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Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882


On November 8, 2007, Diana H. and Danielle D. made a report to their class about the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882. This documentary was done over a week of hard work and fun. The report was well appreciated by mentors and classmates alike.

Chinese American History is the history of Chinese Americans or the history of ethnic Chinese in the United States.  Chinese immigration to the U.S. consisted of three major waves, with the first beginning in the 19th century. Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this “yellow peril.” Despite the provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against the immigration of what they regarded as a degraded race and “cheap Chinese labor.” Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile was the opposition that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.   These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in the U.S. (that is, men who had left China without their wives and children); anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.

In 1924 the law barred further entries of Chinese; those already in the United States had been ineligible for citizenship since the previous year. Also by 1924, all Asian immigrants (except people from the Philippines, which had been annexed by the United States in 1898) were utterly excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization, and prevented from marrying Caucasians or owning land.

Only since the 1940s when the US and China became allies during World War II, did the situation for Chinese Americans begin to improve, as restrictions on entry into the country, naturalization and mixed marriage were being lessened. In 1943, Chinese immigration to the U.S. was once again permitted — by way of the Magnuson Act — thereby repealing 61 years of official racial discrimination against the Chinese. Large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until 1965 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965  lifted national origin quotas.   After World War II, anti-Asian prejudice began to decrease, and Chinese immigrants, along with other Asians (such as Japanese, Koreans, Indians and Vietnamese), have adapted and advanced. Currently, the Chinese constitute the largest ethnic group of Asian Americans (about 22%), and have confounded earlier expectations that they would form an indigestible mass in American society.   For example, many Chinese Americans of American birth may know little or nothing about traditional Chinese culture, just as European Americans and African Americans may know little or nothing about the original cultures of their ancestors.

As of the 2010 United States Census, there are more than 3.3 million Chinese in the United States — about 1% of the total population. The influx continues, where each year ethnic Chinese people from the People’s Republic of ChinaTaiwan and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia move to the US, surpassing Hispanic and Latino immigration by 2012.

Transpacific trade

Canton (Guangzhou) was the trade center of China in that period. Photo from 1895.

The Chinese reached North America during the time of the Spanish colonial rule over the Philippines (1565–1815), where they had established themselves as fishermen, sailors, and merchants on Spanish galleons that sailed between the Philippines and Mexican ports.  California belonged to Mexico until 1848, and historians have asserted that a low number of Chinese had already settled there by the mid-18th century. Also later, as part of expeditions in 1788 and 1789 by John Meares, a British fur trader, sailing to Vancouver Island from Canton (now Guangzhou), China hired several Chinese sailors and craftsmen to help build the first European-designed boat to be launched in British Columbia.

Shortly after the World War, the United States had already begun transpacific maritime trade with China, first with the commercial port of Canton (Guangzhou). There the Chinese became excited about opportunities and curious about America by their contact with American sailors and merchants. The main trade route between the U.S. and China then was between Canton and New England, where the first Chinese arrived via Cape Horn (as the Panama Canal did not exist then). These Chinese were mainly merchants, sailors, seamen, and students who wanted to see and acquaint themselves with a strange foreign land they had only heard about. However their presence was mostly temporary and only a few settled there permanently. American missionaries in China also sent small numbers of Chinese boys to the United States for schooling. From 1818 to 1825, five students stayed at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. In 1854 Yung Wing became the first Chinese graduate from an American college, Yale University.

First wave (19th century to 1949): the beginning of the Chinese immigration

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. April 29, 1876

The 19th Sino-U.S. maritime trade began the history of Chinese Americans. At first only a handful of Chinese came, mainly as merchants, former sailors, to America. The first Chinese arrived in the United States around 1820. Subsequent immigrants that came from the 1820s up to the late 1840s were mainly men. By 1848, there were 325 Chinese Americans. There were 323 more immigrants in 1849, 450 in 1850 and 20,000 in 1852 (2,000 in 1 day).   By 1852, there were 25,000; over 300,000 by 1880: a tenth of the Californian population – mostly from six districts of Canton (Guangdong) province (Bill Bryson, p. 143) – who wanted to make their fortune in the 1849-era California Gold Rush. The Chinese did not, however, only come for the gold rush in California, but also helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad, worked the southern plantations after theCivil War, and participated in setting up California’s agriculture and fisheries.   They were also fleeing the Taiping Rebellion that affected their region. From the outset, they were faced with the racism of settled European population, which since the 1870s culminated in massacres and forced relocations of Chinese migrants into what became known as Chinatowns.   Also with regard to the legal situation, the Chinese were by far more badly posed in the US than most other ethnic minorities. They had to pay special taxes (all foreign miners had to pay a tax of $20 a month), were not allowed to marry white European partners and could not acquire U.S. citizenship.

Departure from China

At the tomb of some 400 Chinese laborers who died in 1852 during a rebellion aboard a ship that was carrying them to California. IshigakiRyukyu Islands, Japan

Decrees by the Qing dynasty issued in 1712 and 1724, forbade emigration and overseas trade and were primarily intended to prevent remnant supporters of the Ming Dynasty from establishing bases overseas. However, these decrees were widely ignored. Large scale immigration of Chinese laborers began after the Opium Wars. The Burlingame Treaty with the United States in 1868 effectively lifted any restrictions on immigration and began large-scale immigration to the United States.   To try to avoid the troubles of leaving, most of the Chinese gold-seekers embarked on their transpacific voyage from the British colony of Hong Kong. More seldom, they left from the Portuguese colony of Macau, which was a large transhipment center for bonded laborers (called coolies‘ as their contracts specified conditions of servitudeslavery or peonage). Only merchants were able to take their wives and children overseas. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants were peasants, farmers and craftsmen. Young men, who were usually married, left their wives and children behind since they at first had the intention of only staying in America temporarily. Wives also had another major reason for staying behind as they had a traditional role in looking after her parents-in-law. Men sent a large part of the money they earned in America back to China. Because it was usual at that time in China to live in confined social nets of families, unions, and guilds, sometimes whole village communities and even regions (for instance, Taishan) sent nearly all or every of their young men to California. From the beginning of the California gold rush to 1882 – when an American federal law ended the Chinese influx – approximately 300,000 Chinese had arrived in the United States. Because the chances to earn more money were by far better in America than in China, these migrants often remained considerably longer than they had at first planned, in spite of the increased xenophobia and hostility that was being directed against them.

Arrival in the United States

Until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 Chinese living abroad were forced to wear a queue, as an expression of their loyalty to the Manchu Qing emperor. Photo in San Francisco Chinatown from 1910.

The Chinese immigrants booked their passages on ships with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (founded 1848) and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company (founded 1874). The money needed to fund their journey was mostly borrowed from relatives, district associations or from commercial lenders. Also, American employers of Chinese laborers also sent hiring agencies to China to pay for the Pacific voyage of those who were unable to borrow money. This “credit-ticket system” meant that the money advanced by the agencies to cover the cost of the passage was to be paid back by wages earned by the laborers later during their time in the U.S. The credit-ticket system had long been used by indentured migrants from South China who left to work in what Chinese called Nanyang(South Seas), the region to the south of China that included the Philippines, the former Dutch East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo, Thailand, Indochina, and Burma. The Chinese who left for Australia also used the credit-ticket system.

The entry of the Chinese into the U.S. was, to begin with, legal and uncomplicated and even had a formal judicial basis in 1868 with the signing of the Burlingame Treaty between the United States and China. But there were differences compared with the policy for European immigrants, in that if the Chinese migrants had children that were born in the USA, those children would automatically acquire American citizenship, but the immigrants themselves would remain as foreigners indefinitely. Unlike that with European immigrants the possibility of naturalization was withheld from them.

Although the newcomers arrived in America after an already established small community of their compatriots, they experienced many culture shocks in what to them was a strange country. The Chinese immigrants neither spoke and understood English nor were familiar with western culture and life; they often came from the rural lands in China and therefore had difficulty in adjusting to and finding their way around big towns like San Francisco. The racism they experienced from the European Americans from the outset of their arrival increased continuously to the turn of the 20th century, and prevented with lasting effect their assimilation into mainstream American society. This in turn led to the creation, cohesion, and cooperation of many Chinese benevolent associations and societies whose existence in the U.S. remained far into the 20th century as a necessity both for support and survival for the Chinese in America. There were also many other reasons that laid within the Chinese themselves that had obstructed and hindered their assimilation, notably their appearance. Under the rule of the Qing DynastyHan Chinese men were forced under the threat of beheading to follow the Manchu custom of dressing including shaving the front of their heads and combing the remaining hair into a queue. Historically, to the Manchus, the policy was both an act of submission and, in practical terms, an identification aid of friend from foe. Because Chinese immigrants returned as often as they could to China to see their family, they could not when in America cut off their often hated braids and then legally enter China again.

Portrait of a married Chinese-American woman in the 1870’s.

The first Chinese immigrants usually remained faithful to traditional Chinese beliefs, which were either Confucianismancestral worshipBuddhism or Daoism, while some others adhered to any of the various ecclesiastical religious doctrines. The number of the Chinese migrants who converted to Christianity remained at first low. They were mainly Protestants who had already been converted in China where foreign Christian missionaries (who had first come en masse in the 19th century) had strived for centuries to wholly Christianize the nation with relatively minor success. Christian missionaries had also worked in the Chinese communities and settlements in America, but nevertheless their religious message found few who were receptive. It was estimated that during the first wave until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, less than 20 percent of Chinese immigrants had accepted Christian teachings. Their difficulty in being integrated was also exemplified by the end of the first wave in the mid-20th century when only a minority of Chinese living in the U.S. could speak English.

Of the first wave of Chinese who came to America, few were women. In 1850, the Chinese community of San Francisco consisted of 4018 men and only 7 women. In 1855, women made up only two percent of the Chinese population in the U.S., and even in 1890 it had increased to only 4.8 percent. The lack of visibility of Chinese women in the general public was due partially to factors such as the cost of making the voyage when there was a lack of work opportunities for Chinese women in America, harsh working conditions and having the traditional female responsibility of looking after the children and extended family back in China. The only women who did go to America were usually the wives of merchants. Other factors were cultural in nature, such as having bound feet and not leaving the home. Another important consideration was that most Chinese men were worried that by bringing their wives and raising families in America they too would have been subjected to the same racial violence and discrimination they themselves had faced. With the heavily uneven gender ratio, prostitution grew rapidly and the Chinese sex trade and trafficking became a lucrative business. From the documents of the 1870 U.S. Census, 61 percent of 3536 Chinese women in California had been classified as prostitutes as an occupation. The existence of Chinese prostitution was detected early, after which the police, legislature and popular press singled out Chinese prostitutes for criticism and were seen as further evidence of the depravity of the Chinese and the repression of their women by their patriarchal cultural values.

Laws passed by the California state legislature in 1866 that sought to curb the brothels and missionary activity by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches helped reduce the number of Chinese prostitutes and in the 1880 U.S. Census documents only 24 percent of 3171 Chinese women in California were classified as prostitutes. Many of these women married Chinese Christians and formed some of the earliest Chinese-American families in mainland America. Nevertheless, American legislation used the prostitution issue to make the immigration of Chinese women far more difficult. On March 3, 1875, in Washington, D.C., the United States Congress enacted the Page Act that forbade all Chinese women who were considered “obnoxious” by representatives of U.S. consulates at their origins of departure. In effect, this led to American officials erroneously classifying many women as prostitutes, which greatly reduced the opportunities for all Chinese women to enter the United States.   After the Emancipation Proclamation, many Chinese Americans immigrated to the Southern states, particularly Arkansas, to work on plantations. The tenth US Census of Louisiana alone counted 57% of interracial marriages between these Chinese Americans to be with African Americans and 43% to be with European American women.
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