Isonaga) was one of the first eight recorded Japanese individuals to come to the United States after having studied in the U.K. for the previous two years. Nagasawa was one of the 'Kagoshima Fifteen,' a group of young Japanese sent to study Western culture in the 1860s. He studied natural history and grape growing at Cornell University for a short period in 1870, and later moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he inherited the Fountain Grove Winery and became the largest winemaker in California. Due to discriminatory Alien Land Laws and President F.D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, Nagasawa’s heirs were unable to inherit Fountain Grove after his death in 1934. He was the first individual of Japanese descent to live in Sonoma County, CA, and his descendants still reside there today. In 2007, a 33-acre park in California was named in his honor

       Kanaye Nagasawa  (birth name Hikosuke Isonaga) was one of the first eight recorded Japanese individuals to come to the United States after having studied in the U.K. for the previous two years. Nagasawa was one of the 'Kagoshima Fifteen,' a group of young Japanese sent to study Western culture in the 1860s.

      His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama presented Ithaca College President Emerita Peggy R. Williams with a ceremonial kata scarf in 2007. In 2016, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama selected Ithaca, NY, to be the site of an international center for the study of Buddhism. Ithaca has been home to the Namgyal Monastery, the North American Seat of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, since 1992. Namgyal-Ithaca was founded with the mission of offering Western students the opportunity to study authentic Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting, and to provide a cultural center for the Tibetan and Buddhist refugee community living in Ithaca, NY.


      412 North Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca, the site of Namgyal-Ithaca from the 19992 until the 2010s. Namgyal Monastery moved to East Hill in 2016. 

      Ithaca Dragon Boat Club in 2014 returning to the Cayuga Inlet docks.

      'Spilled (Soy) Milk' is a 2006 documentary directed by Ithaca College professor Changhee Chun exploring the lives of Asian-American residents in Ithaca and Tompkins County. 

      • Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, located on East Hill, serves as the North American Seat of the Namgyal Monastery located in Dharamsala, India, which is the personal monastery of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Namgyal-Ithaca was founded in 1992 with the mission of offering Western students the opportunity to study authentic Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting, and to provide a cultural center for the Tibetan and Buddhist refugee community living in Ithaca, NY. In 2016, Ithaca was selected to become the site of a new international center for Buddhism. “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's Library and Museum” will house the writings, teachings, and artifacts of all 14 Dalai Lamas, and is being built on South Hill. Namgyal also hosts the Tibetan Association of Ithaca, the annual Tibetan Cultural Day, and celebrations and related cultural programs in the community. 

      • Ithaca Asian American Association (IAAA) was co-founded in 1997 by Sivilay Somchanhmavong, who moved to Ithaca from Laos during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and his wife Amy, who was born in Taiwan and lived in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey before settling in Ithaca. Ithaca Asian American Association was first founded in 1997 as Ithaca Area Asian Association. It was then reconstituted to IAAA in 2003. With the support and efforts of various individuals, IAAA was revived. Since then, IAAA has been developing its vibrant dragon boat program through the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club, and has hosted various community-based events such as the Lunar New Year Celebration and the Finger Lakes International Dragon Boat Festival. IAAA co-hosts and co-sponsors the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club, the Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival, and many other events and community programs throughout the year.
      • Ithaca Dragon Boat Club and the Finger Lakes International Dragon Boat Festival was co-founded by Ithaca residents Amy and Sivilay Somchanhmavong in the early 2000s. The club and festival were established in the community to highlight Asian and Asian-American culture in the region, and to promote community building through this re-interpretation and practice of a traditional Chinese festival commemorating poet and warrior Chu Yuan. The festival is now sponsored and hosted by the Ithaca Asian American Association. 
      • Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival (IPAAFF) was created by Ithaca College student Katie Quan (‘15) in collaboration with Ithaca College professors. This student-run, student-led organization is dedicated to promoting AAPI films, video, and media created by, starring, and about Asian-Americans. They are committed to facilitating community engagement with a diversity of Asian-American identities and stories in upstate NY and nationwide. Beginning in 2015, IPAAFF has held an annual showcase at Cinemapolis in Ithaca featuring domestic and international films, shorts, and documentaries in a range of genres and styles by emerging and experienced filmmakers. The festival is co-sponsored by the Ithaca Asian American Association. IPAAFF is currently dormant


      The content for both of these exhibits came from an intensive one year (2021-2022) undergraduate research project by Claire Deng (Cornell '22) under the supervision of Professor Derek Chang, and in collaboration with the Ithaca Asian American Association. Claire received the 2022 'Campus-Community Leadership Award' for graduating seniors for her invaluable work contributing to The History Center's archival collections on early Asian residents in Tompkins County. These exhibits are no longer on public display, but the research materials are available in The History Center archives and collections

      “The Asai's: Breaking Ground in the Town of Ithaca''

      This exhibit pieced together the history of Monroe Asai and his family, Japanese Americans who lived in Ithaca from 1920 to 1935. Monroe Asai earned a name for himself as the only Japanese farmer in the county at the time, winning dozens of prizes at County and State Fairs throughout the 1920s. The Asai's established their home and farm in the Town of Ithaca at 221 Kline Road (now Warren Road) and sold their produce downtown, at one point running three grocery stores at 209 N. Aurora St., 212 N. Aurora St., and 320 W. State St..

      Tang Family Display

      in reCOUNT: Facing Our Census

      The Tang family is one of Ithaca’s most enduring Asian  American families. In 1931, Wing Quai Tang came to Ithaca and opened the Asiatic Garden restaurant. While it was not the earliest Chinese restaurant in Ithaca, it was the first one to see long-term success. Two generations of the Tang family ran the Asiatic Garden from 1931–2001, first at 313 E. State St. and then at 118 W. State St. It became the longest-run Asian American business in the history of Ithaca and was beloved by the Ithaca community.

      The Tang Family Display was part of the “Cultural Fabric of Tompkins County” tower in the reCOUNT: Facing Our Census exhibit at The History Center in Tompkins County (April-December 2022). Certain items in display were on loan from the Tang Family are not held in The History Center collections.

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