Brown Quarterly - Vol. 3, No. 4 (Spring 2000)

The History of Chinese Immigration

Most Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco where they developed a Chinese American community and made an effort to join the city's political and cultural life. In the 1850s they participated in festivities celebrating California’s admission into the Union and in the Fourth of July Parade. Chinese Americans also preserved their own cultural traditions. They celebrated the lunar New Year in the traditional way. In 1852 the first performance of Cantonese opera was held and the first Chinese theatre building completed. Two Chinese-language newspapers began publishing.


The Kong Chow Association was the first Chinese organization established. In 1849 Norman As-sing, a prominent merchant, became the leader of the Chew Yick Association and served as an interpreter. Tong K. Achick arrived in 1851 and founded the Yeong Wo Association. Later, he and As-sing were rivals for leadership of the Chinese American community in San Francisco.


A series of wars, rebellions, civil disorders, floods, famines and droughts made earning a livelihood in China difficult. When China tried to cut off the British importation of opium, they suffered a devastating defeat by the British in the Opium War of 1840. When news of the discovery of gold reached China, many Chinese immigrated to California from Kuangtung Province.

The Chinese often emigrated in self-help groups from the same village, often with the same surname. Most had to borrow money for their passage and were required to repay the debt here. Those who could not borrow from their families borrowed from agencies under the credit-ticket system. The term “coolie” refers to laborers whose contract specified conditions approximating servitude, slavery or peonage. This term was also used with negative connotations to persuade voters that Chinese immigration ought to be prohibited.


Taoism was the religion of most Chinese immigrants and Kuan Kung the most popular deity. Kuan actually lived in China during the third century, AD. He has been called the god of war, but this designation is misleading. He was a military leader known for his courage, loyalty and adherence to lofty ideals who sacrificed his personal success rather than compromise his principles. Because of these qualities, he was venerated after his death.

The Taoist temple was a source of strength for early Chinese Americans. People worshiped individually rather than in congregations. Respect for deities and departed relatives was shown by offerings of incense accompanied by food and drink on special occasions. Paper offerings, money and clothing were burned, a means of transmitting objects from the visible to the invisible world. Prayers were offered silently before the altar. Questions were asked of various deities by writing on a piece of paper and then burning it on the altar. Answers were obtained by consulting the prayer sticks that were interpreted by the temple priest or deacon. The Taoist temple was also a social center for early Chinese American communities. The first and fifteenth of the month were days of worship when people met at the temple. Each spring, a “bomb day” festival was held. The highlight of the festival was to shoot off a rocket (or “bomb”) containing lucky rings. The temple also provided services such as lodging for travelers.


The United States Constitution in the 1850s reserved the right of naturalization for White immigrants to this country. Only two skin colors were recognized, White and Black. Since early Chinese immigrants were neither, some were allowed to become naturalized citizens, but most were not. Without citizenship, Chinese immigrants could not vote, hold government office or be employed by the state. They had no voice in determining their future. Designated as "aliens ineligible for citizenship," they were unable to own land or file mining claims. Since Chinese immigrants could not testify in court against Whites, the only reasonable course of action was to avoid open confrontation and avoid direct competition with Whites. Some retained their Chinese citizenship, since they were not allowed to become citizens of the United States. Their future in the country was uncertain, even though they paid taxes and contributed to the economy.


The presence of the ailanthus tree (“Tree of Heaven”) throughout California has long been a puzzle. The tree is native to China, but not to the United States; yet it grows profusely in regions where early Chinese immigrants lived. All sorts of fanciful explanations have been given — that the Chinese accidentally brought the seeds to this country in their trouser cuffs (their trousers did not have cuffs), or that they brought them because they were homesick. The real reason Chinese immigrants brought ailanthus seeds to this country was to grow an herbal remedy beneficial for arthritis. Herbal medicine fulfilled an important health need in the 19th century. Western medicine had not yet developed wonder drugs, anesthetics, vaccinations or sophisticated surgical techniques. Patent medicines were widely used and their contents were not regulated by the government. Chinese herbal remedies had been used for one or two thousand years. Some of today's “wonder drugs” are actually synthesized forms of various herbs and natural herbs are still prefered by some.


After gold was discovered in California, Chinese immigrants joined gold seekers from all over the world. In 1850 the California legislature passed a law taxing foreign miners $20 a month. Though stated in general terms, it was enforced chiefly against Mexicans and Chinese. In 1852 a mass meeting was held in the Columbia Mining District where a resolution was passed to exclude “Asiatics and South Sea Islanders” from mining activities.


Chinese immigrants built many flumes and roads in the mining districts. In the 1850s, the Big Gap Flume was constructed by Chinese workers to cross Conrad Gulch and carry water in a gravity flow system. This wooden flume, suspended by trestle works, was part of a 36-mile ditch supplying water for miners.

One of the ancient building techniques brought from China was rammed earth construction, packing mud between wooden forms and hammering it until it is as hard as stone. While rammed earth is associated with Spanish and Mexican cultures, it was used in China as early as 1500. In China wherever the weather was damp, buildings were faced with stone for added protection.

Stone walls were built by Chinese American workers throughout California in the 1800s. They were made without mortar from uncut fieldstones, obtained by clearing the surrounding land. Even though anti-Chinese meetings were being held in the mining districts in 1852, the governor endorsed the employment of Chinese for projects to reclaim swamps and flooded lands.


Inhabitants of early Chinese American communities in Monterey, San Diego and San Luis Obispo fished for squid and abalone. Many Chinese immigrants had fishing and preservation techniques needed at shrimping camps in the 1860s. They also worked in canneries processing fish. Later, discriminatory legislation required special licenses, forbade traditional Chinese fishing techniques, limited the season, prohibited export of dried shrimp and restricted the size of the catch.


Few Chinese Americans were able to become independent farmers, because most were not citizens and were prevented from owning land by local laws and restrictive covenants. Many raised vegetables and fruit sold door to door. Others were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, who leased land and paid the landlord part of their crop.

Skilled Chinese Americans were essential to the development of certain crops like celery. Development of the citrus industry was dependent on Chinese Americans. They grew strawberries, peanuts, rice and vegetables. Gardens were often located on land no one else wanted. Chinese American migrant farm workers harvested wheat, other grains, hops, apples, grapes and pears and processed them for shipping. Seaweed farming involved the laborious task of gathering edible seaweed from the rocks, drying it in the sun and packing it for shipment.