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Chinese Immigration and Exclusion (U.S.), Nineteenth Century - CHINESE LABOR ON WESTERN RAILROADS, EXCLUSION OR EXTERMINATION

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Significant Chinese immigration to the United States began during the frenzied California Gold Rush, and it continued afterward because Chinese labor was deemed indispensable for West Coast economic development and integration into the national economy. However, Chinese immigrants arrived in significant numbers only in 1852, the year that labor-intensive surface mining of gold by self-employed Euro-American prospectors effectively ended and gold production shifted mostly to capital-intensive company mining. Tens of thousands of gold prospectors went bankrupt, became displaced, or found themselves unemployed, and the California economy experienced its first recession. That same year, the non-Indian population of California was 224,435, a sharp increase from only 15,000 in 1848. Of these, about 9 percent were Chinese, an overwhelming majority of whom had just arrived that year. In other words, Chinese entered California at a politically explosive and volatile time, a time when displaced Euro-American prospectors were unprepared and unwilling to accept relatively low-paying jobs in gold-mining companies. Eager to work, Chinese immigrants entered the gold-mining region by working for these companies, prospecting in nonyielding claims abandoned by Euro-American prospectors, or taking on jobs deemed noncompetitive or below the dignity of Euro-American males, such as cleaning, cooking, and sewing.

With their hopes and dreams dashed, the frustrated Euro-American miners promptly directed their anger and hostility at the arriving Chinese. Incited by demagogic politicians, the Euro-American majority blamed the Chinese “foreigners” for their plight and demanded their ouster from their land. Governor John Bigler of California declared the Chinese to be “non-assimilable” people who must not only be excluded but expelled from California. Being non-Christian and nonwhite, poor Chinese immigrants were also considered heathens, incapable of enjoying Euro-American freedom and democracy. To Euro-Americans, assimilability was the primary criterion and exclusion was the sole remedy, and it was to be accomplished through democratic processes and institutions. In other words, Chinese exclusion was to be carried out through the enactment of explicitly anti-Chinese laws at the local, state, and national levels.

In the mid-nineteenth century, exclusion by racial violence and legislative means were the only viable options. The United States already had well-established policies toward Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans, the three major nonwhite groups. For the indigenous Indians, the policy was extermination or removal and relocation by force. Africans were brought into the country and kept in chain as slaves in the South. Mexican Americans in the Southwest were defeated, colonized, and suppressed. Because the newly arrived Chinese were not indigenous people, nor slaves, nor colonized people, exclusion and expulsion by democratic process became the chosen strategy and policy.

Faced with mounting anti-Chinese sentiment and organized protests among ex-miners and unemployed workers, including frequent mob violence and the burning of Chinatowns, local jurisdictions, most notably San Francisco and towns from Eureka to San Diego, passed ordinances to restrict Chinese residence, business, and employment. The California state legislature enacted a series of “anti-” laws, such as an alien passenger tax in 1852, the monthly Foreign Miner’s License Tax in 1853, a head tax of fifty dollars on the importation of Chinese in 1855, a Chinese exclusion law in 1858, a fishing tax in 1860, and a police tax for Chinese not engaged in mining in 1862. It also repeatedly petitioned the U.S. Congress to stop Chinese immigration. In 1879 California voters succeeded in amending the state constitution to prohibit the hiring of Chinese by corporations, contractors, and government agencies. Many of these laws were subsequently declared unconstitutional or in violation of U.S.-China treaty obligations, but many also stood as laws.

As early as 1854, the judicial branch of the state government also joined the anti-Chinese assault. In a landmark decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that testimonies against whites by Chinese were inadmissible in courts of law. “If we would admit them to testify,” Chief Justice Hugh C. Murray warned, we “would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.” As a result, crimes against Chinese persons and property were carried out by Euro-Americans with impunity throughout the West, giving rise to a popular saying, “Not a Chinaman’s Chance.”

Finally, in 1882, after thirty years of relentless violence and agitation, the U.S. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first national immigration law specifically targeting Chinese for exclusion. The intent of the law was to stop the threat of Chinese immigration to the U.S. and end the “Yellow Peril.” When it became law, there were about 105,000 Chinese out of a total U.S. population of 50.2 million, or a mere one-fifth of one percent.

It took thirty years to accomplish the task of exclusion because of the unique role Chinese immigrant labor played in the economic development of the West, and because of U.S. interests in and obligations to China. In the mid-nineteenth century, the political agenda for the visionaries in the political class of Washington, D.C., and West Coast developers was already in place. The economic development and integration of the western states was deemed a national priority. This included rapid annexation and settlement, access to the rich natural resources, and the shortest route for U.S. trade and Christian mission in China. Unfortunately, this agenda was severely stifled by both the absence of infrastructure and cheap labor and the steadfast white working-class opposition to the presence of Chinese. European immigrants entering the United States were absorbed quickly by ascending mining and manufacturing industries in the East, and the cheap labor in the southern states was still enslaved on the plantations. The only hope for carrying out the agenda was the use of Chinese labor through immigration. But there was still another obstacle: A Chinese law prohibited Chinese emigration, even though the government was incapable of enforcing it. The law, nevertheless, inhibited large-scale labor recruitment.


Nothing symbolizes this challenge more clearly than the need to build the western portion of the transcontinental railroad in 1860s. For six frustrating years the Central Pacific Railway Company could not find the labor necessary to lay the track over the cold and rugged Sierra Nevada in California and the scorching deserts in Nevada and Utah. When western builders such as Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington discovered the ability, willingness, and reliability of Chinese workers, they began a massive recruitment in China. To guarantee a steady supply of cheap Chinese labor, Secretary of State William H. Seward and Ambassador Anson Burlingame engineered the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 that committed China to legalize the recruitment of Chinese immigrants and the United States to extend federal protection to Chinese workers under violent, political, legislative, and judicial assaults in the western states. The treaty explicitly recognized “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free immigration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents.”

In all, 15,000 Chinese participated in the project, which was completed in 1869. More were recruited to build both the northern and southern routes across the nation, as well as the Canadian transcontinental railroad. Beyond railroad construction, Chinese were also recruited to extract minerals throughout the western states, build a vast network of canals and dikes in California, and work in California’s nascent agricultural, manufacturing, and fishing industries. After the Civil War, the plantation owners of the southern states also recruited Chinese in anticipation of the massive desertion of emancipated black slaves. Eastern factory owners used them to break strikes. In short, Chinese were indispensable, even if unwelcome and discriminated against because of their race.

Throughout this period and in subsequent periods, Chinese waged uphill struggles against racial violence, institutional racism, and efforts to deny their rights, dignity, and humanity. For example, Norman Asing, a Chinese-American restaurant owner, forcefully refuted California governor John Bigler’s anti-Chinese rhetoric in an 1852 letter published in the Daily Alta California ; thousands of Chinese transcontinental railroad workers walked off their jobs to protest low and unequal pay in 1867; Wong Chin Foo organized militant protests against both the 1882 and 1892 Chinese exclusion laws through his Chinese Equal Rights League in New York; two Chinese children, Mamie Tape of San Francisco (in 1884) and Gong Lum of Rosedale, Mississippi (in 1924), challenged school exclusion and segregation; Yick Wo, a laundryman in Modesto, California, stood in defiance of one of several unjust anti-Chinese laundry ordinances in 1885; and nationwide civil disobedience was carried out by virtually all Chinese in the United States in a protest against the Chinese exclusion law of 1892. In the end, not even the combined forces of China interests in the East, Chinese diplomatic intervention, developers in the West, and Chinese resistance could prevent the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


Diplomacy was used to guarantee a steady supply of Chinese labor in the crucial decades of western development. When their labor was no longer needed, Americans turned again to diplomacy and democracy to terminate and exclude Chinese immigration. Up until 1882, the United States had an open door immigration policy. Only convicts, prostitutes, morons, and lepers were on the list of persons to be excluded. In 1880, under mounting political pressure, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed a commission to negotiate with China for a new treaty that would allow the United States to unilaterally modify or abrogate the Burlingame Treaty and enact Chinese exclusion laws. The commission succeeded in extracting a new treaty, under which the United States could maintain its interests in China through an open door trade policy but also enact laws to close its door to Chinese immigrants.

By adding Chinese to the list of those to be excluded, the 1882 law effectively terminated the legal immigration of Chinese and denied the right of naturalization for Chinese immigrants already in the country. Race was the sole basis for this exclusion and denial of citizenship. The law did allow teachers, students, merchants, diplomats, preachers, and tourists to visit the country, but not as immigrants. In short, the exclusion law institutionalized Chinese exclusion and anti-Chinese prejudice and rendered all Chinese in the United States perpetual and undesirable aliens, stigmatizing them, if not criminalizing them, by race.

Not surprisingly, anti-Chinese riots broke out and Chinatowns burned down in many towns and cities across the western United States in the decade immediately following the passage of the exclusion law. Among the most violent outbursts were the massacre of twenty-eight Chinese miners and the forceful eviction of several hundred Chinese in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885, and the cold-blooded murder of several Chinese gold miners near the Snake River in Oregon, in 1887. As racial violence spread across the western states, Chinese were forced to flee from rural areas and find refuge either in segregated Chinatowns in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Marysville, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, and San Diego, or in new Chinatowns in cities in eastern and midwestern states, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The 1882 law thus amounted to state-sanctioned racial violence.

In the ensuing three decades, several more restrictive exclusion laws were enacted by the U.S. Congress in an effort to plug up various loopholes and strengthen the discretionary power of immigration enforcement agents. The Border Patrol, for example, was established to enforce the exclusion laws. Many of these laws were upheld by judicial decisions, including the sweeping U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), which upheld the constitutionality of the Geary Act of 1892 and denied the right of due process in summarily deporting aliens “deemed inconsistent with the public welfare.” In effect, the decision denied the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the Chinese in the United States and granted discretionary power to the executive branch of the government. By the time of the Theodore Roosevelt administration, even those exempt from exclusion became the frequent targets of arbitrary denial of admission and physical abuse and molestation, in violation of U.S. laws and international treaties. Terence V. Powderly, appointed by Roosevelt to head the Bureau of Immigration, was determined to keep all Chinese out of the country and expel as many as possible of those residing and working in the United States. Writing in 1909, the Stanford social scientist Mary R. Coolidge characterized the Roosevelt administration as “a sort of reign of terror.” It was in response to this strategy of expulsion and exclusion that the people of China, at the behest of the Chinese in the United States, launched a popular boycott of imported American goods in 1905, sending a powerful message to Washington, D.C., that the disenfranchised and oppressed Chinese minority could not send themselves.

In short, the exclusion of Chinese was so thoroughly institutionalized by democratic means that all three branches of the government joined hands in denying the rights, privileges, and sanctuary of Chinese immigrants in Euro-American society. As a result, the Chinese population in the United States, contrary to the experiences of immigrants from throughout the world, declined rapidly—from 127,000 in 1890 to 86,000 in 1920. Indeed, the situation facing the repressed and declining Chinese population was nothing short of ethnic cleansing.


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