The Chinese in California

Legend says that a Chinese explorer sailed to California centuries before the birth of Christ. No historic documentation can be found to validate this event. It is thought that individual Chinese may have migrated to New Spain via the Philippines during the hey day of the Spanish Galleons. Some probably worked their way north as the Spanish settled coastal California. A Chinese man named Ah Nam served as Governor Pablo Sola's cook in Monterey and was baptized Antonio Maria de Jesus in 1815. The earliest direct contact between China and California was established in the early nineteenth century as European and American traders purchased fur pelts in North America for sale in China. Few if any Chinese appear to have travelled to California in the pursuit of this trade and no Chinese merchants established themselves in California. The Ching Dynasty had severely restricted all contact with the outside world. After 1760 the only ports open to foreign trade were located in Kwangtung Province in the south of China. It was against the law for Chinese to travel outside of China except with the specific permission of the Emperor. The Opium War of 1839-1842 resulted in the Treaty of Nanking which opened five additional ports and ceded Hong Kong to Britain, but contact between Westerners and Chinese was still severely limited.

The earliest documented arrival of significant numbers of Chinese people in California dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. Gold was found on the American River in California early in 1848 and word of the discovery was first disseminated by ships engaged in trade throughout the world. Among the first to learn of the new El Dorado were the people of Kwangtung Province. The Ching Dynasty was in decline, flood and famine had racked the country in 1846 and 1848, and the Tai Ping Rebellion was about to break out. Law and tradition argued against travel to California, but poverty and a desire for quick riches were powerful motivations for a few hardy souls. These few soon sent back word of Gum Shan (Gold Mountain) and triggered a wave of Chinese Argonauts. The first rough census of Chinese in California was initiated in 1852 when 25,000 were counted. The vast majority of them were from Kwangtung.

The typical Chinese gold seeker was in his late teens or early twenties, male, single, and uneducated. His purpose was to return to China as soon as he had accumulated his wealth. He did not intend to assimilate into the California community and he assiduously protected his traditional life style. Customs, clothing, language, food, and the traditional queue set him apart from his fellow miners. Understandably he sought the company of his countrymen and very quickly small Chinese settlements emerged in the mines, towns and cities. The largest and most important of these communities was San Francisco's Chinatown. Chinese Mutual Aid Societies sprang up and became an important part of the social structure in the city and beyond.

In the early days of the Gold Rush most Anglo-European miners worked alone or with one or two partners. Frequently the Chinese miners worked as a team and they worked hard. Their success stimulated resentment and they became the object of violence by Anglo-European miners. (Similar hostility was generated by the use of slave labor, Indian labor, or Mexican labor in the mines.) The strong racial prejudice of the day ensured that in any conflict between an Anglo-European miner and a Chinese, Mexican or Indian miner, the former would prevail. Popular opinion in the United States generally, and in California in particular, saw the Chinese as being secretive, clandestine, irreverent, mysterious and vaguely dangerous. Many felt that they had no right to mine gold in California and should be denied entry into the United States.

Forced off of the most lucrative claims the Chinese took over mines that had been worked and abandoned as unprofitable by Anglo-European miners. Their ability to make these claims profitable by hard work and persistence further irritated their fellow miners. In 1850 a tax aimed primarily at the Chinese was levied on all "foreign miners." In 1852 California Governor John Bigler argued publicly that the Chinese "coolie laborers" had come to California under coercion and were undercutting the wages of white workingmen. In an effort to avoid further problems the leadership of the Chinese community supported the foreign miners tax and even offered to help collect it. Hostility toward the Chinese did not diminish but they were tolerated as long as they paid the tax.

In 1854, in a case heard in Nevada County, George W. Hall was convicted of murdering a Chinese man. On appeal to the State Supreme Court the decision was overturned because all of the evidence against him was from Chinese individuals. The Chief Justice, Hugh Murray, cited Section 14 of the Criminal Act which stated that "no Black or Mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a White man." He argued that the intent of the law was that all non-white persons were included in the prohibition. Later that same year the federal courts decided that because Chinese were not white under the law they could not be granted citizenship. This state of affairs meant that the Chinese community did everything that it could to resolve differences between it's members without resorting to the California courts. This in turn led to the accusation that Chinatown was in fact a secret society with its own laws operating illegally in California.

Charges that Chinatown was a secretive den of iniquity were bolstered by the existence of real secret societies - the tongs. These gangs did indeed engage in gambling, extortion, prostitution, robbery, murder, opium dens, and assorted other criminal activity. Following the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864 many former soldiers ruined by the collapse of the Taiping experiment fled the wrath of the Manchu officials of the Ching Dynasty and joined in the exodus to California. It was they that established the Triad Society in California. In China it was an anti-Manchu organization which favored a return to Chinese rule but in California it quickly lost its revolutionary aims and concentrated on its social and criminal objectives. The Triad became a powerful force within the Chinese community.

As placer mining gave way to hard rock and hydro-mining in California, more and more Chinese were hired to work in mines owned by Anglo-Europeans. Wages were falling and employers found that Chinese frequently worked harder and were more stable than Anglo-European workers. Friction between the races continued unabated and Governor Bigler's charge that the Chinese were undermining the wages of White workers resonated with the public, but labor shortages during the civil war ameliorated the situation somewhat. With the building of the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada mountains the Chinese laborer became the backbone of the construction effort. Following the completion of the transcontinental railroad Chinese labor was being used in virtually every sector of the California economy.

In 1879 a bill was passed by Congress that would have limited Chinese immigration to no more than 15 persons per ship. President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it because it conflicted with the Burlingame Treaty, signed by the United States and China, that permitted unlimited Chinese immigration. In 1880 the treaty was revised to permit the United States Government to make "reasonable" adjustments in the flow of immigration. In 1882 Congress passed and President Hayes signed a bill that banned the entrance of Chinese laborers into the United States for ten years. Anti-Chinese hostility increased and many Chinese were forced out of their jobs. By the end of the decade immigration laws were further strengthened to the detriment of the Chinese community.

In 1892 the Geary Act was passed and signed into law. This law extended the earlier proscription against the entry of Chinese laborers for another ten years and required all Chinese living in the United States to register with the government and obtain a certificate attesting to their ability to remain in the country. It also denied Chinese the right to writs of habeas corpus when arrested. This legislation coincided with a serious and prolonged outbreak of tong violence within the Chinese community across America. Many in the United States were more convinced than ever that the Chinese did not belong in America. In 1894 bubonic plague broke out in Hong Kong. In 1900 it spread to San Francisco and the Chinese were suspected of being the cause of the disease. In 1904 when rats were identified as the carrier of the disease a rat eradication campaign eliminated the threat.

In 1905 Chinese merchants in the treaty ports initiated a boycott of American goods in response to the unfair treatment of Chinese by Americans. Chinese communities in the United States responded enthusiastically and demanded an end to the exclusion laws. Unfortunately American public opinion was not swayed. In fact opposition to immigration of all sorts gained favor during this period and the boycott proved ineffectual. Chinese Americans participated in World War I and proved themselves loyal to their new homeland but discrimination continued to restrict their ability to find good jobs. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act which effectively denied entry into America for any Asian. The advent of World War II finally created the conditions necessary for the modification of the exclusionary law and the naturalization of all resident Chinese.

San Francisco's Chinatown...   Cloud Forest Temple...