When the Chinese Came to California
Watercolors by Jake Lee
Excerpt from an article in Westways magazine
. . .
For the Chinese who came to California, it was frequently a life of hardship, deprivation and abuse at the hands of the white man. With his strange dress and incomprehensible tongue, “John Chinaman” was a natural object of suspicion. When times were bad he often became the target of harsh economic sanctions. More than once, he was the unfortunate scapegoat when a wrathful lynch mob was looking for a victim. Like the Americans and the Europeans, the Chinese were lured to California by the prospects of rich mines and high wages. In the mining camps, already overcrowded, the reception to the Chinese was usually hostile.
As a result, some Chinese worked abandoned claims when the white men had moved on. Others became laborers and domestics, or established business enterprises such as laundries, markets and restaurants. Through patience, perseverance and a business acumen that was the envy of many an American, the Chinese survived and prospered in the new land.
Watercolors by Jake Lee. “When the Chinese Came to California,” Westways Magazine. Automobile Club of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, Vol. 55 (Sept 1963) pp. 6-7.
The “Strangers” Among Them
By, Doyce B. Nunis, Jr.
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! THERE’S GOLD IN CALIFORNIA! The cry went round the world. And as the news of the discovery reached foreign shores, in successive waves people from distant lands struck out for the fabled El Dorado. When the report of President James K. Polk’s official confirmation of the discovery was published in the Honolulu Polynesian, June 24, the islands were quickly drained of their susceptible adventurers. By the end of the year twenty-two vessels departed Honolulu for San Francisco.
. . .
Soon they were joined by people from all over the world, looking for gold. People arrived from Chile, Mexico, the British Isles, Germany, France and China.
Among the first legislative proposals introduced in California under American rule was “An Act for the better regulation of the mines and mining, until the action of the United States Congress shall be had thereon.” Submitted to the State Senate on February 8, 1850….The statute was labelled the Foreign Miners’ Tax.
…(E)ach foreigner would be required to purchase a license fixed at $20 a month. Failure to comply would result in imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months and a fine of not more than $1,000. The law was to be effective until Congress passed a similar measure. The object was clear: only Americans had the right to free mining.
. . .
The renewal of the Foreign Miners’ Tax in 1852 undoubtedly was provoked by the abrupt increase in Chinese emigration to California. At first the Chinese were welcomed as a ready source of cheap labor. Gradually, Chinese pre-empted the Kanakas (Hawaiians) and Indians as laborers. The 1850 census tabulated only 660 Chinese; the 1860 census registered 34, 935.
The few Chinese who made their way to California at the height of the Gold Rush were inexperienced and worked mostly the poorer claims. To finance their passage, they signed contracts which bound them to repay costs at high interest rates. Poor and illiterate, their presence in the mines was tolerated at first. Overt hostility was extremely rare then.
J.D. Borthwick in his Three Years in California remarked that the Chinese were almost feminine in the way they handled their tools, “As if they were afraid of hurting themselves.” Their inability to work long hours without periodic rests, coupled with their aversion to working in water or in heat and their inefficiency in handling mechanical devices, limited their daily mining results. They were content with $2 a day.
But anti-Chinese sentiment was not long in exploding. The first incident reputedly took place as early as 1849. A British company employed about sixty Chinese laborers to work under Sonoran supervisors at Chinese Camp, Tuolumne County. A party of irate white miners drove the laborers from the mines. In 1852 there was organized agitation—the adoption of the Columbia Resolution—even though Chinese emigration had been extremely light until that year. In 1849, 325 arrivals are recorded, 450 in 1850, and 2,700 in 1851. But before the end of 1852, 20,000 Chinese arrived. This sudden influx “had an electrifying effect in California.” Governor John Bigler dispatched a special message to the legislature on the pressing matter of “coolie” or contract labor. The re-enactment of the tax on foreign miners was one result. The Chinese question was to prove a continuing dilemma for California throughout the remaining decades of the nineteenth century. Its final solution was Congressional adoption of the exclusion policy. The seeds of that restrictive immigration policy were sown in Gold-Rush California.
. . .
The enormous influx of foreigners—strangers to the Americans---during the California Gold Rush greatly enriched the history of the state. Even though a vast number of these emigrants returned to their native land, perhaps wiser than richer, many remained to provide the basis for the expanded cosmopolitan population that has distinctly marked California. No state in the Union can point to an overnight “melting pot” environment comparable to that of the California Gold Rush.
Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. “The ‘Strangers’ Among Them,”
Westways Magazine. Automobile Club of Southern
California, Los Angeles, CA, Vol. 59 (May 1967)
“The Heathen Chinee Prospecting.” Eadweard Muybridge, c1852. This photograph was probably taken near Jacksonville, Tuloumne Co. or Mongolian Flat on the American River in California.
Library of Congress, Digital ID# cubcic chs405
Chinese Camp in the Mines” Artist: J.D. Borthwick.
Library of Congress; Digital ID cubcic chs414
“A company of Chinese have been building a log cabin near us for several days past. They are mostly young men apparently of good “blood” and very polite towards us. I like to talk with them and ask them hundreds of questions about their native land, for they are intelligent and one of them speaks good English. Most of them wear long cues (braids), neatly braided, and hung in little knots at the end. I asked one of them the reason of wearing his hair short. “In Amelica me wear ‘em cut. In China all sem oder Chinaman.”
(Diary of Timothy Coffin Osborne. Thursday, December 26, 1850)
“Chinese man mining along the river.” From Views of the American West. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Journal Entry with transcription of Chinese characters.
Written by Timothy Coffin Osborne. (1827-1864)
“Journal Published June 14, 1850-January 1, 1885.
Website: The Chinese in America, 1950-1925.
"Chinese Public School Children -- About 1890." Photographed by Isaiah West Taber. Accessed through the Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?cic:2:./temp/~ammem_ppMl::
Digital ID: cubcic chs397
"Their First Photograph.": From San Francisco Chinatown (1895-1906): Arnold Genthe -- Photos No. 1 (Camera Shy Chinese) CREATED/PUBLISHED 1895-1906. California Historical Society, Accessed through Library of Congress.
Digital ID # cubcic chs9
“Chinese Couple, seated” c1891? Accessed through the Library of Congress.
Chan Kwan On: certificate to enter U.S.: From Immigration documents miscellany (c 1897-1898)
Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Accessed through the Library of Congress
U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. View showing wharf and main buildings.
Photographs from the Hart Hyatt North papers: Angel Island Created/Published: 1890-1943
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Accessed through the Library of Congress.
Digital ID: cubcic brk1187
Dormitory- Angel Island
U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Dormitory. Photographs from the Hart Hyatt North papers: Angel Island
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Accessed through the Library of Congress.
Digital ID: cubcic brk1197
“Searching Chinese immigrants for opium, at San Francisco” Chinese emigration to America: sketch on board the steam-ship Alaska, bound for San Francisco: From Views of Chinese published in “The Graphic and Harper's Weekly” (Created/Published April 29, 1876). Accessed from the Library of Congress.
Digital ID: cubcic brk7176
1848 The Gold Rush begins with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, drawing many fortune seekers including the Chinese to California.
The discovery of gold spurred a mass migration of people into the State of California. In 1850, of the 57,000 people who migrated to California, only 500 were Chinese. Four years later, approximately 20,000 Chinese migrated to the United States.
1852 20,000 Chinese enter the United States, mostly California; only 17 are women.
American Civil War; 51 Chinese soldiers fought.
Among the Chinese soldiers who fought in the American Civil War were Privates Edward Day Cohota and Joseph L. Pierce.
Edward Cohota fought in the Battle of Drury’s Bluff (1864) and the Battle of Cold Harbor (1864). Despite having served in the U.S. Army for over 30 years, he died without ever becoming naturalized due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Joseph L. Pierce enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Infantry in August 1862, and fought in the famed Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Note: Both men were recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives for their contributions in 2009.
1862 California imposes a Police Tax of $2.50 a month on all Chinese.
The Police Tax was entitled: “An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California.”
The law imposed a monthly tax only on adults of the “Mongolian race” who worked in mines or most businesses.
1862 The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery.
1865-1869 The Transcontinental Railroad recruits thousands of Chinese laborers.
1866 Civil Rights Act grants persons of “every race and color” eligible for citizenship all privileges to make contracts, hold property and testify in court. The law does not apply to Chinese.
1870 Nationality Act specifies that only “free white” and African “aliens” are eligible for naturalization.
1876 The Southern Pacific Railroad connects San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hundreds of Chinese railroad workers move to Los Angeles.
1879 Los Angeles County votes against Chinese immigration 98% to 2%.
Dennis Kearney establishes the Los Angeles chapter of the Workingman’s Party, known as the Anti-Chinese Union.
The Workingman’s Party of California established chapters throughout California. The Party was popularly known for opposing Capitalism and scapegoating the Chinese for low wages. In San Francisco, its numerous demonstrations led to riots that attacked Chinese businesses and homes and even threatened to burn down San Francisco’s Chinatown. Its anti-Chinese views spread beyond California, and eventually contributed to the political climate for the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
1882 Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act to suspend immigration of Chinese laborers.
Chinese laborers in the U.S. were also not allowed to bring their wives or children to America. However, a small number of non-laborers, such as merchants, government officials, teachers, students, clergy and travelers, were allowed to visit the U.S. with proper documentation. The Act also denied the Chinese already in America the right to naturalization and established the right to deport them.
The Chinese Exclusion Act marked the first time that the U.S. has ever barred entry of a group of people based on their ethnicity.
Note: The act was finally repealed in 1943, when the U.S. and China were allies during World War II.
1885 California law creates segregated schools for Chinese and other Asian children.
1886 The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, that San Francisco’s refusal to grant Chinese Laundrymen permits was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In 1880, the city of San Francisco passed a law requiring all laundry operators working from wooden buildings to obtain permits. Although 2/3 of all of San Francisco’s laundries were operated by Chinese people, no Chinese operator was granted a permit. Yick Wo, a Chinese immigrant, was convicted, fined, and later jailed for operating his business without a permit. He successfully sued the City. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the administration of the law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1888 Scott Act prohibits the return of 20,000 Chinese laborers who had left the United States.
The Scott Act permanently banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. and denied Chinese laborers who left the U.S. from returning. After its passage, about 20,000 Chinese who had temporarily left the U.S. could not re-enter.
1898 Wong Kim Ark v. U.S. rules that anyone born in the United States cannot be stripped of citizenship.
When Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese American born in San Francisco, visited China in 1894, he was refused re-entry to the U.S., because U.S. officials considered him a Chinese national and not a U.S. citizen. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that any child born in the U.S. is granted U.S. citizenship. Since Wong was born in the U.S., the Chinese Exclusion Act could not strip him of his citizenship.
1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroys Chinese immigration records.
In 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco. Damage from the earthquake and ensuing fires destroyed most of the city’s structures, including the Hall of Records and its birth and immigration records.
Following the disaster, thousands of Chinese claimed U.S. citizenship based on their alleged birth in San Francisco – which could not be refuted due to the absence of the burned records.
1910 Angel Island Immigration Station opens to process all incoming Chinese Immigrants.
Approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants set foot on Angel Island. It was considered the “Ellis Island of the West” and was primarily designed to process and detain Chinese immigrants.
Excerpts and content from “A Timeline of Events,” Our American Journey, Educator’s Guide
Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2010), pp. 6-8, 14-16.