History 2020

            The Chinese American Experience

America is a land of opportunities and prosperity, it welcome new immigrants with open arms and embraces them as citizens. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” writes the poet Emma Lazarus but yet these sentiments weren’t expressed to the Chinese immigrants. The Chinese American experience was very much different from their European counter part, they were the most marginalized and most discriminated against. They became victims of government sanctioned bigotry and injustice. For the first time in American history, they became the only nationality to be excluded from the country.

The Chinese first came to America around 1800’s, when Chinese sailor had visited the port of New York City. The migration of Chinese immigrant didn’t occur till the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The news of gold spread quickly when Chinese miner return home with their new found wealth. The returning miners were able to buy land, built houses, and live a more luxurious life with their family. The promise of “Gold Mountain” which the Chinese called America prompted the great migration.

During the same time, China was going through a civil war within its country. The Taiping rebellion had broken out in 1850; revolutions made life harder on peasants and farmers a like. The discontent arises from scholars and merchants each disgruntle with the Qing Dynasty. The conflict and suppression claim 20 million lives. To make matter worst the Qing Dynasty lost in the Opium war, force higher taxes on its subjects to pay for war reparation.  Subsequently the opening of Chinas market allowed American merchants to spread news about the gold rush in California. This news made the Chinese look abroad for economic opportunities. (Olsen 85)

The Chinese were first welcome to the America, and they were appreciated for their hard working and artisan skill. The Chinese shared the same protestant work ethic like other American, believing in working hard and achieving wealth, made them very welcome to California. The early immigrants were artisans, merchants, businessman and diplomats to the United States, They tended to settle along the west coast of the United States and settle within their ethnic enclaves called “Chinatown”.

The news of gold in California brought many unskilled Chinese immigrants to the states. Many of these immigrants were welcome by the six companies that made up the Chinese mutual aid society. This society helped with finding jobs, healthcare (eastern medicine) , housing and education for the new arrival. The Benevolent society created a middle man for relations between the Chinese immigrants and America.  They provided a social welfare system for many of these immigrants at a time when such a thing didn’t exist in America.

The discrimination and prejudice against Chinese Immigrant became apparent when gold became scarcer. Most of the Anger came from White southerner who harbor racial prejudices against anyone who’s was not white.  The fear for whites was competition for jobs, and mining claims. For White Americans, they viewed these new unskilled Chinese as a threat to the American living standard and under cutting wages. They stereotyped Chinese sojourner as living packed in a tiny room and willing to work for less wages that no American could live on. Worst yet Americans couldn’t understand when these sojourner would leave. The population of the Chinese increased from 25 thousands in 1855 to over 100 thousand by 1880. (Olsen 87)

The growing anti-Chinese sentiment became more inflammatory when American missionaries in China stereotyped the Chinese as immoral, dishonest, cunning  ,cruel and superstitious .Americans were also viewed these new immigrants as coolies, the term is like indentured or slave like labor. The British had captured, kidnapped or trick Chinese peasants into servitude sending them to Australia, Indies, Peru and Cuba work on British plantations. The coolie trade is comparable to Africa slave trade, making Chinese immigrants look inferior to Whites.

By 1852 Anti-Chinese fear hit a new high, a new legislation and taxes were solely targeted against them. The first tax against them was the foreign miner’s tax, charging the Chinese miner 2 dollars for the first year and 2 dollars each cumulative year following without a maximum. With this tax, the state of California received a quarter of its revenues from the Chinese miners for the year and between 1852 and 1870 collected 58 million dollars.

The new tax and claim jumping from whites, basically force many Chinese miners off their mines. The recourse to the law was often ignored due to prejudice and injustice legal system. Some Chinese fought back to take back their mines, while other banded together and worked on exhausted mines abandon by whites. Their hard work and perseverance often paid off, extracting what small amount of gold was left. Amazingly mining companies hired these former Chinese miners to build water pipes to support the mining equipment, since whites didn’t want the job.

In 1855 California passed a law taxing non-citizens alien a 50 dollar fee for working, knowing full well the only non-citizen are those who are barred from citizenship under the 1790 naturalization act prohibiting nonwhites and people of less moral. Because Chinese were ruled as non-whites, and then later whites but not Caucasian, they were singled out. The Act was challenge in court and ruled unconstitutional in 1856 violating the U.S. Constitutional commerce clause.(pamphlet)

Another law specifically aimed at the Chinese was passed in 1873 in San Francisco prohibiting inmates from having long hair, stating all inmates must have short hair. This law seems not a big problem unless you were in prison but police corruption and anti-Chinese movement led a lot of falsely arrested Chinese immigrants on trump up charges. The cutting of their queue was not just losing one’s hair, but one’s own identity. For the Chinese, the queue represented manhood and loyalty to the Kingdom. The Manchu who conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty, order that all Chinese men must have a queue as a sign of loyalty and submission to their Manchu ruler. This law was later ruled unconstitutional when a Chinese inmate challenged it in court. In 1875 another legislation to cut off queue of arrested Chinese was vetoed by Mayor.(pamphlet)

In 1879 the city of San Francisco had passed a law banning the hiring of Chinese to corporations and municipal and authorizes cities to remove Chinese resident from within the cities to specific outlying areas. This act was struck down and ruled unconstitutional by violating the 14th amendment in 1880.

The most notorious law ever passed in American history was in 1882, fueled by anti-Chinese rhetoric, pressure from union labor and political parties playing on nativist fears, the United States passed the Chinese exclusion Act. For the first time in American History, the open door policy was closed to a specific nationality. At first the law only banned labor Chinese but by 1888, this included all Chinese from entering the United States.

The Chinese sojourner had to make a decision about staying or going in America, no longer could they move back and forth between the two countries. They had to decide for themselves where there home is. One Chinese poem writes about sojourner life:

Pitiful is the twenty-year sojourner,

Unable to make it home.

Having been everywhere – north, south, east,

west –

Always obstacles along the way, pain knitting

my brows.

Worried, in silence.

Ashamed, wishes unfulfilled.

A reflection on the mirror, a sudden fright:

hair, half frost-white.

Frequent letters home, all filled with much


Back in China, the wives of the gold mountain miner waits like a widow for their husband return, not knowing when. The Chinese tradition has often been for the wife to stay home and take care of the family, and take care of their old parents. The money they received from their sojourner husband might improve their lives, but the distant apart and not knowing when you see your love one is like a curse.  As one Chinese women poem writes.

Since you left for North America,

You haven’t thought of me for twenty long years.

You’ve banished me to solitude and to my knitted


It’s wrong for lovers to be separated in two places.

O, you are bad!

You don’t feel a thing for your poor wife.

You care only for your fun and games outside.

And I must live with the fate of separation for the

rest of my life!

The 1882 exclusion act a major impact on the Chinese immigrants, the population of the bachelor society dwindle down. According to the U.S. Census bureau the Chinese population was 100,686 males and 4,779 females by the 1940s the number was 57,389 males and 20,115. The Chinese got around this through the “paper son” method. In 1906 a huge earthquake had hit the city of San Francisco nearly destroying the city, in the process the warehouse holding birth certificate document was caught on fire, destroying all records. The Chinese immigrants came forward to claim natural born citizenship status allowing them to travel freely. While other Chinese immigrant bought shares in company to gain merchant status, allowing them to enter and go as they feel.(EV.com)

The assimilation of Chinese to American culture was extremely hard , the Chinese were often look down at by whites as inferior.  Intermarriage was banned in many states, anti-miscegenation was the law of the land. Marrying between a citizen and a Chinese would result in loss of citizenship. For the Chinese bachelor marrying a non-citizen such as blacks or polish was an alternative. Having a family was the biggest success in a man’s life, to become a bachelor the rest of your wife was equal to failure in life.

Jobs and employments were often few and far in-between as whites jealousy for jobs often threaten gave death threats to Chinese workers, or threaten to arson the businesses that hired them. The Chinese gathered in groups to protect themselves, while other never really unpacked their belonging knowing at any time a mob of whites will drive them out of town. This extreme discrimination and prejudice drove the Chinese to menial labor jobs that whites won’t do.

This discrimination and banned on Chinese immigrant would change in 1942 when America enters the war against Japan. The animosity and hatred towards the Chinese had shifted to the Japanese. The banned on Chinese immigration was lifted when China became an ally of America in World War 2. Though the quota system was extremely low allowing only 105 Chinese immigrants, instead of the 2% of the U.S. census, this was a welcome change in immigration policy for the Chinese American.  (Olsen 91)

The new hatred for Japanese often became violent and targeted anyone of Asiatic appearance, prompting Chinese American to wear signs so not to be the fury of angry whites.

“If the war didn’t come I don’t think we would have that opportunity. “Says tommy Wong, navy seaman,” The war made a world of a difference to everyone. Not only to us, but mostly to us Chinese people. It was a lot of help.” Describing the opportunity to be a machinist for Navy.( pbs.org)

During the war 13,499 Chinese were drafted into the military forces. This number represented 22 % of all the Chinese men in America at the time.  The Chinese bachelor society became the first to be drafted because of no dependents status. The  Chinese bravely fought in European and pacific theater for America. (museumca.org)

Education was at first denied to the Chinese, they were given the separate but equal system of Jim Crow law.They were separate but there wasn’t any equal, no schools were actually built for them in San Francisco . The Chinese were also discriminate in this separate school when blacks refused to go to the same School as the Chinese, who they viewed to be inferior. The parochial school served as an education institute for many students until opening of missionaries school in China Town. The opening of the missionaries school, the next generation of American born Chinese were able to be Americanize and slowly assimilate.

The ABC, or American Born Chinese as they were known became to identify themselves as American, taking values, personality traits and behaviors more similar with Westernize counterpart. Some converted to Christianity and adopting American names. This generation look at China as a foreign land, alien to them. They didn’t share the loyalty to China as the first wave. This new generation of Chinese have lost the ability to speak Chinese all together.  They view China town not as a safe community or ethnic enclave but a tourist attraction. (EV.com)

One Chinese American writes about his generation divide between himself and his grandmother about Chinatown:

Apart from that kind of social discomfort there was the other kind of larger knowledge that we were coming to this neighborhood as tourists and my grandmother was coming to this neighborhood as somebody who lived there. After a little while, we parted ways and my grandmother went home and we got in our car and drove back up to Poughkeepsie.(Pbs.org)

For the new Chinese American generation, the cultural identity of Chinatown did not register for them, they viewed themselves as American. Chinatown became only a place of tourist, or visiting the older generation who still resides there.

The ABC also lost their own self-identity, the Chinese identity didn’t resonate with them, and they view themselves as white. “I had a really hard time with my identity. I think I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be American.” Expressed Maya Lin” If you think about it I was the only Chinese American growing up so I looked out at everyone and everyone is white. So, what would make me more uncomfortable was hanging out with a group of Chinese Americans.” For this generation alienation was their own culture.(Pbs.org)

Even with their Americanization, the Chinese were discriminated against . They were kept out of the mainstream, and turn down for jobs they were qualified for. American Discrimination continued to play a key factor in keeping them moving upwards in society. The 1960 became the civil rights moment that open up many doors for not African American but also Chinese. The promise of the Great society to end poverty and racial injustice allowed more opportunities for Chinese American integration.

Once considered inferior, evil, cunning and fugal, the Chinese were given the perfect minority model by whites. This used of the positive stereotype made it seem as if the Chinese were never disenfranchised or discriminated against. The stereotyped also says to other minorities group why you can’t be like the Chinese, quiet, humble and accept your place.  While other stereotype such as academic savvy and over achiever status created barriers for Chinese student, denying them admission to selective colleges. The SAT would handicap an Asian student by -50 points. The Chinese American success was treated in the same way that Jewish American had been treated earlier in America.

The Chinese contributed greatly to America frontiers and agricultures. During 1860s, 1 out of 5 Chinese worked on building the transcontinental railroad. The work ethic and dependability of the Chinese help carve the mountains of the sierra and finally connect the railroads in Utah. About 11,000 Chinese were employed by the railroad company to help finish this incredible feat of human engineering.  After the railroad the Chinese labor would be put to good used building the levee system throughout California. The Chinese protestant work ethic and cheap labor supplied the necessary building block for America, much as the second wave of immigrants had for the industrial revolution.

Furthermore Chinese cuisine has become as much a part of American diet as the hamburger or the hot dog. The Chinese immigrant brought along the delicious dishes of their homeland. Each Chinese dishes is distinct depending on the region of their origin. This introduction happen in 1849 with the opening of first Chinese restaurant Macao and Woosung by Norman Asing. This was the first ever all you can eat Chinese buffet, charging a dollar to the hungry miners.  Dishes like “chow mein” and “chop suey” became common American cuisine. Eating Chinese food became adventurous and exotic for white American.

Another major impact of Chinese immigrant is the ethnic enclave that had been a refuge for many new immigrants. The Chinatowns of the San Francisco and New York City have become tourist destination now. These ethnic enclaves attract tourist from all around the states to experience what these community look like. Secondly the Chinatown became historic symbols of America immigrant community that help build this great country.

Chinese American have long been a great part of the American identity, as much as history thinks of them as sojourner. The Chinese were involved in every step of building this nation, from building the railroad to levee system of California. In the process of serving this country, they gave their ultimate gift by fighting in the Civil war to World War 2 and every war since.  In architecture one of America most famous monument the Vietnam War memorial was design by a Chinese American name Maya Linn. In 1996 Time Magazine named the man of the year Dr. David Ho for advancing the treatment of HIV virus. Further proof of Chinese contribution came in elegant white, when Vera Wang became the obsession of desire for American brides.

The Chinese experience is unlike any other immigrant struggle for assimilation; they faced a systematic discrimination by America that no other nationality had to deal with.  They became victims of political violence, blaming them everything wrong in America. They were driven out from cities, town and neighborhoods by white mob racist. Yet despite the odds, and the stack deck against them, they stayed, overcame and belong to America.





Olson, S. James and Heather Olson Beal.  The Ethnic Dimension .

Wiley-Blackwell Publishing 2010. Print.



Web. April 30, 2012.

The Chinese experience in 19th century America:


Web. April 30, 2012.

The first Chinese restaurant 1849


World War 2 Homefront Era 1940s: Momentous Change for Chinese Americans


Tommy Wong (navy machinist), eyewitness


Eric Liu (Chinatown)


Maya Lin (identity)



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