What Are Some Facts About Chinese Immigration in the 1800s?

Chinese immigration during the 1800s was the result of a perceived promise of opportunity in the Western United States coupled with deteriorating conditions in China, such as food shortages, overcrowding and the disastrous Taiping Rebellion. Chinese immigrants were drawn to the U.S. by the California Gold Rush and the need for workers to help build the first transcontinental railroad. By 1852, 25,000 Chinese had arrived, and by 1880, their numbers increased to more than 300,000, a figure that represented about 10 percent of California’s population at the time.

American businesses actively courted the Chinese to come to the U.S. to fill the growing need for cheap labor in the expanding American industries. Chinese laborers worked in the gold, silver and coal mines of several western states and were also employed as domestic servants and workers in the wool and metal industries.

In California, businesses used the credit-ticket system to bring Chinese workers to the U.S. This was a form of contract labor in which the employer paid for the worker’s transportation to the U.S. in exchange for their future work upon arrival. These contract laborers, who were called “coolies,” were often recruited by unscrupulous means, and many were coerced into signing contracts that were clearly not in their best interests.

By the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants were employed mainly in the garment, boot, shoe and cigar industries. Many were laundry workers. These were not the professions that drew them to the U.S., but restrictions placed on Chinese employment during the latter portion of the 19th century prevented many Chinese immigrants from working elsewhere.