According to 6th century Chinese historical
records, a Chinese monk named Huishen returned to China from his travels in 499
A. D. and reported that he had ventured approximately 7,000 miles east and had
landed in a country he called Fusang. Was Fusang in fact the western coast of
the American continent? Scholars continue to disagree.
Some scholars point to documentation showing that the
Chinese first arrived in the Americas in the 17th century aboard
Spanish galleons plying the Manila-Acapulco trade route, and then, in the
following decades, also traveled further north to Los Angeles and Monterey. Most
scholars regard 1785 as the date of the first documented Chinese entry into the
United States; in that year, three Chinese arrived in Baltimore as part of the
crew of a Chinese trade vessel. The China trade also brought Chinese to Hawaii
as early as 1788.
Most of these Chinese were Cantonese people from
southeastern China. The victims of war, natural disasters, and political and
economic oppression, they were attracted to California by the promise of gold
and opportunity. Many were laborers and farmers, but merchants, craftsmen,
artisans and students also came in search of opportunities. Their exodus from
China was aided by the ongoing development of Hong Kong as an international
port. By 1870, the Chinese made up nearly 25 percent of California's unskilled
labor force, but only 10 percent of the state's total population. Ten years
later, the Chinese comprised two-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population.
Ninety-nine percent of these Chinese lived in the West, nearly three-quarters of
them in California.
|In California, Ah Nam's arrival in Monterey in 1815 to
work as a cook for the Spanish governor is the first recorded instance of
Chinese presence in the state. But it was not until after the discovery of gold
at Sutter's Mill in 1848 that Chinese began to arrive in California in large
numbers. And their arrival was part of a complex economic relationship
between China and the United States in which the Chinese became a major source
of labor for the economic development of the American West.
|Field Hands, Sacramento
Delta Circa 1860 Until Chinese labor
diked the river and drained the tule swamps beginning in 1850, the Sacramento
Delta, now one of the world's richest agricultural areas, was an uninhabitable
marsh. Photo courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery and the
High Desert Museum.
The Chinese contributions to the early growth and
wealth of California were considerable. In addition to the gold mines, the
Chinese worked in the state's borax deposits and quicksilver mines. Some
reworked abandoned mines; others purchased or leased mining claims. Along the
California coast, the Chinese built ocean going ships for fishing, and also
developed the abalone and shrimp industries. In the Delta and Central Valley,
the Chinese used their horticultural skills to reclaim the tule swamps, to build
irrigation systems, and to harvest grapes for the raisin industry, as well as
such crops as citrus fruits, sugar beets, and celery. Napa wineries used Chinese
to work in their vineyards and to excavate limestone caves for wine storage; a
few Chinese even became wine tasters. In short, in California's agricultural
heartland, the Chinese were harvest workers, fruit packers, tenant farmers,
sharecroppers, truck gardeners, shepherds, and cowhands.
In cities and towns, many Chinese became domestic
servants, cooks, laundrymen, and held other service jobs. The Chinese also made
up the majority of workers in such light industries as woolen mills and garment,
shoe, and cigar making factories.
When the railroad opened up jobs to the Chinese,
thousands signed up to work. As early as 1858 the Chinese were building
intrastate railroads and in the 1860s, they were instrumental in building the
western portion of the transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California to
Promontory Point, Utah.
In the beginning most of the Chinese came to California
to work temporarily, but many eventually made California their home. Their
presence led to the creation of Chinese communities commonly called Chinatown
(sometimes Little China or Little Canton). These enclaves were segregated and
considered an exotic curiosity by mainstream America. They had their own form of
self-government organized under the leadership of merchants' guilds and district
associations called huiguan.
The Cantonese culture was immediately transplanted and
adapted to America, especially under the sponsorship of the associations.
Residents celebrated New Year, Dragon Boat, and Moon festivals, formed literary
clubs, held poetry writing contests, published newspapers and books, built
temples, and established photography studios. As early as 1852 Cantonese opera
troupes entertained the communities.
|Philip P. Choy is
an architect in private practice and an adjunct professor in Asian American
Studies at San Francisco State University. He is co-author, with Marlon Hom and
Lorraine Dong, of The Coming Man: 19th Century American
Perceptions of Chinese. Lorraine
Dong, Ph.D. is professor in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State
University. Dong has also worked as a writer and researcher for documentary
films and has served on the board of directors of the Chinese Historical Society
|Nevertheless, the early Chinese were stigmatized by
mainstream America as undesirable and "inassimilable' aliens of inferior
culture and morality. The lack of Chinese women and families in California added
to an already debased stereotype. Marie Seise was the first documented woman to
arrive in California. She came in 1848 to work as a maid. Others who followed
were often kidnapped and sold as prostitutes or slave girls. Those controlling
the prostitution business prospered, but Chinese women were singled out as
further proof of Chinese inferiority and immorality.
By 1860, the ratio of Chinese men to Chinese women was
eighteen to one (compared to California's overall twelve-to-one ratio). This was
caused by a variety of cultural, social, economic, sexist and political factors,
which also resulted in a "widow" society in China and a
"bachelor" society in America.
Parallel to a belief among many Americans in the
supposed cultural, moral and racial inferiority of the Chinese was a xenophobic
fear of a Chinese takeover (later called the Yellow Peril). When the economy
declined, unemployed white workers accused Chinese workers of causing the
nation's demise. Nativistic, anti-Chinese hysteria permeated California
politics. The state's labor unions claimed Chinese immigration would drive out
"real" Americans and destroy the nation's democratic structure.
This Sinophobia was realized in murders, exclusion and
the total destruction of the Chinese communities by the passage of anti-Chinese
legislation. California's 1879 Constitution even contained a specific section on
how to eliminate the Chinese.
On May 6, 1882, the federal government, influenced by
powerful anti-Chinese lobbyists from California, passed the Chinese Exclusion
Act, which barred entry of all Chinese laborers into the United States for ten
years. This marked the first time immigration to the United States was banned on
the basis of race and class. Still dissatisfied with the presence of "too
many" Chinese in America, the government continued the Exclusion Act until
1904, when it was extended indefinitely. Similar restrictive immigration
policies were eventually applied to all other Asians.
|THE EXCLUSION PERIOD
In concert with naturalization laws that banned Chinese
from becoming U.S. citizens, anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for
Chinese to marry white people, segregation laws that banned Chinese children
from attending public schools, and other discriminatory laws that made it very
difficult for Chinese to live and work in California, the Chinese Exclusion Act
reduced the Chinese American population by almost fifty percent by 1920.
But anti-Chinese legislation failed to totally remove
the Chinese from California. Some Chinese challenged the constitutionality of
these laws in the courts. Some protested in newspaper editorials and public
speeches. Merchants in China boycotted U.S. goods. And many found ways to
subvert the laws.
Fully aware of these fraudulent entries, the government
detained Chinese for interrogation at immigration stations at ports of entry.
The best known of these stations was on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. From
1910 to 1940 all Chinese and Chinese Americans entering the port of San
Francisco were subjected to interrogations and physical examinations.
|The most popular way to subvert exclusion laws was the
"paper son" system. Since the courts ruled that U.S. citizens were
exempt from exclusion, Chinese children born of U.S. citizens were allowed to
enter the country because of their derivative citizenship. Chinese Americans
going to China would report the birth of children (usually sons; rarely
daughters) and create slots for sale to those Chinese who did not have an
American connection. Assuming the identity of a Chinese American's son, such a
"paper son" was now eligible to enter the U.S.
|An 1881 anti-Chinese
illustration from The Wasp, an illustrated weekly magazine noted for
social and political satire. Used as strikebreakers against unions, the Chinese
were linked to the interests of monopolies and depicted as an enemy of the
working class. The fear of a Chinese takeover grew in the form of "cheap
labor," which eventually became "the Chinese Question." Image
and caption information from the Coming Man, courtesy of Philip P. Choy,
Lorraine Dong, and Marlon K. Hom.
Some of these U.S. citizens were confined for as long
as two years on the island. The expressions of injustice, frustration, and anger
carved on the walls of the station barracks by these people can still be seen
By the early 1900s, the second generation (the first
American-born generation) of Chinese Americans grew in number. American schools,
Christian churches, and such social organizations as the YMCA and the Boy Scouts
facilitated the second generation's "Americanization" process. At
home, immigrant parents encouraged the use of the Chinese language and tried to
maintain Chinese culture, but they lost influence to a more dominant external
Despite being born in America and despite adopting
Eurocentric culture, this second generation was still segregated and
marginalized. The same discriminatory laws passed against their parents applied
to them. Housing and employment were still not open to Chinese outside of some
Chinatowns. So like their parents, members of this second generation also formed
organizations to protect their interests and fight for their rights.
This situation only began to change in the 1930s. At
the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), first and second generation
alike engaged in anti-Japanese demonstrations and fundraisers called Rice Bowl
Parties to help China's war of resistance. Almost overnight, as the United
States also moved toward war with Japan, the Chinese were no longer considered
undesirable aliens, but instead, brave co-defenders of democracy.
After the U.S. entered World War II, many Chinese
Americans found jobs in war-related industries and at last found the opportunity
to put their education and training to use. An estimated twenty thousand Chinese
men and women served in the U.S. military during the war.
Further, economic and political factors related to the
World War II alliance between China and the United States, as well as a need to
diffuse Japan's anti-American propaganda efforts in Asia, played a crucial role
in bringing an end to exclusion. With the Repeal Act, sixty-one years of
exclusion came to a close on December 17, 1943.
|THE COLD WAR PERIOD
In some ways, the 1943 Repeal Act was only a token gesture
of political goodwill, since it limited Chinese immigration to only 105 persons
a year. But the act also granted naturalization to Chinese permanent residents
in the U.S. This provision, coupled with various amended War Bride Acts
and the GI Fiancées Act, enabled thousands of Chinese women to enter the
country as non-quota immigrants. Between 1946 and 1950 almost eight thousand
women arrived and as a result the bachelor society began its transformation into
a family society.
In addition, one by one, many of the discriminatory
laws passed against the Chinese were ruled unconstitutional by the California
supreme courts. But just as job opportunities were beginning to open up and
segregation and anti miscegenation laws were being struck down, China became
embroiled in a civil war the ended with the establishment of the People's
Republic of China in 1949. The United States, already deep in its Cold War with
communism, viewed a communist China with alarm, and once again, the Chinese were
seen as the Yellow Peril.
|Marlon K. Hom, Ph.D. is
professor and chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.
He has written extensively on Chinese American literature as well as on the
history of Chinese Americans. Him
Mark Lai is an independent scholar who has written widely on topics concerning
Chinese American history. He as served as a consultant on numerous television
documentaries and is currently an adjunct professor in Asian American Studies at
San Francisco State University.
|During this period of anticommunist hysteria, and with
the World War II internment of Japanese Americans fresh in their memories,
Chinese Americans grew increasingly apprehensive about their futures. Fearful of
being labeled communist spies, many Chinese Americans felt compelled to prove
their loyalty by actively supporting anticommunist activities and by
participating in as many "American" activities as possible. Often this
meant total assimilation into Eurocentric American culture and total denial of
their Chinese culture and heritage.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 marked a
turning point in America's immigration history when it abolished the national
origins quota system and set a more uniform system allowing no more than 20,000
per country. One of the act's main purposes was family reunification, which
further helped to end the bachelor society.
Because the U.S. recognized Taiwan's Republic of China
rather than the People's Republic of China, most of the Chinese who entered the
country under this new act came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Beginning in the
mid-1970s and accelerating during the 1980s, thousands of ethnic Chinese also
arrived as refugees from war torn Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In 1979, the U.S.
normalized its relations with the People's Republic of China, and Chinese once
again began to emigrate from the Chinese mainland.
This same period -- the turbulent, dynamic years of the
1960s and 1970s -- produced the ethnic consciousness, women's and civil rights
movements, as well as the anti-war movement. Organizations and groups ranging
from Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Chinese Historical Society of America,
and the first Asian American Studies Department to the National Asian American
Telecommunications Association and the Asian Law Caucus arose during this time.
But despite such organizational efforts and despite the
advances many Chinese have made in their fields, the legacy of California's
anti-Chinese past persists. Chinese are still discriminated against. And
they are still stereotyped -- this time as the "model minority,"
perfect, law-abiding people who have achieved the American dream by overcoming
As the "model minority" Chinese Americans are
sometimes seen as a new Yellow Peril -- overachieving superhumans who are taking
the best "slots" at work and at school, so that once again some say
there are "too many" Chinese in America (this in spite of 1990 U.S.
Census figures showing that only seven-tenths of one percent of the U.S.
population is of Chinese ethnicity).
|A DIFFERENT GENERATION
The postwar generation of Chinese immigrants is culturally
and educationally different from earlier generations of immigrants. Many arrive
with families, rather than coming alone; from cities rather than the
countryside; as political refugees, government officials, professionals,
business people, intellectuals or university students, rather than as laborers
recruited to help build the American West.
They arrive not just from Canton but from many regions
of China, as well as from such countries as Vietnam. Despite these differences
these new immigrants still strive toward the same American dream that moved and
inspired their predecessors.
In addition, recent immigrants and several generations of
interracial marriages have added diversity to the community that is known
collectively as Chinese America. So today Chinese America may no longer be a
homogeneous community, but it retains an important, shared presence in
|During these postwar years, Chinese Americans have
expanded and developed politically, economically, intellectually and culturally
throughout the state. San Francisco and Los Angeles have become major Chinese
American centers in the United States, and Chinese Americans have also increased
in numbers and prominence in smaller urban and suburban communities throughout
|From a December 1972 strike against a local restaurant in
San Francisco's Chinatown for unfair employment practices. Photo courtesy of
Phlip P. Choy.
Article: Ancient Chinese secret
|"Gum San: Land of the Golden mountain"
is a traveling exhibition produced and toured by
the High Desert Museum of Bend, Oregon. Presentations of this exhibition in
California were funded by the California Council for the Humanities (CCH) with
support from the Hearst Foundation and the Van Loben Sels Foundation. The
presentations, the accompanying public humanities programs, and this monograph
were developed by the California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA), a program
|Thomas W. Chinn, a an Francisco
businessman and founder of the Chinsese Historical Socirty of America, with
family photographs and naturalozation papers. Photo courtesy of David Weintraub
and the High Desert Museum.