Chinese immigration to the United States consists of three major waves with the first beginning in the early 19th century. For nearly two centuries, the history of Chinese immigration to the United States has witnessed hardship as well as success.
The Chinese have been arriving in large numbers beginning with the mid-19th century, most of whom worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad (such as the Central Pacific Railroad) and the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination for a long time. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this "yellow peril." Political party caucuses, labor unions, and other organizations railed against the immigration of yet another "inferior race." Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile did the opposition last that in 1882 the U.S. Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race. Korean, Indian, and Japanese laborers then later replaced the Chinese. These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in America that had left China without their wives and children; anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.
In 1924 the law barred further entries of Chinese; those already in the United States had been ineligible for citizenship since the previous year. Also by 1924, all Asian immigrants (except people from the Philippines, which had been annexed by the United States in 1898) were utterly excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization, and prevented from marrying Caucasians or owning land.
Only since the 1940s when the US and China became allies during World War II, did the situation for Chinese Americans begin to improve, as restrictions on entry into the country, naturalization and mixed marriage were being lessened. In 1943, Chinese immigration to the U.S. was once again permitted — by way of the Magnuson Act — thereby repealing 61 years of official racial discrimination against the Chinese. Large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until 1965 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted national origin quotas. After World War II, anti-Asian prejudice began to decrease, and Chinese immigrants, along with other Asians (such as Japanese, Koreans, Indians and Vietnamese), have adapted and advanced. Currently, the Chinese constitute the largest ethnic group of Asian-Americans (about 22%), and have confounded earlier expectations that they would form an indigestible mass in American society. For example, many Chinese Americans of American birth may know little or nothing about traditional Chinese culture, just as European Americans and African Americans may know little or nothing about the original cultures of their ancestors.
Today in the United States, there are more than 3.3 million Chinese - about 1% of the total population - of which, by far the vast majority belongs to the middle class social stratum. The influx continues, where each year hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese people from the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia move to the US. Chinese migration to the US is presently only surpassed by the immigration from Mexico.
It is less dubious that the Chinese reached North America during the time of the Spanish colonial rule over the Philippines (1565-1815), where they had established themselves as fishermen, sailors and merchants on Spanish galleons which sailed between the Philippines and Mexican ports. California at the time belonged to Mexico till 1845, and historians have asserted that a low number of Chinese had settled down there already by the mid-18th century. Also later, with the expeditions in 1788 and 1789 by John Meares, a British navigator and explorer, sailing to Vancouver island from Canton (now Guangzhou), China, several Chinese sailors and craftsmen had reached the North American continent where they helped build the first European-designed boat to be launched in British Columbia.
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, the United States had already begun transpacific maritime trade with China, first with the commercial port of Canton (Guangzhou). There the Chinese became excited of opportunities and curious of America by their contact with American sailors and merchants. The main trade route between the U.S. and China then was between Canton and New England, where the first Chinese arrived via Cape Horn (as the Panama Canal did not exist then). These Chinese were mainly merchants, sailors, seamen, and students who wanted to see and acquaint themselves with a strange foreign land they had only heard about. However their presence was mostly temporary and only a few settled there permanently. American missionaries in China also sent small numbers of Chinese boys to the United States for schooling. From 1818 to 1825, five students stayed at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. In 1854 Yung Wing became the first Chinese graduate from an American college, Yale University.
The history of the Chinese in the United States of America largely began in the early 19th century with the advent of the Sino-U.S. maritime trade. At first only a handful of Chinese came, mainly as merchants, students, former sailors, to America. The first Chinese arrived in the United States around 1820. Subsequent immigrants that came from the 1820s up to the late 1840s were mainly men. This was much later followed by thousands - mostly from Guangdong province - who wanted to make their fortune in the 1849-era California gold rush. The Chinese did not however only come for the gold rush in California, but helped build the first transcontinental railway, worked the southern plantations after the Civil War, and for the setting up of California's agriculture and fisheries. From the outset, they were faced with the racism of settled European population, which since the 1870s culminated in massacres and forced relocations of Chinese migrants into what became known as Chinatowns. Also with regard to the legal situation, the Chinese were by far more badly posed in the US than most other ethnic minorities. They had to pay special taxes, were not allowed to marry white European partners and could not acquire national American citizenzhip.
Up until then, very few Chinese felt compelled to move to the United States. Life in China was generally sufficient and the North American west coast lay far away and with its sparseness offered very little incentive for a better existence. Nevertheless, in China, as well as in America, circumstances soon changed dramatically. After losing the First Opium War in 1840-1842, China was made to give up its trade protectionism and to concede land settlements to the victorious foreign powers. With economic collapse, natural disasters and further foreign imperial expansion the situation in China deteriorated sharply by events most notably by the Second Opium War (1856-1860) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), which led to more than 20 million deaths. The continued mass poverty and destruction drove many millions into exodus, with nearly all settling in Southeast Asia. Shortly after hearing from the Cantonese sailors and merchants who returned with early stories of the Californian Gold Rush that began in 1848, Chinese gold-seekers from the SE Asia region, including China, began arriving in 1849, at first in modest numbers to "Gold Mountain", the name given to California in Chinese. In 1852, the ratio of Chinese males to females in California was 1,685:1. Due to the lack of Chinese women in the United States at that time, a number of men intermarried with Americans of European descent. However, the majority of male immigrants lived as bachelors.
Decrees by the Qing dynasty issued in 1712 and 1724, forbade emigration and overseas trade and were primarily intended to prevent remnant supporters of the Ming dynasty from establishing bases overseas. However these decrees were widely ignored. Large scale immigration of Chinese laborers began after the Opium Wars the Burlinghame Treaty with the United States in 1868 effectively lifted any restrictions on emigration and began large-scale immigration to the United States. In order to avoid as much as possible the troubles of leaving, most of the Chinese gold-seekers embarked on their transpacific voyage from the British colony of Hong Kong. More seldom they left from the Portuguese colony of Macau, which was a large transshipment center for bonded, unfree laborers (called ‘coolies’ as their contracts specified conditions which were approximated to servitude, slavery or peonage). Only merchants were able to take their wives and children overseas. The vast majority of Chinese migrants were peasants, farmers and craftsmen. Young men, who were usually married, left their wives and children behind since they at first had the intention of only staying in America temporarily. Wives also had another major reason for staying behind as they had a traditional role in looking after her parents-in-law. From the money which the men earned in America they sent a large part back to China. Because it was usual in China at the time to live in very socially confined social nets of families, unions and guilds, sometimes whole village communities and even regions (for instance, Taishan) sent nearly all or every of their young men to California. From the beginning of the California gold rush to 1882 – when an American federal law ended the Chinese influx – approximately 300,000 Chinese had arrived in the United States. Because the chances to earn more money were by far better in America than in China, these migrants often remained considerably longer than they had at first planned, despite of the increased xenophobia and hostility that was being directed against them.
The Chinese emigrants booked their passages on ships with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (founded 1848) and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company (founded 1874). The money needed to fund their journey was mostly borrowed from relatives, district associations or from commercial lenders. Also, American employers of Chinese laborers also sent hiring agencies to China to pay for the Pacific voyage of those who were unable to borrow money. This "credit-ticket system" meant that the money advanced by the agencies to cover the cost of the passage was to be paid back by wages earned by the laborers later during their time in the U.S. The credit-ticket system had long been used by indentured migrants from South China who left to work in what Chinese called Nanyang (South Seas), the region to the south of China that included the Philippines, the former Dutch East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo, Thailand, Indochina, and Burma. The Chinese who left for Australia also used the credit-ticket system.
The entry of the Chinese into the U.S. was, to begin with, legal and uncomplicated and even had a formal judicial basis in 1868 with the signing of the Burlingame Treaty between the United States and China. But there were differences compared with the policy for European immigrants, in that if the Chinese migrants had children that were born in the USA, those children would automatically acquire American citizenship, but the immigrants themselves would remain as foreigners indefinitely. Unlike that with European immigrants the possibility of naturalization was withheld from them.
Although the newcomers arrived in America after an already established small community of their fellow compatriots, they experienced many culture shocks in what to them was a strange country. The Chinese immigrants neither spoke and understood English nor were familiar with western culture and life; they often came from the rural lands in China and therefore had difficulty in adjusting to and finding their way around big towns like San Francisco. The racism which they had met from the European Americans from the outset of their arrival increased continuously to the turn of the century and prevented with lasting effect their assimilation into mainstream American society; this in turn led to the creation, cohesion and cooperation of many Chinese benevolent associations and societies whose existence in the U.S. remained far into the 20th century as a necessity both for support and survival for the Chinese in America. There were also many other reasons that laid within the Chinese themselves that had obstructed and hindered their assimilation, notably their appearance. Under the rule of the Qing Dynasty, Han Chinese men were forced under the threat of beheading to follow the Manchu custom of dressing including shaving the front of their heads and combing the remaining hair into a queue. Historically, to the Manchus, the policy was both an act of submission and, in practical terms, an identification aid of friend from foe. Because Chinese immigrants returned as often as they could to China to see their family, they could not when in America cut off their often hated braids and then legally enter China again.
The first Chinese immigrants usually remained faithful to traditional Chinese beliefs, which were either Confucianism, ancestral worship, Buddhism or Daoism, while some others adhered to any of the various ecclesiastical religious doctrines. The number of the Chinese migrants who converted to Christianity remained at first low. They were mainly Protestants who had already been converted in China where foreign Christian missionaries (who had first come en mass in the 19th century) had strived for centuries to wholly Christianize the nation with relatively minor success. Christian missionaries had also worked in the Chinese communities and settlements in America, but nevertheless their religious message found few who were receptive. It was estimated that during the first wave until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, less than 20 percent of Chinese immigrants had accepted Christian teachings. Their difficulty in being integrated was also exemplified by the end of the first wave in the mid-20th century when only a minority of Chinese living in the U.S. could speak English.
Of the first wave of Chinese who came to America, few were women. In 1850, the Chinese community of San Francisco consisted of 4018 men and only 7 women. In 1855, women made up only two percent of the Chinese population in the U.S., and even in 1890 it had increased to only 4.8 percent. The lack of visibility of Chinese women in the general public was due partially to factors such as the cost of making the voyage when there was a lack of work opportunities for Chinese women in America, harsh working conditions and having the traditional female responsibility of looking after the children and extended family back in China. The only women who did go to America were usually the wives of merchants. Other factors were cultural in nature, such as having bound feet and not leaving the home. Another important consideration was that most Chinese men were worried that by bringing their wives and raising families in America they too would have been subjected to the same racial violence and discrimination which they themselves had faced. With the heavily uneven gender ratio, prostitution grew rapidly and the Chinese sex trade and trafficking became a lucrative business. From the documents of the 1870 U.S. Census, 61 percent of 3536 Chinese women in California had been classified as prostitutes as an occupation. The existence of Chinese prostitution was detected early, after which the police, legislature and popular press singled out Chinese prostitutes for criticism and were seen as further evidence of the depravity of the Chinese and the repression of their women by their patriarchal cultural values.
Laws passed by the California state legislature in 1866 that sought to curb the brothels and missionary activity by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches helped reduce the number of Chinese prostitutes and in the 1880 U.S. Census documents only 24 percent of 3171 Chinese women in California were classified as prostitutes. Many of these women married Chinese Christians and formed some of the earliest Chinese-American families in mainland America. Nevertheless, American legislation used the prostitution issue to make the immigration of Chinese women far more difficult. On March 3, 1875, in Washington, D.C., the United States Congress enacted the Page Act that forbade all Oriental women who were considered "obnoxious" by representatives of U.S. consulates at their origins of departure. In effect, this lead to American officials to class many women as prostitutes, who actually were not, which greatly reduced the opportunities for all Oriental women to enter the United States.
Societies in pre-1911 revolutionary China were distinctively collectivist – they were composed of close networks of extended families, unions, clan associations and guilds, where people had a duty to protect and help one another. Soon after the first Chinese had settled in San Francisco respectable Chinese merchants – the most prominent members of the Chinese community of the time – made the first assiduous effort to form social and welfare organizations (Chinese: "Kongsi") in order to help immigrants to locate others from their native towns, socialize, receive monetary aid and raise voices in community affairs. At first, these organizations only provided interpretation, lodgings and job finding services for newcomers. In 1849, the first Chinese merchants’ association was formed, but it did not last long. In less than a few years it petered out as its role was gradually replaced by a network of Chinese district and clan associations when more immigrants came in greater numbers. Eventually some of the more prominent district associations merged to become the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (more commonly known as the "Chinese Six Companies" because of the original six founding associations). It quickly became the most powerful and politically vocal organization to represent the Chinese not only in San Francisco but for the whole of California. In other large cities and regions in America similar associations were formed.
The Chinese associations mediated disputes and soon began participating in the hospitality industry, lending, health, and education and funeral services. The last being especially significant for the Chinese community because many of the immigrants for religious reasons laid value to burial or cremation (including the scattering of ashes) in China. In the 1880s many of the city and regional associations united to form a national Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an umbrella organization, which defended the political rights and legal interests of the Chinese American community, particularly during times of anti-Chinese repression. By resisting overt discrimination enacted against them, the local chapters of the national CCBA helped to bring a number of cases to the courts from the municipal level to the Supreme Court to fight discriminatory legislation and treatment. The associations also took their cases to the press and worked with governmental institutions and the Chinese diplomatic missions to protect their rights. In the San Francisco Chinatown, birth site of the CCBA, formed in 1882, the CCBA had effectively assumed the function of an unofficial local governing body, which even used privately-hired police or guards for protection of inhabitants at the height of the anti-Chinese excesses.
Following a law enacted in New York, in 1933, in an attempt to evict Chinese from the laundry business, the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance was founded, rivalizing, on the left, to the CCBA.
A minority of the Chinese immigrants did not join the CCBA as they were outcasts or lacked the clan or family ties to join more prestigious Chinese surname associations, business guilds, or legitimate enterprises. As a result, they organized themselves into their own secret societies - called Tongs - for mutual support and protection of their members. These first tongs modeled themselves upon the triads, underground organizations dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, and adopted their codes of brotherhood, loyalty, and patriotism.
Marginalized, poor, low educational levels and lacking opportunities than the wealthier Chinese, the tongs (unlike the triads) had formed without any clear political motives and soon found themselves involved in lucrative criminal activities, including extortion, gambling, people smuggling, and prostitution. Prostitution proved to be an extremely profitable business for the tongs, due to the high male-to-female ratio among the early immigrants. The tongs would kidnap or purchase females (including babies) from China and smuggle them over the Pacific Ocean to work in brothels and similar establishments. The tongs constantly battled over territory, profits, and women in feuds known as the tong wars, occurring between the 1850s to the 1920s, notably in San Francisco, Cleveland and Los Angeles.
The first major immigration wave started around the 1850s. The West Coast of North America was being rapidly colonized during the California Gold Rush, while southern China suffered from severe political and economic instability due to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty government, internal rebellions such as the Taiping Rebellion, and external pressures such as the Opium Wars. As a result, many Chinese emigrated from the poor Toisanese- and Cantonese-speaking area in Guangdong province to the United States in order to work.
For most Chinese immigrants of the 1850s San Francisco was only a transit station on the way to the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada. According to estimates, there were in the late 1850s 15,000 Chinese mine workers in the "Gold Mountains" or "Mountains of Gold" (Cantonese: Gam Saan, 金山). Because anarchic conditions prevailed in the gold fields, the robbery by European miners of Chinese mining area permits were barely pursued or prosecuted and the Chinese gold seekers themselves were often victim to violent assaults. In response to this hostile situation these Chinese miners developed a basic approach which differed from the white European gold miners; while the Europeans mostly worked as individuals or in small groups, the Chinese formed large teams, in which not only were they protected against attacks, but on account of their good organization they also often achieved a considerably higher yield. To protect themselves even further against attacks, they preferred to mainly turn to such areas which had been previously judged by other gold seekers as unproductive and had been given up. Because much of the gold fields were exhaustingly gone over up until the beginning of the 20th century, many of the Chinese remained far longer there than the European gold seekers; in 1870, a third of the men in the Californian golden fields were Chinese.
However, their displacement had begun already in 1850 when the white gold miners began to resent the Chinese miners, feeling that they were discovering gold that the white miners deserved. And eventually, protest rose from white miners to eliminate the growing competition. From 1852 to 1870 (ironically when the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed), the California legislature enforced a series of taxes.
In 1852, a special foreign miner's tax aimed at the Chinese was passed by the California legislature that was aimed at foreign miners who were not U.S. citizens. Given that the Chinese were ineligible for citizenship at that time and constituted the largest percentage of the non-white population, the taxes were primarily aimed at them and tax revenue was therefore generated almost exclusively by the Chinese. This tax required a payment of three dollars each month at a time when Chinese miners were making approximately six dollars a month. Tax collectors could legally take and sell the property of those miners who refused or could not pay the tax. Fake tax collectors made money by taking advantage of people who could not speak English well, and some tax collectors, both false and real, stabbed or shot miners who could not or would not pay the tax. During the 1860s, many Chinese were expelled from the mine fields and were forced to find other types of jobs. This Foreign Miner's Tax existed till 1870.
The position of the Chinese gold seekers also was complicated by a decision of the California Supreme Court which decided in the case "The People of the State of California v. George W. Hall" ("People v. Hall") in 1854 that the Chinese were not allowed to testify as witnesses before the court in California against white citizens, including those accused of murder. The decision was largely based upon the prevailing opinion that the Chinese were
a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference" and as such had no right " to swear away the life of a citizen" or participate" with us in administering the affairs of our Government.
The ruling effectively made white violence against Chinese Americans unprosecutable, arguably leading to more intense white-on-Chinese race riots, such as the 1877 San Francisco Riot. The Chinese living in California were with this decision left practically in a legal vacuum, because they had now no possibility to assert their rightful legal entitlements or claims – possibly in cases of theft or breaches of agreement – in court. The ruling remained in force until 1873.
After the gold rush wound down in the 1860s, the majority of the work force found jobs in the railroad industry. Chinese labor was integral to the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad which linked the railway network of the Eastern United States with California on the Pacific coast. Construction began in 1863 at the terminal points of Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California, and the two sections were merged and ceremonially completed on May 10, 1869, at the famous "golden spike" event at Promontory Summit, Utah. It created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. This network caused the wagon trains of previous decades to become obsolete, exchanging it for a modern transportation system. The building of the railway required enormous labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, the two privately chartered federally backed enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively.
Since there was a lack of white European construction workers, in 1865 a large number of Chinese workers were recruited from the silver mines, as well as later contract workers from China. The idea for the use of Chinese labor came from the manager of the Central Pacific Railroad, Charles Crocker who at first had trouble persuading his business partners of the fact that the mostly weedy, slender looking Chinese workers, some contemptuously called "Crocker's pets", were suitable for the heavy physical work. For the Central Pacific Railroad, hiring Chinese as opposed to whites kept labor costs down by a third, since the company would not pay their board or lodging. This type of steep wage inequality was commonplace at the time. Eventually Crocker overcame shortages of manpower and money by hiring Chinese immigrants to do much of the back-breaking and dangerous labor. He drove the workers to the point of exhaustion, in the process setting records for laying track and finishing the project seven years ahead of the government's deadline.
The Central Pacific track was constructed primarily by Chinese immigrants. Even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work, after the first day in which Chinese were on the line, the decision was made to hire as many as could be found in California (where most were gold miners or in service industries such as laundries and kitchens). Many more were imported from China. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, but the workers from China received much less. Eventually, they went on strike and gained small increases in salary.
The route laid not only had to go across rivers and canyons, which had to be bridged, but also through two mountain ranges - the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains - where tunnels had to be created. The explosions had caused many of the Chinese laborers to lose their lives. Due to the wide expanse of the work, the construction had to be carried out at times in the extreme heat and also in other times in the bitter winter cold. So harsh were the conditions that sometimes even entire camps were buried under avalanches.
The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley. However construction was slowed, first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then by the mountains themselves and most importantly by winter snowstorms. Consequently, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire immigrant laborers (many of whom were Chinese). The immigrants seemed to be more willing to tolerate the horrible conditions, and progress continued. The increasing necessity for tunnelling then began to slow progress of the line yet again. To combat this, Central Pacific began to use the newly invented and very unstable nitro-glycerine explosives—which accelerated both the rate of construction and the mortality of the Chinese laborers. Appalled by the losses, the Central Pacific began to use less volatile explosives and developed a method of placing the explosives in which the Chinese blasters worked from large suspended baskets which were then rapidly pulled to safety after the fuses were lit.
The well organized Chinese teams still turned out to be highly industrious and exceedingly efficient; at the peak of the construction work, shortly before completion of the railroad, more than 11,000 Chinese were involved with the project. Although the white European workers had higher wages and better working conditions, their share of the workforce was never more than 10 percent. As the Chinese railroad workers lived and worked tirelessly, they also managed the finances associated with their employment, and Central Pacific officials responsible for employing the Chinese, even those at first opposed to the hiring policy, came to appreciate the cleanliness and reliability of this group of laborers.
After 1869, the Southern Pacific Railroad and Northwestern Pacific Railroad led the expansion of the railway network further into the American West, and many of the Chinese who had built the transcontinental railroad remained active in building the railways. After several projects were completed, many of the Chinese workers relocated and looked for employment elsewhere, such as in farming, manufacturing firms, garment industries, and paper mills. However, widespread anti-Chinese discrimination and violence from whites, including riots and murders, drove many into self-employment.
Up until the middle of the 19th century, wheat was primarily grown in California. The favorable climate allowed the beginning of the intensive cultivation of certain fruit, vegetables and flowers. In the East Coast of the United States a strong demand for these products existed. However, the supply of these markets became possible only with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Just as with the railway construction, there was a dire manpower shortage in the expanding Californian agriculture sector, so the white landowners began in the 1860s to put thousands of Chinese migrants to work in their large-scale farms and other agricultural enterprises. Many of these Chinese laborers were not unskilled seasonal workers, but were in fact experienced farmers, whose vital expertise the Californian fruit, vegetables and wine industries owe much to this very day. Despite this, the Chinese immigrants could not own any land on account of the laws in California at the time. Nevertheless they frequently pursued agricultural work under leases or profit-sharing contracts which they signed with their employers.
Many of these Chinese men came from the Pearl River Delta Region in southern China, where they had learned how to develop fertile farmland in inaccessible river valleys. This know-how was used for the reclamation of the extensive valleys of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. During the 1870s, thousands of Chinese laborers played an indispensable role in the construction of a vast network of earthen levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California. These levees opened up thousands of acres of highly fertile marshlands for agricultural production. Chinese workers were used to construct hundreds of miles of levees throughout the delta's waterways in an effort to reclaim and preserve farmland and control flooding. These levees therefore confined waterflow to the riverbeds. Many of the workers stayed in the area and made a living as farm workers or sharecroppers, until they were driven out during an outbreak of anti-Chinese violence in the mid-1890s.
In the 1870s several economic crisises came about in parts of the United States, and many Americans lost their jobs, from which arose throughout the American West an anti-Chinese movement and its main mouthpiece, the Workingman's Party labor organization, which was led by the Californian Dennis Kearney. The party took particular aim against Chinese immigrant labor and the Central Pacific Railroad which employed them. Its famous slogan was "The Chinese must go!". Kearney's attacks against the Chinese were particularly virulent and openly racist, and found considerable support among white people in the American West. This sentiment led eventually to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Their propaganda branded the Chinese migrants as "perpetual foreigners" whose work caused wage dumping and thereby prevented American men from "gaining work". After the 1893 economic downturn, measures adopted in the severe depression included anti-Chinese riots that eventually spread throughout the West from which came racist violence and massacres. Most of the Chinese farm workers, which in 1890 made up a 75 percent share of all Californian agricultural workers, were expelled. The Chinese found refuge and shelter in the Chinatowns of large cities. The vacant agricultural jobs subsequently proved to be so unattractive to the unemployed white Europeans that they avoided to sign up; most of the vacancies were then filled by Japanese workers, after whom in the decades later came the Filippinos, and finally the Mexicans.
From the Pearl River Delta Region also came countless of experienced Chinese fishermen. In the 1850s they founded on the Californian coast a fishing economy which grew exponentially and by the 1880s had already extended along the whole of the West Coast of the United States from Canada to Mexico. With entire fleets of small boats (sampans; 舢舨) the Chinese fishermen caught herring, soles, smelts, cod, sturgeon, and shark in the sea. To catch the larger fish like the barracudas, they used Chinese junks, which were built in large numbers on the American west coast. Among the yield caught by the Chinese American fishermen also included crabs, clams, abalone, salmon, and seaweed – all of which, including shark, formed the staple of Chinese cuisine. The produce were then sold in the local markets or shipped salt-dried for East Asia and Hawaii.
Again this initial success was met with a hostile reaction. Since the late 1850s, European migrants – above all Greeks, Italians and Dalmatians – moved into fishing off the American west coast too, and they exerted pressure on the California legislature, which, finally, expelled the Chinese fishermen with a whole array of taxes, laws and regulations. They had to pay special taxes (Chinese Fisherman's Tax), and they were not allowed to fish with traditional Chinese nets nor with junks. The most disastrous effect occurred when the Scott Act, a federal US law adopted in 1888, established that the Chinese migrants, even when they had entered and were living the US legally, could not re-enter after having temporarily left US territory. The Chinese fishermen, in effect, could therefore not leave with their boats the zone of the west coast. Their work became unprofitable, and gradually they gave up fishing. The only area where the Chinese fishermen remained unchallenged was shark fishing, where they stood in no competition to the European-Americans. Many former fishermen found work in the salmon canneries which until the 1930s were major employers of Chinese migrants, because white workers were barely interested in engaging in such hard, seasonal and relatively unrewarding activities.
Since the California gold rush, many Chinese migrants made their living as domestic servants, housekeepers, running restaurants, laundries (leading to the 1886 Supreme Court decision Yick Wo v. Hopkins and then to the 1933 creation of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance) and a wide spectrum of shops, such as food stores, antique shops, jewelers, and imported goods stores. In addition, the Chinese often worked in borax and mercury mines, as seamen on board the ships of American shipping companies or in the consumer goods industry, especially in the cigar, boots, footwear and textile manufacturing. During the economic crises of the 1870s, factory owners were often glad that the migrants were content with the low wages given. The Chinese took the bad wages, because their wives and children lived in China where the cost of living was low. As they were classified as foreigners they were excluded from joining American trade unions, and so they formed their own Chinese organizations (called "guilds") which represented their interests with the employers. The American trade unionists were nevertheless still wary as the Chinese workers were willing to work for their employers for relatively low wages and incidentally acted as strikebreakers thereby running counter to the interests of the trade unions. In fact, many employers used the threat of importing Chinese strikebreakers as a means to prevent or break up strikes which caused further resentment against the Chinese. A notable incident occurred in 1870, when 75 young men from China were hired to replace striking shoe workers in North Adams, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, these young men had no idea that they had been brought from San Francisco by the superintendent of the shoe factory to act as strikebreakers at their destination. This incident provided the trade unions with their propaganda which was later repeatedly cited calling for the immediate and total exclusion of the Chinese. This particular controversy slackened somewhat as attention focused on the economic crises in 1875 when the majority of cigar and boots manufacturing companies went under. Mainly it was the textile industry that survived which still employed Chinese workers in large numbers. In 1876, in response to the rising anti-Chinese hysteria, both major political parties included Chinese exclusion in their campaign platforms as a way to win votes taking advantage of the nation's industrial crisis. Rather than directly confronting the divisive problems such as class conflict, economic depression, and rising unemployment, this helped put the question of Chinese immigration and contracted Chinese workers on the national agenda and eventually paved way for the era's most racist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Many Western states also enacted discriminatory laws which made it difficult for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to own land and find work. Some of these Anti-Chinese laws were the Foreign Miners' License tax, which required a monthly payment of three dollars from every foreign miner who did not desire to become a citizen. Chinese could not become citizens because they had been rendered ineligible to citizenship by the 1790 federal law that reserved naturalized citizenship to white persons. This remained in place until voided by the Civil Rights Act of 1870.
By then, California had collected five million dollars from the Chinese. Another was "An Act to Discourage Immigration to this State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof", which imposed on the master or owner of a ship a landing tax of fifty dollars for each passenger ineligible to naturalized citizenship. "To Protect Free White Labor against competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California" was another law (aka Anti-Coolie Act, 1862) that imposed a $2.50 tax per month on all Chinese residing in the state, except Chinese operating businesses, licensed to work in mines, or engaged in the production of sugar, rice, coffee or tea. In 1886, the Supreme Court struck down a Californian law, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, judging that although it was race-neutral on its face, it was administered in a prejudicial manner was an infringement of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The law aimed in particular against Chinese laundry businesses.
However, this decision was only a temporary setback for the Nativist movement. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act made it unlawful for Chinese laborers to enter the United States for the next 10 years and denied naturalized citizenship to Chinese already here. Initially intended for Chinese laborers, it was broadened in 1888 to include all persons of the "Chinese race". And in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson effectively canceled Yick Wo. v. Hopkins, by supporting the "separate but equal" doctrine.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Surgeon General Walter Wyman requested to put San Francisco's Chinatown under quarantine because of an outbreak of bubonic plague. Chinese residents, supported by governor Henry Gage (1899-1903) and local businesses, fought the quarantine through numerous federal court battles, claiming the Marine Hospital Service was violating their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and in the process, launched lawsuits against Kinyoun, director of the San Francisco Quarantine Station..
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake allowed a critical change to Chinese immigration patterns. The practice known as "Paper Sons" was allegedly introduced . Chinese would declare themselves to be United States citizens whose records were lost in the earthquake.
A year before, more than 60 labor unions formed the Asiatic Exclusion League in San Francisco, including labor leaders Patrick Henry McCarthy (mayor of San Francisco from 1910 to 1912), Olaf Tveitmoe (first president of the organization), and Andrew Furuseth and Walter McCarthy of the Sailor's Union. The League was almost immediately successful in pressuring the San Francisco Board of Education to segregate Asian school children.
California Attorney General Ulysses S. Webb (1902-1939) put great effort into enforcing the Alien Land Law of 1913, which he had co-written, and prohibited "aliens ineligible for citizenship" (i.e. all Asian immigrants) from owning land or property. The law was struck down by the Supreme Court of California in 1946 (Sei Fujii v. California).
One of the few cases in which Chinese immigration was allowed during this era were "Pershing's Chinese", who were allowed to immigrate from Mexico to the United States shortly before World War I as they aided General John J. Pershing in his expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico.
The Immigration Act of 1917 banned all immigrations from Japan, China and most of Asia, re-enforced by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Other laws included the Cubic Air Ordinance, which prohibited Chinese from occupying a sleeping room with less than of breathing space between each person, the Queue Law, which forced Chinese with long hair worn in a queue to pay a tax or to cut it, and Anti-Miscegenation Act of 1889 that prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women, and the Cable Act of 1922, which terminated citizenship for white American women who married an Asian man. The majority of these laws were not fully overturned until the 1950s, at the dawn of the modern American civil rights movement.
It was passed during World War II, when China was a welcome ally to the United States. It limited Chinese immigrants to 105 visas per year selected by the government. That quota was determined by the Immigration Act of 1924, which set immigration from an allowed country at 2% of the number of people who were already living in the United States in 1890 of that nationality. Chinese immigration later increased with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965.
During the late 1960s and early and mid-1970, Chinese immigration into the United States came almost exclusively from Taiwan creating the Taiwanese American subgroup. Immigration from Mainland China was almost non-existent until 1977, when the PRC removed restrictions on emigration leading to immigration of college students and professionals. These two groups of Chinese tended to cluster in suburban areas and to avoid urban Chinatowns and speak fluent Mandarin in addition to their native dialects.
Ethnic Chinese immigration to the United States since 1965 has been aided by the fact that the United States maintains separate quotas for Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Absent from the list of Chinese Americans are immigrants from Hong Kong, who because of immigration law, tended to immigrate to Canada.
While most speak some Mandarin, they mostly speak Fuzhou, the standard dialect of Eastern Min, which is not mutually intelligible with the more widespread Southern Min. They are thus a linguistic minority not only among Americans, but also among other Chinese Americans.
The amount of immigration from this group has begun to decrease as the economic situation in Fujian improves. Typically, an immigrant from Fujian will pay a snakehead several tens of thousands of dollars to be transported to the United States, as well as room and board. The funds for the trip are provided by the immigrant's family and village. The immigrant will usually work for three years, the first two to pay off the debt and the third as profit.
In the 1980s, there was widespread concern by the PRC over a brain drain as graduate students were not returning to the PRC. This exodus worsened after the Tiananmen protests of 1989. However since the start of the 21st century, there have been an increasing number of returnees producing a brain gain for the PRC.
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.
The table shows the ethnic Chinese population of the USA (including persons with mixed-ethnic origin).
|Year||Total U.S. population||Of Chinese origin||Percentage|
|2004 (Estimation of the US Census)||285,691,501||3,353,486||1.17%|
Specific time periods:
Autobiographies and novels:
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