By Maya Chin
The earliest Chinese immigrants came to America because they thought they could have a better life. Unfortunately that was usually not the case.
The first Chinese were reported to have arrived around 1820. Gold was discovered in 1849, in Sutter Mill, California. As the Gold Rush began, so did the rush of Chinese immigrants. Most of the immigrants, pretty much all young men, hoped to strike it rich in Gum Saan or “Gold Mountain.” The majority of were originally Cantonese from the Guangdong Province in southern China. Most of the men were younger than twenty, some were only fifteen years old.
In the Pearl River Delta region of southern China, where famine and poverty was widespread in the mid-1800s, coming to America was the “thing” to do. After the Gold Rush, the Chinese were drawn to the amount of jobs available. At first, the Chinese were accepted and tolerated, even welcomed because they opened laundries and restaurants, which were much needed in the women-less community. But as jobs became more and more scarce, they became viewed as competition. American businesses liked the Chinese because they worked hard and could be paid less then Caucasian workers. American laborers on the other hand, hated the Chinese because they were stealing all of their jobs.
In 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad was under construction. During this time, another wave of Chinese laborers arrived. Many were indentured servants, which meant they had to perform labor for several years for the company that paid for their passage from China. Once they finished their required years, they could leave, which was why they were not considered slaves. A lot of indentured servants were brought over specifically to build the railroad. Chinese laborers were a main force behind the construction of the railroad. Unfortunately in the picture of the railroads joining, not one Chinese was included.
After the railroad was completed, Caucasian workers felt that the Chinese were competition. In the mid-1800s Chinese were often attacked and sometimes massacred across the West. For example, in 1871, a mob of anti-Chinese Caucasians attacked the Chinese residents of L.A. An estimated twenty-three were killed. As a result of these threats, the Chinese moved to Chinatowns where they were safer. In the cities, Chinese worked at laundries, restaurants, and other domestic jobs. A lot of them even started their own businesses.
With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, no Chinese laborers could enter the United States and the Chinese already in America could no longer become citizens.
“I would not vote for it if the time was reduced to one year or even one hour, because I believe that the total prohibitation of the people from our shores for any length of time, however short, is not only unnecessary and uncalled for, but it is a cowardly repudiation, in our dealing with a weak nation, of a just and long established principle in our government as well as a bold and open violation of the letter and spirit of our solemn treaty obligations with the people of China,” said Congressman Joyce (148).
The exceptions to the Act were teachers, students, merchants, tourists, and diplomatic personnel. Originally, it was meant to stall immigration for twenty years but President Arthur vetoed it since he thought it was unreasonable. He eventually signed it, but only after it was amended to ten years. Even though it was only suppose to last ten years, it ended up lasting for almost forty years since new acts kept being made to prolong it. These laws included the Geary Act of 1892. Other acts, including the Scott Act of 1888 which prohibited the reentry of Chinese, were added to the Exclusion Act as revisions. In 1902, it was made permanent. Editor of the Chung Sai Yat Pao, Dr. Ng Poon Chew wrote, “The exclusion law has been carried out with such vigor that it has almost become an extermination law,” (171).
Because many Chinese wanted to send a son or husband here but had no family in America, “paper sons” were created. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, all of the records in city hall, including the birth certificates, were burned. Because of this, the Chinese could now claim they were citizens and that they had sons living in China. “Paper Sons” were boys and men who paid to take on the identity of a son of a Chinese person who was a U.S citizen. The only problem was that the “son” then also had to learn every detail about their “father’s” family and village in order to pass the immigration test when entering the U.S. They also had to take the man’s last name.
Beginning in 1910, immigrants from China detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. The Chinese were sent there to be questioned about their own family history and village. They had to prove they were truly related to a U.S. citizens. They were detained for several weeks and months, and sometimes even longer than a year. Former detainees describe Angel Island as a type of prison where they had no freedom to go anywhere or do anything. They ate standing up and all slept in a big room in tiny, cot-like bunk beds. All letters were inspected.
“They treated us like children there,” said Tom Yuen, a former immigrant who was featured in the book Longtime Californ’: a Documentary study of an American Chinatown, by Victor G. and Brett De Bary Nee (15).
The residents wrote poems on the barrack walls to express their sadness. In order to leave, they had to pass a test. The test had questions like, “How many windows does your house have?” Soon, immigrants from China began preparing for the tests before they moved.
The immigration station was closed in 1940.
In 1943, the United States was involved in World War II. Because China was an important ally, the government decided to allow one hundred and five new immigrants to enter per year, but if you had family already in America the number was unlimited. This repeal of the Exclusion Act was called the Magnuson Act.
Next, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed, it basically allowed anyone to immigrate to the United States as long as they had good morals (were not criminals).
After 1965, Chinese began coming from all over China, not just the South. Families started to appear in Chinatown in large numbers. Most wanted their children to get a good education. Kids born in America or who had come at a young age began to speak English, which made them more accepted as American.