China was a nation in chaos in the first half of the 19th century. Between the 1850s and 1864, civil war killed millions, and millions more were forced from their homes. When news of the discovery of gold in California reached the embattled country, many Chinese made the long journey east to try their luck in the place they called Gum Saan, Cantonese for Gold Mountain. Like many foreign miners before them, the Chinese faced hostility and discrimination when they arrived.
While some Chinese miners were successful, easy to access gold was nearly gone by the 1850s. Many Chinese workers became part of an immigrant labor force that signed on to the dangerous work of building the first transcontinental railroad. By 1861, two-thirds of all Chinese living outside of China lived in California.
Discrimination in the Goldfields
In 1852 California passed a Foreign Miner's Tax. The new tax required all foreign miners who did not want to become citizens to pay a hefty monthly fee to state officials. Even if they had wanted to, Chinese laborers were not allowed to become U.S. citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons,” preventing Asians from becoming citizens. Although the Foreign Miner's Tax affected other foreign miners such as French and Mexicans, it was applied most forcefully to Chinese miners, who faced extreme racial hatred. This hatred and discrimination was fed by rumors of Chinese success in the goldfields. Easily accessible gold was running out, and groups and individuals battled one another for what remained.
The hostility directed toward the Chinese, as well as the rapid disappearance of available gold, left many Chinese miners hungry and homeless. They were denied work in the more skilled professions, and it was difficult for them to find jobs of any kind.
By the 1860s, when construction of the first transcontinental railroad got under way, the railroads needed laborers to perform the very dangerous work of blasting tunnels and laying ties over the treacherous terrain of the High Sierra. Generally free to choose their own jobs, the majority of white men in California avoided this hazardous work. Railway managers pointed to China’s Great Wall as proof that the Chinese were capable of the labor required. Railroad executives determined that Chinese workers were cheap and easy to manage. They received around $26 a month for a workweek of six 12-hour days, and they had to provide their own food and tents. White workers, however, earned $35 a month or more and were furnished with food and shelter. Thanks in large part to Chinese laborers, the railway was completed in 1869.
After their great contribution to the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese faced further discrimination when the U.S. passed the Naturalization Act of 1870, which allowed African Americans to become citizens while continuing to exclude Asians.
Many former railroad workers turned to farming to make ends meet. By 1880, Chinese workers comprised one-third of the agricultural labor force in California. Others moved to cities such as San Francisco and worked in the few industries permitted to them, such as laundries.
Racist Discrimination and the Chinese Exclusion Act
By limiting immigration for 10 years, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 sought to contain the threat of competition that Chinese immigrants posed to white laborers. The act introduced a list of race-based restrictions aimed exclusively at Chinese communities. For instance, it banned all Chinese immigrants other than students, teachers, and merchants from entering the U.S.. In addition, the law prevented those already living in the United States from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, regardless of how long they had lived and worked in the country. Based on false beliefs of racial and moral inferiority, such legal restrictions on Chinese immigration were extended until 1902. Chinese exclusion was not fully ended in the United States until 1943.
Growth of Chinatowns
Limited to specific residential areas and jobs, many Chinese were forced to form their own ethnic communities and neighborhoods. Referred to as Chinatowns, these neighborhoods were described by white politicians and newspaper editors as “unsanitary,” “unhealthy,” and somehow “dangerous” to the values of white Americans. Bigotry and negative press resulted in the further separation of Chinese immigrants from mainstream life in California. It was difficult for the children of immigrants to find decent education and good jobs. However, Chinatowns became safe and familiar havens for Chinese families.