Know Your Chinese American History

Gold Rush, Railroads, and Early Beginnings 

The first Chinese arrived as early as 1820, but many more migrated to gum saan, or Gold Mountain, during the 1840s and 1850s for the chance of riches in northern California. Primarily poor men from the farming communities of Guangdong province, the Chinese left a world in the midst of British colonization and European encroachment after the Opium Wars. Coupled with peasant rebellions, civil strife, and environmental disasters such as floods and famines, one of the few options left for Chinese men in the southern region was to migrate to the United States. Most planned on working abroad for just a short period of time before returning to China. News traveled back to China that those who had braved the migration east had indeed made money. In comparison to the limited options in China, California seemed a worthwhile adventure. 

By 1870, there were 63,000 Chinese in the United States, 77% residing in California. Initially, very few Chinese women migrated with men because of Confucian beliefs that restricted their movement. Moreover, the ‘riches’ they had hoped to find were few and barred by white miners who took over the larger gold lodes of the northern mines at Sutter’s Mill. 

Many Chinese turned to other forms of steady labor as the gold mines became untenable sources of money. They became tenant farmers or hired labor. Although they were often paid low wages, the Chinese helped to change the landscape of California’s agriculture, creating the vineyards and the agricultural system of California. 

Tens of thousands of Chinese laborers also dug tunnels, blasted mountainsides, and laid hundreds of miles of track for the Central Pacific Railroad to construct the Transcontinental Railroad. They were paid less than half of white workers, endured back-breaking labor in the frigid cold and scorching heat. Their work was not well documented, including being absent in the 1869 picture of the completed railroad, erasing the contributions of over 15,000 Chinese. 


Violence and Exclusion

Despite being recruited into low-wage labor by companies like the railroads, fears about the “Chinese Problem” elicited the specter of a menacing figure threatening white labor and society. The court case People v Hall in 1854 made it illegal for the Chinese to testify against a white person, thereby making any form of violence against the Chinese unpunishable. In Los Angeles, animosity towards the Chinese resulted in the Chinese Massacre of 1871 whereby 19 Chinese boys and men were lynched by a mob of 500. This form of violence was echoed throughout the United States, evidenced from the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 in Wyoming, where 28 Chinese were killed and forced back into the very mines they were chased from before the violence. Throughout the United States, local and state laws created punitive measures that chased out Chinese businesses and allowed for the legalized terror of Chinese in the West. 

In California, Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party of California continued to rail against the Chinese, considering them responsible for the white workingman’s woes. This virulent nativism led to the federal legislation that excluded the Chinese from American shores. While the Chinese made up only .002% of the total U.S. population, Congress made it illegal for Chinese to immigrate for the next ten years and denied naturalization, (the process to become U.S. citizens) for existing Chinese that lived in the United States. Known as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this is the first and only legislation of its kind to name a specific race for exclusion. It was renewed every ten years. In 1904, the exclusion act became permanent until it was repealed in 1943.


Civic Contributions & Social Movements

Despite the hostility and legalized discrimination, the Chinese built communities throughout the United States. Only at the beginning of the 1900s did these numbers change slightly, resulting in the growing number of Chinese families throughout California. Chinatowns were important spaces for the Chinese American community in face of labor restrictions, racial covenants, and lack of resources from the larger white community. District and family associations did the work that local, state, and the federal government did not: they cared for their own. Despite their legal and cultural exclusion, Chinese Americans fought in wars and helped to shape American society. 

World War II precipitated changes to the American government’s historical neglect of the Chinese American community. While the U.S. government interned another group of Asian Americans, Japanese Americans, they praised the patriotism of Chinese Americans and eventually lifted the ban on Chinese Exclusion. Following the end of the war, and changes to older restrictive immigration laws that barred Asian immigration, the community doubled after the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act, often referred to as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The ushering in of new immigrants helped the United States win the “Space Race” because of the contributions of thousands of Chinese engineers and scientists. 

The many civic contributions of Chinese Americans also led to the recognition of their treatment as second-class citizens. During the Civil Rights Era, Chinese Americans protested the Vietnam War and helped to create the expansion of civil rights legislation for a more inclusive America. Though this work is not done, Chinese Americans have created one of the most diverse and celebrated communities in southern California. From Los Angeles’ Chinatown to the San Gabriel Valley and beyond, Chinese Americans have long been part of the fabric of American history and society. 


Chinese American Women

The first documented Chinese to enter the United States was a Chinese woman, Afong Moy. Brought to the United States by white U.S-China traders, she was on display as a sideshow to sell their wares and was eventually sold to the circus of P.T. Barnum. Afong Moy was dehumanized and was placed in exhibitions to present Chinese women as exotic and foreign that tinged with an undercurrent of desire and immoralism. This caricature of Chinese women and unwarranted fear of the Chinese ‘horde’ led to the passage of The Page Act of 1875. This law barred “Mongolian prostitutes.” from the United States but was intended to stop the migration of women and the creation of families. 

Chinese women were a diverse group who came as wives and daughters of merchant and fishermen, servants, and some sex workers. However, they were often deemed as prostitutes first and were forced to prove that they were not.  Regardless, U.S. law rendered them exotic, dangerous, yet desirable. The enduring legacy of the Page Act and later, the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 left a legacy of stunted population growth, separated families, and a stereotypical exotic female image that was the counter to the menacing male “yellow peril.”

Despite restrictive and racist laws that limited the presence of Chinese American women before formal changes in the 1965 immigration reform, they created a community of mutual aid (that was both domestic and international), robust religious, civic, and family associations. Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung was the first Chinese American woman trained as a doctor. She was also the founder of the women’s naval reserve and became a wartime celebrity.

Chinese American women were also shopkeepers, doctors, journalists, teachers, actresses, workers, students, wives, daughters, mothers, and they spoke out. They were instrumental in helping to shape the Civil Rights Movement like Grace Lee Boggs; they protested and made changes to housing, education, laws, and helped to shape the foundation of civil society in America. Though their numbers were small in the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese American women continue to defy the persistent narrative that seesaws between passivity and dragon ladies. They are links that connect the Chinese American community.