The first Chinese encounters with America and its people came with trade between the two countries in the late 1700s. Merchants, servants and several young, missionary-sponsored students were among the first Chinese immigrants. By the mid-1800s, the trickle of Chinese immigrants became a steady stream, with more than 300,000 arriving by 1882. Far from finding prosperity in the United States, Chinese immigrants labored in an environment of discrimination and resentment. Persistence and resiliency helped the Chinese to establish close-knit communities and weave their own identity into the fabric of America.
Going for the Gold
The social and political climate of China in the mid-1800s was that of an empire in decline. War with England, rampant addiction to opium, famine and domestic rebellions devastated living conditions, particularly in southeast China. Chinese immigrants were lured to America by tales of California's gold rush. Rumors of "gum saam," or "the gold mountain" held a promise of economic opportunity for the destitute Chinese. Many contracted themselves out to Chinese merchants in return for payment of their passage to the U.S.
Ready and Willing Workers
A large number of Chinese immigrants worked the gold mines of California under five-year contracts, after which they remained in the work force as laborers, domestics and fishermen. Chinese immigrants also took jobs in agriculture and in garment factories. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad began hiring Chinese workers for menial jobs and found them to be dependable and efficient. The Chinese also were willing to work for lower wages than Irish laborers due to the pressure they faced to send money home to their families in China and repay the merchants who had sponsored their passage to America.
Economy Slows, Tensions Rise
Prejudice toward Chinese immigrants was widespread in part because European Americans did not understand Chinese culture, habits and religion. Chinese men also were willing to work at tasks that American men found distasteful or considered "women's work," such as housekeeping and laundry. Depletion of the gold mines and an economic depression in the 1870s caused greater competition for jobs and a growing resentment toward Chinese workers. Chinese settlements became a target for violence. Labor leaders and the general public called on the government to limit economic opportunities for Chinese immigrants and to end the flow of Chinese migration to the U.S.
Congress Closes the Gates
In addressing the issue of limiting Chinese immigration, the federal government was caught between appeasing state governments, especially in the West, and avoiding insult to China. In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes secured a new treaty with China that allowed the U.S. to limit Chinese immigration and, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first restriction on immigration imposed in the nation's history. The act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from returning to the U.S. after visiting China. Despite strong objections from China, the federal government subsequently extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for an indefinite period.
- Smithsonian: Asian Pacific American Center: Journey to Gold Mountain
- U.S. Department of State: Office of The Historian: Milestones: 1866 to 1898: Chinese Immigration and The Chinese Exclusion Act
- China Business Review: America's Early Trade with China
- PBS.org: American Experience: Workers of The Central Pacific Railroad
- Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum: Chinese Americans: 1800s Chinese Immigration to America
- PBS.org: Becoming American: The Chinese Experience
Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.