Chinese Laborers In The West Chinese laborers contributed mightily to the economic development of California and the West. Many industries relied heavily on Chinese labor. However, Chinese participation were limited severely after 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited workers from entering the country and declared Chinese ineligible for citizenship. If laborers continued working they might never see their families again. If they returned to China a life of poverty awaited them.
Early Immigrants Came Looking for Gold Large scale Chinese immigration to California began after news of the discovery of gold reached China. In 1851, nearly 3,000 Chinese came to California; more than 20,000 came in 1852. For the next two decades almost 8,000 new immigrants arrived from China each year. Chinese miners established themselves throughout the gold fields, especially in Calaveras, El Dorado and Amador counties. Many were independent miners or worked for Chinese companies. Some worked for non-Chinese. Others contributed indirectly as suppliers of goods and services.
John Milton Pruett
and Letticie Pruett, 1877
Courtesy of Lisa See
Chinese America Placer Miner,
Courtesy of Nevada Historical Society.
San Francisco General View
Panel 4 of 7, daguerret type of panorama,
Courtesy of California Historical Society, FN-08432
Railroad Construction Employed Thousands In 1863 the Central Pacific began working east from Sacramento, California, on the nation's first transcontinental railroad. The railroad made little progress before 1865, then the company decided to hire Chinese laborers to level roadbeds, bore tunnels, and blast mountainsides. Eventually, the Central Pacific employed more than 12,000 Chinese workers, more than ninety percent of the workforce. On May 10, 1869, the CPRR joined with the Union Pacific to complete the line at Promontory Point, Utah. Dignitaries did not invite Chinese workers to the opening ceremony. However, railroad capitalists recruited Chinese workers to build nearly every new western railroad, resulting in a second wave of Chinese immigration.
Secrettown Trestle Chinese railroad workers transported dirt by the cartload to fill in this
Secrettown Trestle in the Sierra Nevada Mountain.
Courtesy of Union Pacific Historical Collection
Surviving Central Pacific Chinament, Wong Food, Lee Chao, Ging Cui Unidentified Artist P1967.727 gelatin silver print, 1919
Central Pacific Railroad Workers. In 1863, Collis P. Huntington,
Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker formed the Big
Four to construct the Central Pacific Railroad. They would hire
12,000-14,000 Chinese to level roadbeds, bore tunnels, blast
mountainsides, and eventually complete the first transcontinental
railroad in 1869.
Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Joining the Tracks for the First Transcontinental Railroad,Promontory Point, Utah Newline Photographer. Andrew J. Russell.
On May 10, 1869, the final gold spike was driven at Promontory Point. Dignitaries did not invite Chinese workers to the official ceremony, despite their significant contribution and death toll for the national project.
Courtesy of Union Pacific Historical Collection.
Herbal Remedies Made Camp Life Tolerable Since the Chinese did not trust western doctors or western medicine, men like Fong Dun Shung administered to the needs of laborers. However, many of the injuries and illnesses he encountered were far beyond his limited knowledge. The Chinese death toll was high, though no exact records are available for verification. The Sacramento Reporter of June 30, 1870, reported that a train bearing the accumulated bones of 1,200 Chinese workers on the Central Pacific passed through Sacramento. Perhaps this can be considered a minimum figure of the loss in Chinese lives.
Chinese Street Doctor
Similar to the physician depicted,
Fong Dun Shing administered to
the Chinese laborers' needs. He
was hired by railroad contractors,
because the Chinese did not trust
western doctors and medicine.
Courtesy of Kelton Foundation
Commercial Fishing Opened New Markets Chinese fishermen were among the first to engage in commercial fishing along the West Coast in the 1850s. By the 1870s observers could see sampans and fishing junks harbored near camps and villages all along the California coast. By 1888, over 2,000 Chinese fishers were counted in more than 30 fisheries, mostly around San Francisco Bay, Monterey and San Diego. They caught sturgeon and squid, and harvested kelp and other marine products, but shrimp and abalone were the two fisheries most closely associated with the Chinese.
Farming Skills Remade California Agriculture Because of their farming backgrounds many Chinese possessed superior horticultural skills. Chinese farmers developed Bing cherries and frost-resistant oranges, among other perishable, but profitable crops. Chinese laborers reclaimed over 5 million acres of tulle swamps in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river deltas. They were a mobile labor force in the orchards, vineyards, hop yards and cotton fields. In 1882, most of California's harvest labor was Chinese. Some Chinese farmers became sharecroppers or land tenants, growing mainly fresh fruits and vegetables. Chinese vegetable peddlers were familiar sights in many Western towns.
Service Trades Improved Quality and Convenience From the early days of the Gold Rush, the Chinese were active in the service trades, especially in communities with few women. Many Chinese men found niches doing work that was considered "women's work" in both China and the United States. They worked in occupations that served non-Chinese, such as servants and laundrymen, and in occupations that crossed racial borders, such as cooks in homes, cafes and restaurants. The Chinese also provided services to their own people, revolving around the maintenance of traditional cultural ties.
Chinese Vegetable Peddler. Newline Photographer Arnold Genthe.
From the early days of the Gold Rush, Chinese have been in service trades to the larger white community and their own people.
Courtesy of California Historical Society, FN-02346
Industries Grew Quickly A shortage of manufactured goods caused by the American Civil War and the growth of California's population after the war resulted in increasing numbers of Chinese factory workers. Chinese labor helped the rapid growth of light industries in California. Industrialists employed Chinese workers in the cigar, shoe and boot, garment and woolen industries of San Francisco, then the industrial center of the West. Chinese workers also manufactured slippers, cigar boxes, brooms, cordage, matches, candles, soap and other consumer goods.
Chinese Foundry Worker at Selby Smelting,
Courtesy of California Historical Society, FN-16166
Chinese Laborer at Sewing Machine. Newline Photographer Arnold Genthe.
Industrialists employed Chinese workers in the cigar, shoe and boot, garment and woolen industries of San Francisco, then the industrial center of the West. In California's garment industry, the value of products increased from $27,000 in 1870 to more than $3.6 million in 1880.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Sacramento was Yee Fow, the Second City, to Many After completion of the Central Pacific Railroad, thousands of Chinese laborers returned to Sacramento before branching out to look for work. Sacramento's Chinatown extended along I Street, between Third Street and Sixth. Two-story wooden buildings filled the row. Every building had a brightly colored, second-story balcony, as was the custom in China. Shops and restaurants filled the first floors along I Street, with most people living directly above their shops.
"Chinadom" Centered Along I Street in Sacramento, circa. 1854
Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library
Fong See Traveled to Sacramento Looking for His Father By 1870 Fong Dun Shung had left the railroad camps and opened an herbal shop, Kwong Tsui Chang (Success Peacefully) on I Street in Sacramento. He practiced Chinese herbal medicine, administering to men who were sick or seeking sexual prowess, and women, mostly prostitutes, who fought venereal disease, tuberculosis and pregnancy. Unlike many immigrants, Fong Dun Shung did not send money back home to China. His family became so desperate that they sent fourteen-year-old Fong See to find his father. Fong Dun Shung returned home to China in 1871, leaving Fong See to run the Sacramento business with his two brothers.
Kwong Tsui Chang, the Curiosity Bazaar In the late 1870s, Fong See changed the name of his father's store from the Kwong Tsui Chang Company to Curiosity Bazaar. He moved out of Chinatown to 609 K Street, between Sixth Street and Seventh in Sacramento. Instead of herbs, Fong See and his brothers began making ladies' undergarments for the brothel trade. Their shop had four sewing machines and employed ten men. Fong See was the salesman and store manager. He traveled all over California, selling merchandise to prostitutes in mining towns, railroad camps and farming villages.
Letticie Pruett Ran Away From Home
Not long after Fong See arrived in Sacramento, John Milton Pruett headed west with his family, traveling in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. The Pruetts settled near present-day Medford, where Letticie, the only daughter of John and Luscinda, was born in 1876. Luscinda died a year later and John passed away in 1884. "Ticie's" brothers and their families raised the orphaned girl, until she ran away at age eighteen in 1894.
Ticie traveled to Sacramento looking for work and ended up in Fong See's store. She convinced him to hire her, even though it was risky, given the racial prejudice of the time. Ticie encouraged Fong to add curios to the stock he sold. She attracted non-Chinese customers to his Chinese store. In 1897 Letticie Pruett and Fong See were wed in a contract marriage, drawn up by a lawyer, because mixed-race marriages were against the law after 1880.
Courtesy of Lisa See
Mixed Race Marriages Were Against the Law In 1870, state legislatures in California and Oregon opposed passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, because suffrage without regard to "race, color or previous condition of servitude" might include the Chinese. California, Oregon and Nevada also passed laws against miscegenation, the marriage or cohabitation of a Caucasian with a member of another race. Still, many couples put their personal feelings above the law. California's ban on miscegenation lasted from 1880 until 1948; Nevada's until 1959.
Pacific Railroad Complete. Harper's Weekly, June 12, 1869
The festering resentment of Chinese living in United States grew amongst the other immigrant community. One large threat was the Chinese men taking over their fair skinned women.
Courtesy of Brown University Library.
The Driving Out In the 1870s a national depression, coupled with bank failures and drought conditions in California, stimulated a seething anti-Chinese sentiment among the working classes. Chinese immigrants became scapegoats for economic hardships because of their race and culture, willingness to work for lower wages and unwillingness to unionize with non-Chinese. Anti-Chinese agitation convinced Congress to pass a national Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This law excluded Chinese laborers, both skilled and unskilled, from entering the United States for ten years. Furthermore, Chinese immigrants were declared ineligible for citizenship.
Octopus Chinese Man Cartoon "What Shall We Do With Our Boys?" As the Chinese expanded into
a range of industries, other immigrants feared and blamed economic
hardship on them. Anti-Chinese cartoons such as this one, were
prevalant during the years leading up to the Exclusion Act of 1882.
Courtesy of Bancroft Library
Following the passage of this act, many incidents of deadly violence occurred against the Chinese. What is now known as "The Driving Out," forced removals, occurred in Cherry Creek, Colorado; Tacoma, Washington; Tombstone, Arizona; Rock Spring, Wyoming; and Redlands, California. A popular saying of the day became "He doesn't stand a Chinaman's chance."
Chinese Immigrants Fought Exclusion in Court For the most part, the Chinese had to rely on themselves to fight discrimination. The Chinese Empire Reform Association petitioned Washington, D.C., to take action. District and family associations continued much of the work they had done before, petitioning on a laborer's behalf, providing meals and spiritual support, helping with the immigration bureaucracy, offering protection, and seeing to burial arrangements. Missionaries fought strenuously against the exclusion laws, along with capitalists who benefited from cheap labor and several senators who worked in Congress to remove discriminatory laws. Concerned citizens in San Francisco formed the Chinese Protection Society. But these people and organizations were few and far between.