Chinese Immigrants in the United States Essay

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            Chinese immigration to the United States started as a trickle in the early 1800’s and exploded into a torrent with the discovery of gold in 1849.  The immigrant Chinese competed heavily not only with the emplaced Californians, but also with Americans that had arrived from the East to prospect.  The Chinese were hard working, and willing to settle for fewer wages (Brody 2006, p - Chinese Immigrants in the United States Essay introduction. 1).  This coupled with the fact that few made their fortune in the gold rush enabled the Chinese to be used as a scapegoat.  The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, was just one in a string of laws that were blatant acts of racism disguised as a way to protect the American worker.

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Chinese citizens have been coming to the United States for well over one hundred and fifty years (See 1995, p. 1).  The impetus for this immigration was two fold.  First, immigrants from the 1830’s until 1850 were attempting to escape the oppressive rule of the Qing dynasty.  In 1839, the English declared war over opium and prosecuted that war until 1842, defeating the Chinese.  (See 1995, p. 1).

With the discovery of gold in California came other opportunities for the Chinese immigrants.  Norton reported that there were fifty four Chinese present in California in 1849 (Norton 1924, p. 283).  In 1876, the total number of Chinese in the State of California was estimated at 116,000, out of a total in the Untied States of 151,000 (Norton 1924, p. 283).

The Chinese came to America seeking a better life and escape from the economic ruin that was China at that time.  The Chinese immigrants were joined by Americans who traveled from the East to seek their fortune.  Opposition to the Chinese labor was strong (Brody 2006, p. 1).   The Chinese experienced racial discrimination from the onset.

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The first act of nativism, defined as “A sociopolitical policy, especially in the United States in the 19th century, favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of

immigrants” (“Nativism”, The American Heritage Dictionary),  directed at the Chinese was the 1850 Foreign Miner’s License Tax.  This taxed immigrant miners of all nationalities twenty dollars a month (Norton 1924, p.287).  This act did not have its desired effect.  It for all intents and purposes drove many Chinese miners into the streets of San Francisco, where they founded “Chinatown” and inserted themselves into the business environment (American Memories 2002, p. 1).  The state legislature reconsidered and repealed the law a year later (Norton 1924, p. 287).

            Chinese laborers had termed themselves “coolies”.  This is a combination of two Chinese words, “koo” meaning to rent, and “lee”, meaning muscle (Norton 1924, p. 289).  Thus “coolie” simply meant “paid laborer”.  Anti-Chinese individuals started the rumor that in reality these “coolies” were basically owned by a master in China and sent to the United States to work for substandard wages for several years (Norton 1924, p. 290).  They went on to argue that this system in China would destroy the American labor force (Norton 1924, p. 290).

            Governor Bigler of California came to realize that he could use this growing anti-Chinese sentiment to his political favor (Norton 1925, p. 287).  He described them as “avaricious, ignorant of moral obligations, incapable of being assimilated and dangerous to the public welfare” (Norton 1924, p. 288).  The result of this and other lobbying was the reinstatement of the Foreign Miners Tax.  In this incarnation the tax was levied only against the Chinese at a rate of four dollars a month (American Memories 2002, p. 1).  This did not satisfy the American miners, so the year after in was made prohibitive again (Norton 1924, p. 288).

            The gold yield began its decline in 1853.  This along with the discovery of gold reserves in Australia brought panic in 1854 (Norton 1924, p. 288).  Many unsuccessful American miners

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returned to San Francisco hoping to find non-existent employment.  What they found instead were industrious Chinese who had been driven out of the mining industry by the Foreign Miners

Tax Act employed in jobs that they believed were rightfully theirs (Norton 1924, p. 288).  These individuals seized upon the “coolie” fable that Governor Bigler had propagated.  The Chinese easily became the reason that they were unable to find employment.  The cry went out that the Chinese were taking American jobs by being willing to work for sub-standard wages, and since they sent their earnings back to China, they were no better then leeches sucking the blood out of the arteries of the working (or not working) American (Norton 1924, p. 289).

            Further action was taken against the Chinese.  In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that the laws stating that Blacks and Indians could not testify against a white would now include Chinese (American Memories 2002, p. 3).  In San Francisco, a serious plan to deport the Chinese was considered.  It was only after the financial cost was discovered to be absolutely prohibitive that the plan was discarded (Norton 1924, p. 292).

            The start of the Civil War brought a brief era of calm to the Chinese storm.  The Central Pacific Railroad began construction in Sacramento, working toward the east.  The company was making very little progress on the rail line until, in 1865, it hired more than 12,000 Chinese to work the menial labor jobs (American Memories 2002, p. 4).  On May 10th, 1869 the line was completed at Promontory Point.  The Chinese workers who had toiled over this rail line were not invited to the opening ceremonies (American Memories 2002, p. 4).  Railroad companies did continue to hire the Chinese, though, and they worked on almost every western railroad that was constructed (American Memories 2002, p. 4).  In 1868 the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty.  This treaty provided that neither country would persecute the other’s

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citizens for their religious beliefs.  It also gave each of the other’s citizens the right to an education, and agreed that Chinese citizens living in

the United States should be granted every right that the United States expected China to grant for the American citize3ns living there (Norton 1924, p. 293).  The labor forces in California saw this as a betrayal to the American laborer, and the violence and agitation against the Chinese worker began anew (Norton 1924, p. 293).

            In 1877 there was a severe downturn in the economy (McClymer 2006, p. 3).  Violence was wrought against the Chinese with a vengeance.  There were many American’s out of work, but the Chinese seldom were (Norton 1924, p. 293).  Due to the fact they were willing to work for so little compensation, they were the almost exclusive employees of the gardening, laundry, cooking and housework professions (Norton 1924, p. 293).  The Chinese were despised by those who could not find employment.  This hatred turned physical as Chinese laundries were burned, and the Chinese were murdered and robbed (Norton 1924, p. 294).

            The formation of the “Workingmen’s Party” also occurred in 1877.  Denis Kearney formed the party with the tag line “The Chinese Must Go!” (McClymer 2006, p.3).  His rhetoric was violent and disturbing.  From his 1877 speech:

            “The Central Pacific Railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party, we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. I will lead you to the City Hall, clean out the police force, hang the Prosecuting Attorney, burn every book that has a particle of law in it, and then enact new laws for the workingmen. I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done, Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences.” (San Francisco Evening Bulletin, November 5, 1877, in McClymer 2006, p. 2)

            Kearney and others managed to exaggerate the legitimate faults that one could find with the Chinese.  While they did not partake in sexual immorality, they did import women that

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became prostitutes (Norton 1924, p. 296).  They gambled, but not to an excess.  The vices were seen at an extreme by those who found the belief in the immorality of the Chinese convenient (Norton 1924, p. 296).

In February of 1878 Kearny appealed to supporters in Indianapolis with a letter that was published in the Indianapolis Times.  In this letter he uses racism in an attempt to convince the readers of the need to exclude the Chinese:

“To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China — the greatest and oldest despotism in the world — for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth — the Chinese coolie — and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.  These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.”   (Kearney 1878, p. 1).

Kearney used this to his advantage, and in 1878 his party won a third of the seats in the California Constitutional Convention (McClymer 2006, p. 5).  Because of this, anti-Chinese language was added to the California Constitution.  It was not until later that the language was ruled unconstitutional by the standards of the United States Constitution (McClymer 2006, p. 5).       In 1879 Issac Kalloch became the mayor of San Francisco, running on the Workingmen’s ticket (McClymer 2006, p. 5).  After the election, the Board of Health declared Chinatown to be a public nuisance and called for its abatement.  The Chinese responded to this not so veiled threat in a letter to the new mayor.  The Chinese leaders stated that they would not, indeed could not, restrain there countrymen from the use self defense in the defense of their homes in Chinatown should they try to enforce the abatement.  No attempt was made to abate Chinatown (McClymer 2006, p. 7).

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Senator James Blaine form Maine became the foist politician of national stature to publicly support the exclusion of the Chinese.  In 1879, in a speech supporting the limitation of Chinese immigrants, he stated that “either the Anglo Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it” (McClymer 2006, p. 6).  Blaine had hoped to obtain the Republican Presidential nomination in 18876, would try again in 1880, and win it in 1884 (McClymer 2006, p. 6).

Now that the rhetoric had spread to a national level, and with racial tensions in California in particular reaching a climax, Congress passed the Chinese exclusion Act in 1882.  The act banned Chinese laborers from immigrating for ten years (Mintz 2007, p. 1).  Those Chinese that were not laborers, such as students, travelers, and those on official business, had to provide proof of their status.  In addition, those Chinese who were already present were forbidden to naturalize as citizens (Mintz 2007, p. 1).

The Exclusion Act was followed by the Geary Act in 1892 which extended the Exclusion act another ten years.  The Extension Act of 1904 made the exclusion of Chinese laborers permanent (Brody 2006, p. 2).  This, of course, did not stop immigration.  After the earthquake and fire in San Francisco destroyed the all family records in 1906, Chinese immigrants took false names and immigrated as relatives of those who were already in the United States (Brody 2006, p. 2).  The response was to build a detention center, named Angel Island, in 1910.  Here officials detained, screened, and deported Chinese immigrants (Brody 2006, p. 2).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, after sixty-one years (Brody 2006, p. 3).  The Chinese were then allies of the United States against the Japanese.  The United

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States wanted to keep friction between Chine and America as low as possible.  The act’s repeal was therefore politically motivated, rather than a concern for human rights (Brody 2006, p. 10).  With the repeal came the closing of Angel Island and the end of the detention of Chinese immigrants (Brody 2006, p.3).

            The Exclusion act and the laws that preceded it were based on racism.  No attempt was made to seek other forms of legislation, such as minimum wage laws, to secure fair wages for all and thus have everyone on the same equal level when it came to job competition.  The virulent racial attacks against the Chinese show the intent.  The underlying racial hatred was ever present in the literature.

References

American Memories. (2002).  From Gold Rush to Golden State.  Early California History: An

    Overview.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 from The Library of Congress database.

Brody, M. ed. (2006). Angel Island Project.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 from Menlo School,

    Atherton, CA.  Web site:  http://sun.menloschool.org/~mbrody/ushistory/angel/exclusion_act/

Kearney, D. & Knight, H. (1878, February 28). Appeal from California. The Chinese Invasion.

   Workingmen’s Address. Indianapolis Times.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 from History Matters

    database.

McClymer, J. (ed.). (2006). Chinese Exclusion.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 From Assumption

    College Web Site:

     http://www.assumption.edu/users/mcclymer/His130/P-H/chinese%20Exclusion/

    Mintz, S. (ed.) (2007).  The Huddled Masses.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 From the University of

         Houston  Web site:http://digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=419

    Nativism. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

        Retrieved April 15, 2007, from Dictionary.com website:

        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Nativism

Norton, H.  (1924).  The Story of California From the Earliest days to the Present.  Chicago:

    A.C. McClurg & Co.

See, L. (1995). On Gold Mountain.  Retrieved April 14, 2007 from The Smithsonian Program

    for Asian Pacific American Studies  Web site:  http://www.apa.si.edu/ongoldmountain

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