Chinese Immigration

Chinese Immigration

Taylor Shaver, December 2014

Throughout American history, the feelings towards Chinese immigrants have changed dramatically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 secured the basic human rights for all Americans, including the Chinese. Over time, this led to a change in what it means to be an American citizen. This is important to the history of American citizenship because it shows where we came from and why our country is the way it is today.

Chinese immigration was greatly influenced by the Gold Rush in California. [1] In the 1850s, business owners began inviting Chinese laborers to America to work in the gold mines and on the Transcontinental Railroad. [2] Most of the laborers coming to America were single white men traveling without families and settled into small communities in the San Francisco area. [3] Within these communities, they started businesses to accommodate both Chinese and American customers. Due to these businesses and their hard work in the workforce, the Chinese greatly helped American society. They worked very hard in low paying jobs and helped to build up the economy. Americans welcomed Chinese laborers into the country, however, soon after their arrival, this began to change. As the number of Chinese immigrants increased, there were fewer jobs left for American workers. Americans began competing for jobs with the immigrants, which forced them to find other means of support. This led to the beginning of discrimination of Chinese immigrants and in 1850, the foreign Miner’s Tax Law was passed in California. This law charged additional tax for foreign miners in order to give the upper hand to Americans. Chinese laborers could not afford to pay the extra tax and instead worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad. During the 1860s, the Civil War was raging through the country. [4] At the end of the Civil War, a major economic depression affected the United States. Chinese immigrants were blamed for this depression and discrimination drastically increased. Racism and fear also began spreading throughout the country.

Racism, mainly in the form of discrimination, was extremely apparent throughout the country, especially in the West Coast. Racist beliefs and acts were shown mainly through testimony in a report of an investigation done by a Joint Special Committee in 1877. [5] This committee was made of up members of the Senate and Congress and was appointed to explore the extent and effect of Chinese immigration in America. The committee interviewed 130 witnesses in California, including American laborers, merchants, doctors, law enforcement, and many more. The interviews were to determine whether Americans opposed or agreed with Chinese immigration. [6] At the end of the investigation, the committee itself felt the resources of California and the West Coast in general had been developed more rapidly with the help of Chinese laborers than it would have without them. However, many Americans did not agree with them. [7] The overall feeling was that the Chinese may have performed cheap and quick labor but they caused society more harm than good. It was thought their vices were corrupting the city, especially the young residents. They lived in crowded, filthy houses with very little food and seemed to have no concern for health or fire hazards. They also brought women into the country and sold them into prostitution. These women were treated horrible and were not welcomed into American society. Along with these vices, the Chinese had total disrespect for the government and laws of the United States. They created their own quasi government, independent of the laws of the country. [8] In this form of government, punishment was authorized to anyone who offended Chinese customs, including the taking of lives. There were hostilities between Chinamen who were from different parts of China and if these men somehow came together while working in California, deadly feuds and riots broke out. California’s prisons and jails held a large number of Chinese men for disturbing the peace during these feuds and riots. [9] The streets were also littered with the dead bodies of men and prostitutes.

The opposition toward Chinese immigrants became stronger and stronger as time went on. All Chinese were considered “Mongolian” during this time period and resisted any assimilation with Americans. They kept their own culture, such as food, dress, language, and way of life and had no interest in adopting any American culture. [10] According to the testimony, they had no desire for change and did not understand the idea of representative free institutions, which the American race favored. Americans felt the Pacific Coast should reflect the other states in the union and not different parts of China. However, the presence of the Chinese discouraged white immigration to Pacific states and the Chinese population continued to grow. The population grew not from births since it was mainly single men, but by importation. As more and more Chinese were being imported to the United States, the uneducated class also began to grow. With a large uneducated population, Americans did not want the Chinese voting. They were concerned about their lack of education and knowledge of American government and culture. Americans were also concerned that Chinese employers could easily influence the vote of their workers. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to discriminate specifically against the Chinese.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States for ten years unless they could prove they had family established in the country. The act also prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. The act resulted in many changes for the United States and Americans thought employment would no longer be a problem. [11] Chinese immigration decreased from about 40,000 per year to less than 100 legally per year under the quota system. Immigrants were not allowed to re-enter the country after leaving to visit China and their ability to bring in spouses was restricted. After the Exclusion Act was passed, Angel Island was turned into a detention center, where immigrants were detained and questioned. Here, they were treated horribly and kept in unsanitary conditions. While most immigrants were detained at Angel Island, discrimination was still widespread. [12] In 1885, well-known minstrel leader W.S. Mullally and John E. Donnelly wrote a song called, “The Chinese, The Chinese, You Know.” [13] The song goes as follows:

“I’ll sing of a subject, but your ears you must lend,
And listen to what I’ve to say.
We’ll have to do something with this curse in our land,
For our business has gone to decay.
The merchants are idle, their goods on their hands,
And the cause of this terrible woe
I’ll tell you my friends, and you’ll say I am right
It’s the Chinese, the Chinese, you know.
Let labor and capital go hand in hand
And crush out this terrible foe
For a crying disgrace is this abominable race,
The Chinese, the Chinese, you know.”

This song ended up becoming extremely popular among Americans and was nationally distributed by the National Music Company of Chicago. It shows how strongly Americans felt about this issue and their support of the Chinese Exclusion Act. There was so much support for the Exclusion Act that it was renewed in 1892 and renamed the Geary Act. [14] This act included all old parts of the Exclusion Act but also prohibited the right of Chinese immigrants to post bail or to act as a witness in court. Much more discrimination followed and it was not until after World War II that all anti-Chinese legislation was repealed. [15] In 1943, the Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1965 allowed equal entry into the United States to all immigrants.

Along with racist beliefs and discriminatory acts, Chinese immigrants were the victims of a lot of violence. [16] The Chinese worked for wages that were so low, they were considered “starvation prices for white men and women.” Most Chinese immigrants were single males who came without families and split the rent money with many people. They also only had to worry about feeding themselves, which is why they were able to work for such low wages. This gave them the advantage over Americans who could not even cover the barest necessities on such wages. Employers soon favored them for their cheap work and realized they could make more money by employing Chinese workers than white workers who made adequate wages. When native-born white people could not get jobs, they turned to violence. [17] Most of the violence was led by white mobs, which led to Chinese deaths throughout the country. Chinese also suffered violence while detained at Angel Island. Chinese immigrants were very upset at the discrimination and violence they were enduring in America. They came to the United States for a better life and to make some money for their families back home. Instead, they were treated like worthless animals. In 1905, the Chinese decided it was time for a change. [18] Chinese citizens in China began boycotting U.S. goods and by 1924, organizations such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce gained strength. This organization released many public statements and brought the treatment of the Chinese to attention. These actions helped to repeal anti-Chinese legislation as mentioned previously.

Over the course of history, the feelings and treatment towards Chinese immigrants has greatly differed. In the beginning, the Chinese were highly favored and welcomed into the country. However, they were soon the target of discrimination and violence. The anti-Chinese was lifted after World War II and negative feelings and beliefs began to decrease. With the help of the Chinese and many different racial groups, the meaning of American citizen was revised. Strictly native-born white males could be considered an American citizen in our beginning but it has changed many times. Today, there are many different meanings and is extremely broad. An American citizen could range from any person born in the U.S., any person born to American parents, any naturalized person, and so on. [19] According to the 2011 Census, California has one of the largest Chinese populations, with about 5.8 million Chinese residents. America is such a diverse country today and it would not be this way without the struggles endured throughout history. We learn from our mistakes and our laws and immigration process would not be as successful as they are without the changes that have been made.


[1] Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources, “Angel Island.”

[2] Terrorism: Essential Primary Sources, “The Chinese, The Chinese, You Know.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources , “Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.”

[5] Report of the Joint Special Committee 1877, 9.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 11.

[11] Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources, “Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.”

[12] Terrorism: Essential Primary Sources, “The Chinese, The Chinese, You Know.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources , “Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Report of the Joint Special Committee 1877, 10.

[17] Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources, “Highlights on the Chinese Exclusion and Expulsion.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Asian American Population.”

Further Reading

The Asian American Experience,” 1999. U.S History in Context (Gale Reference Libraries; subscription or login may be required).

Worcester State University Fall 2022