Immigrants to America are often thought of as Europeans, but the Chinese played a mojor role in California. The Chinese story in American began with the California Gold Rush (1848-50). Their most famed contribution was helping to build the trans-coninental railroad. Some historians say the railroad could not have been built at the time without the Chinese. Most of the Chinese which came to America returned to China. There goal was not assimilation, but to earn money to support a decent life back in China. Virtually all immigrants faced difficulties adjusting to America, but racial prejudice made the Chinese experience in America especially difficult. That said, the Chinese peasantry was exploited under the the Impertial system and there were opporunities in nAmerica that did not exist in China. The hostility of Americans of European stock was a factor causing Chinese to return. States passed laws limiting both employment and land ownership. Even so, substantial numbers of Chinese immigrated entered the United States beginning with the California gold rush (1849) until Congress acted to ban Chinese from entering (1882). Most Chinese at forst lived in California, but Chinese coomunities soon appered in major cities throughout the United States. Gradually the Chinese were able to achieve the protection of U.S. law. This involved both the 14th amendment nd Supreme Court decesions.
Immigrants to America are often thought of as Europeans, but the Chinese played a major role in California. The Chinese story in American began with the California Gold Rush (1848-50).
Most of the early immigrants young male peasants who were attracted by fantastic stories of wealth to be had. Liked the others who flocked to Californis, they dreamed of stiking it rich.
Many wanted to get rich, send money home, and eventually return to China wealthy men. This of course never occurred. Many were driven out of the gold fields, The state eventually passed a tax on non American miners, an action aimed largely at Mexicans and Chinese. Some Chinese mined played out fields. Most found low-paid jobs in which most Americans showed little interest.
The Chinese most famed contribution was helping to build the trans-coninental railroad. Some historians say the railroad could not have been built at the time without the Chinese. About 15,000 Chinese were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad wchich built east from Sacramento. The railway played a najor role in developing the american West, including California.
Most of the Chinese which came to America returned to China. There goal was not assimilation, but to earn money to support a decent life back in China.
States and municipalities passed laws limiting both employment and land ownership. There was both racial and economic factors involved. The press began speaking of the "Yellow Peril". The first Federal action was the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). This was the first Federal law specifically excluding a racial/nation group. The law read, "in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of the Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities with the territory thereof ..." The law prohibited Chinese without family already in the United States from entering the country. This substantially reduced Chinese immigration at a time when there were no numerical quotas on immigration. There was also exceptions for diplomats, merchants, and students. The Law did not just prohibit Chinese immigration, it prohibited Chinese immigrants already in America from applying for naturalization. The Federal Government opened the Angel Island Inspection Station in San Francisco (1910). Chinese immigrants were interrogated there. The agents had a great deal of trouble determining if claims of family ties were true.
About 175,000 Chinese were processed at Angel Island. The Angel Island facility was destroyed in a fire (1940). Congress appealed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1943). China at the time was a World War II ally. Congress passed the Walter-McCarren Act which prmitted first-generation Americans to apply for citizenship (1952). The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1964 removed the last barriers to Chinese immigration.
Even so, substantial numbers of Chinese immigrated entered the United States beginning with the California gold rush (1849) until Congress acted to ban Chinese from entering (1882).
Most Chinese at forst lived in California, but Chinese coomunities soon appered in major cities throughout the United States. The Chinese did not assimilate like many European immigrants. Here a factor may have been Chinese attitudes, I am not entirely sure about this. Certianly American racial attitudes were a factor. Chinatowns developed in most large American cities. There were occassional violent attacks on Chinese.
The 14th Amendment was designed to ensure the civil rights of black Americans. The Condedeate states had to approve the 13, 14th, and 15th amendments to gain readmission to the Union. The 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) was accepted, but the 14th amendment (ensuring equal protection and tus civil rights) and the 15th Amendment were evaded in a variety of ways. In fact it was U.S. corporations that benefits friom the 14th Amendment and not blacks. Blacks would eventually gain the benefits the 14 Amemdment offered, but it would take 100 years. It was the Chinese to be the first racial group to benefit from the 14th Amendment. The Califirnia state constitution was one of the most racist in America. As a result of the state Constitution and a range of state and muncicipal laws, Chinese immigrants faced awide range of discriminatory legal barriers to both employment and land holding. Many Chinese became small propritors such as restrateurs and merchants. One area allowed to them was running laundries. Nearly 90 percent of the laundries in San Franciso were Chinese by the 1880s. Competitors wanted to do away with the Chinese laundries. The San Francisco municipal government approved a city ordinance that individuals could not operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit issued by the Board of Supervisors. There was no mention of race in the ordinance. San Francisco was a city of wooden buildings. About 95 percent of San Francisco's 320 laundries were in wooden buildings. And something like two-thirds of the city's
laundries had Chinese owners. When the owners applied for permits, only one was issued to a Chinese owner. Almost all the non-Chinese owners got their permits. One of the owners Yick Wo (Lee Yick) continued to operate his laundry from a wooden building. He was found guilty of violating the new ordinance and fined $10.00. He refused to pay and was jailed. Yick appealed his convictionand it eventually reached the Supreme Court. Lawyers for the state of California insisted that the ordinance was purely a safety measure because of the hot stoves and boiling water posing a danger of fire. Yick's lawyers argued that until the ordinamce in question that the laundries had been inspected by the fire wardens and that the petioner's laundry passed every inspection. They also pointed out that the law was being enforced on isolated buildings that posed no real danger. And the law ignored wooden buildings like restaurants that posed the same kind of dangers posed by laudries.
The Court made two important points in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Matthews. First
the Court ruled in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) that the intent of the law was clearly discriminatory even if the ordinance was overly neutral. Second the court ruled that the the 14th Amendment applied to all U,S, residents, citizens as well as non-citizens. Third, the Court set the pecedent that laws while facially neutral if in practice were discriminatory, were unconstituional.
Thus the Chinese laundry owners, citizens or not, were entitle to equal protection unfer the 14th Amendment. The Court found that the Ordinance was a blatant attempt to exclude the Chinese from the City's laundry trade. The Court thus struck down the Ordinance and dismissed the charges against Lee Yick and other Chinese laundry operators who had been procecuted. This was a rare decession by the Court. The Court in fact went on a very different tact. The Court established the "Separate but Equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which was the legal foundation for Jim Crow laws. This decesion ignored the Yick Wo prcendent because Separatebut Equal Jim Crow laws were facially neutral. Thus the Yick Wo precedent was largely ignored for decades.
The Warren Court revived the Yick Wo precedent in the 1950s to strike down driminatory lawa in southern states. Yick Wo has since been cited in over 150 different Supreme Court cases.
Curiously while many Americans hated the Chinese, other Americans too it as their mission to save the souls of the Chinese. Christian missionaries have a long history in China dating back to the 6th century AD. A wave of Protestant missionaries entered China after the Opium Wars in which the British demanded access to the interior of China. Historians debate the impact of these missionaries, but one impact was to help generate considerable sympathy in America when the Japanese invaded China (1937).
America entered World War II as a result of its oposition to Japan's invasion of China. The Japanese attacked Peal Harbor because American would not accept its domination of China and the Pacific. America entered the War as a still racist country with a segregated armed forces. The War and both NAZI and Japanese racism demonstrated the evils of racist dictrines in the starkest terms. America was profoundy changed, although it would take some time for the Civil Rights movement to come to fruition. More quickly there were changes for Asian Americans, both Chinese and Japanese. Admissiion to universities and acceptance throughout the work place was widely achieved after the War. Asian Americans becames scientists, doctors, and other professions. Some entered politics.
Chinese also began to assimilate to an extent that had not been the case before the WAr.
These Chinese bnoys were photographed in New York City's Chinaztown in 1909 during the New Year's celebration (figure 1). We have also archived an unidentified Chinese family in New York City during 1925.
Ashabranner, Brent. Still A Nation of Immigrants (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993).
Bailey, Thomas A. and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant (Massachusetts: D.C. Health and Company, 1994).
Chu, Daniel. Passage to the Golden Gate (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1967).
Hoobler, Dorothy. The Chinese American Family Album (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Lee, Calvin. Chinatown U.S.A. (New York: Doubleday &Company, 1965).
Takaki, Ronald. Journey to the Gold Mountain (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989).
Wu, Dana Ying-Hui. Coming to America (Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 1993).
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