Taiwan did not become an independent country until 1949. As one of the West’s staunchest allies in the cold war after 1945, Taiwan has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States, including both diplomatic and military assistance in its conflict with the Communist People’s Republic of China. According to the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 144,795 Americans and 18,080 Canadians claimed Taiwanese descent. This figure significantly underrepresents the actual number of Taiwanese in North America. The highest concentrations of Taiwanese Americans are in Los Angeles County and New York City, while 61 percent of Taiwanese Canadians live in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Taiwan is a 12,400-square-mile island about 100 miles off the southeast coast of China between the East and South China Seas. In 2002, the population was estimated at 23,370,461. The people are ethnically divided between Taiwanese (84 percent) and mainland Chinese (14 percent). The chief religions are Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian (93 percent) and Christian (3 percent). Large-scale Chinese immigration to Taiwan began from Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in the 17th century, when the native Malayo-Polynesian tribes were driven to the mountains and their culture virtually destroyed. After a brief period of Dutch rule (1620–62), the island came under direct control of the mainland and was held by the Manchu government until it was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Taiwan was then ruled by Japan until 1945. After the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of Chiang Kai-shek was defeated by the Communists in a savage civil war (1945–49) on the Chinese mainland, 2 million Kuomintang supporters fled to Taiwan, establishing a base from which they intended to reconquer China. The United States had been a strong supporter of the Republic of China (on Taiwan) but on December 15, 1978, finally joined most of the rest of the world in formally recognizing the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Though severing official ties with the United States, Taiwan maintained contact via quasi-official agencies, and the United States continued to publicly oppose any attempt by the PRC to forcibly reacquire Taiwan. In 1987, martial law was lifted after 38 years, and in 1991, the 43- year period of emergency rule imposed by Chiang ended. Taiwan held its first direct presidential election March 23, 1996. Both the Taipei, Taiwan, and the Beijing, China, governments considered Taiwan an integral part of China, though Taiwan resisted Beijing’s efforts in the 1990s to expand ties to the Communist-controlled mainland. Taiwan has had one of the world’s strongest economies throughout its history, even during the economic recession after 1998 and was among the 10 leading capital exporters.
For a number of reasons, it is impossible to determine how many Taiwanese there are in North America. First, the term itself is ill defined. The aboriginal Taiwanese were not Chinese and today are few in number. Second, the term can be used to designate any of several ethnic groups that originally came from mainland China in the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally, it is sometimes used to refer to all the peoples from the Republic of China located on Taiwan, including aboriginal tribespeople, the Minnan and Hakka peoples resident there for several hundred years, and the descendants of mainland Chinese (themselves from a variety of subgroups) who fled to Taiwan in 1949. When self-identification is required, as in the U.S. and Canadian censuses, many immigrants from Taiwan or their descendants choose “Chinese,” as it indicates their larger identification with the modern state of China that the Nationalists ruled prior to 1949.
Most Taiwanese immigrants to North America came for education and business opportunities. Because the economy has been so consistently strong, there has not been a strong economic push factor. Between 1988 and 2002, almost 170,000 citizens of Taiwan immigrated to the United States. Immigration to Canada has been strong but less consistent. Between 1994 and 1998, almost 50,000 immigrated to Canada, and Taiwan was frequently in the top five source countries for Canadian immigration. The number declined significantly thereafter. Of 67,095 Taiwanese immigrants in Canada in 2001, 53,750 (80 percent) came between 1991 and 2001. Between 2000 and 2002, Taiwan was the seventh leading source country for students studying in Canada.