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Journey to the West: Lunar New Year (2016)

Chinese in America

Early Immigration

Chinese immigration to the United States can be traced to the year 1784, when the two countries negotiated trade relations and the first U.S. merchant ship, the Empress of China, arrived on China’s shore. The earliest immigrants were peasants from the impoverished Pearl River Delta. Years later, entrepreneurs were drawn to San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square, where they set up the shops that laid the groundwork for Chinatown. But it wasn’t until the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s that what had been merely a trickle turned into a tidal wave of immigration. Gold fever set off a semi-hysteria across the U.S. and around the world. Fortune-seekers by the thousands made the journey to Gold Mountain, as America was called by the Chinese. Between 1850 and 1880, the population of Chinese immigrants jumped from 7,520 to 105,465. Seventy-seven percent of those lived in California.

Transcontinental Railroad

The Chinese worked in many industries: in laundromats and as tailors; as farmers and fishermen; as shopkeepers and restaurateurs; and, most notably, as laborers on the transcontinental railroad. Authorized by an Act of Congress in 1862, the railroad project was an ambitious plan to link the West and East coasts by train line. Chinese construction crews began laying track the following year in a grueling project that carried them through the decade. Although Mexican, Irish, and other immigrant groups also helped build the railroad, Chinese immigrants by far comprised the bulk of laborers, 80 percent by some estimates. “It is no exaggeration," wrote one historian, "to say that under each sleeper on the Central Southern Pacific Railroad a Chinese laborer is buried” (Changfu 4).

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

By the 1870s, however, America was in a post-Gold Rush, post-Civil War era, marked by a severe economic downturn and rising racial tensions. The majority white population saw the influx of Chinese willing to work for low wages as a threat. The hostility and scapegoating that ensued often resulted in violence. In 1871, an anti-Chinese riot in Los Angeles led to the killings of more than twenty Chinese immigrants. In this intolerant political and social climate, a push to end Chinese immigration gained momentum. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first race-based immigration law. Originally, the bill denied access exclusively to Chinese laborers, and exempted merchants, teachers, students, and tourists. Those Chinese already here were required to register, carry passports, and became ineligible for citizenship. Over subsequent years, the law was amended to be even more restrictive. The passage of the Geary Act in 1902 made the law permanent. It was finally repealed in 1943, as a token of wartime alliance with China, and declared “a historic mistake” by President Roosevelt.

Third Period of Immigration

The third wave of Chinese immigration to the United States took place from 1965 to the present day. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by Congress, immigrants were once again allowed in and democratic rights that had been revoked were restored. The War Brides Act of 1965 brought 6,000 Chinese women to the states. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 helped to usher in a new, more tolerant, era. Beginning in the early 1970s, two distinct types of immigrants were identifiable. The first were the highly skilled and educated scientists, engineers, and intellectuals who’d come to earn advanced degrees and pursue professions. The second type were immigrants escaping political turmoil and repression throughout Southeast Asia, beneficiaries of our reversal of Cold War policies toward China and Vietnam. These last wave of new immigrants accounted for a substantial increase in the Chinese American population, which, according to the 2010 census, amounted to 3.7 million, making them the largest Asian American group in the United States.  

Chinese in San Diego

San Diego, California: A Brief History of Prosperity for the Chinese Immigrant, 1870-1893

While the majority of Chinese immigrants endured hard labor, poor pay, and extreme discrimination in the United States, one city, San Diego, California provided the only thriving Chinese community circa 1870. San Diego’s coastal waters teamed with fish, shellfish, and in particular, black abalone, which the Chinese fishermen tapped into without competition:

The fisherman found their most rewarding resource in the black abalone that lived on the rocky bottom just below the rocky bottoms just below low tide line . . . Theirs was solely an export commodity: Americans had not yet learned to like abalone . . . Though it only began about 1873, seventeen years after abalone was first taken by Chinese, the San Diego fishery outgrew those elsewhere on the coast and was producing seven hundred tons annually by 1880.  According to a government report, abalone “formed the bulk of exports to China and to Chinese colonists in other countries, and the San Diego fishermen led the state in the harvest.”          (McEvoy n.pag.)

The Chinese fishermen were prevented from profiting in northern fisheries in San Francisco and the Sacramento delta.  The Chinese in San Diego reaped the benefits of their efforts into the late 1880s through the creation of a prosperous export business of dried fish and abalone.  Their success enabled interaction with various industries outside the traditional, insular Chinatown economy; from Caucasian businesses they purchased lumber and supplies for their thriving fishery. According to an 1885 San Diego Union report, a tolerant attitude toward the Chinese existed:   

Economic power and high visibility were ordinarily the kiss of death for Chinese in California, but in San Diego the fishermen were regarded quite highly . . . nearly all the Chinese living in San Diego are engaged in the fishing business; no Chinese are employed at the lumber yards or on public work, and the rights of whites are so little encroached upon that we anticipate no such riotous trouble as other towns on the coast are experiencing.

Since there were less Chinese in San Diego than in the northern California cities, and no competing markets between Caucasians and Chinese, they managed to coexist peacefully: “San Diegans generally regarded the Chinese among them as a harmless curiosity” (McEvoy n.pag.). 

Many contemporary San Diegans may take pride in our historical period of tolerance and racial diversity; unfortunately the tolerance and compatible business relationships couldn’t last forever. The completion of railroads brought expansion of state and national commerce and their accompanying discriminatory practices from other regions of the United States.  By 1900, the Chinese were legislated out of their profitable businesses they founded in San Diego and relegated to the fringes of American society.

McEvoy, Arthur F.  “In Places Men Reject Chinese Fishermen at San Diego, 1870-1893.” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly 23.4 (Fall 1977): n.pag. []

History of the San Diego Chinese Mission

A few hundred Chinese immigrants, the majority male, traveled to San Diego to escape the strong anti-Chinese practices of northern California.  Initially the Chinese fisherman enjoyed an attitude of indifference from their Caucasian neighbors, but with San Diego’s rapid development upon the completion of the railways, the same discrimination from the northern cities and elsewhere followed into San Diego.

The “Americanization” of Chinese immigrants in San Diego began in the Chinese Mission in 1885 on the corner of 13th and F streets. The American Home Missionary Association patterned the San Diego Chinese Mission after earlier Chinese Mission Schools in the San Francisco area.  The association saw an opportunity to teach Christianity as well as the English language.  Most Chinese immigrants saw little value in learning English or American customs because U.S. citizenship was denied to them, but learning to read, write and speak English helped them conduct business and interact outside their insular Chinatown (Saito n.pag.).  

Following two World Wars, Chinese Americans progressed into mainstream American society and the San Diego Chinese Mission remained but the Mission’s purpose was reversed; now Chinese culture and language was recognized and taught to new generations American Chinese children.  In the 1970’s, Downtown San Diego began redevelopment and revitalization projects that led to the eventual relocation, renovation, repurposed and renamed Chinese Mission: The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (SDCHM).  Their mission is to remember the hardships and accomplishments of our Chinese immigrants: “to collect, preserve and share the Chinese American experience and Chinese history, culture and art to educate our diverse community and its visitors.”  Check out the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum website for information and tours:


Saito, Leland. “Reclamation and Preservation: The San Diego Chinese Mission, 1927-1996.” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly 49.1 (Winter 2003): no pag.  []


Chinese Come to the United States Timeline

1784      The Empress of China becomes the first U.S. merchant ship to arrive in China, beginning trade between the two countries.

1790      The U.S. Congress passes the Naturalization Act, restricting naturalized citizenship to white persons only; bars naturalization of Asian-immigrants until the mid-twentieth century.

1818      The first Chinese students to attend a U.S. college, the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut.  

1848      Gold is discovered in California; Leads to tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants

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1852      The first contract Chinese laborers enter the United States and establish first Buddhist temple in San Francisco.

1856      The Chinese Daily News is launched in Sacramento, California.

1859      San Francisco opens the Chinese School, America’s first public school for Asian immigrants.

1863      The first Chinese Americans are hired by Central Pacific to lay track on the transcontinental railroad; by the time the project is finished in 1869, more than 9,000 will be hired.

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1868      United States and Imperial China sign the Burlingame Treaty; guaranteeing fair treatment and residency rights for each other’s immigrants: the treaty becomes nullified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

1873      San Francisco passes the Laundry Ordinance, shutting down Chinese-owned laundries in the city; the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the law as unconstitutional in Yick Ho v. Hopkins, the first time it rules in favor of the rights of Asian American immigrants.

1876      San Francisco’s municipal government enacts the Queue Ordinance, banning Chinese from wearing their characteristic queues, or long pigtails.

1882      Congress passes the first Chinese Exclusion Act, banning the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years; the law is extended in 1892 and 1902.

1888      Congress amends the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to include all persons from China and passes legislation preventing Chinese who return to their home country on visits to return to the United States.

1902      Congress passes the Geary Act, making the Chinese Exclusion Act “permanent.”

1906      A massive earthquake and fire level Chinatown in San Francisco, the largest Chinese enclave in the United States.

1913      California passes the Alien Land Law, restricting the lease or sale of land to “aliens ineligible for citizenship”; the measure primarily affects Asian Americans.

1915      Chinese farmers and merchants found a Chinese American community of Locke, California, the largest non-urban Asian American town in the continental United States.

1922      Congress passes the Cable Act, nullifying the citizenship of all U.S.-born women who marry someone ineligible for citizenship, the law affects primarily Asian Americans.

1925      The Chinese Hospital, the first in the United States devoted to the health needs of Chinese immigrants, is founded in San Francisco.

1943      Congress repeals the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882, though still limiting Chinese immigration to about 100 persons per year.

1947      Congress passes the War Brides Act, permitting U.S. military personnel to marry ad bring into the United States brides from China, Japan, the Phillipines  and Korea.  Several thousand women enter the country under the law.

1952      The Immigration and Nationality Act, better known as the McCarren-Walter Act, reverses earlier laws that banned Asian immigrants from gaining U.S. citizenship.

1963      President John F. Kennedy establishes the Chinese Refugee Relief Committee, to aid persons fleeing Communist China.

1967      In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declares the antimiscegenation laws of Virginia and thirty-seven other states unconstitutional, allowing for interracial marriages between Asians and non-Asians.

1972      President Richard Nixon visits the Communist People’s Republic of China, establishing harmonious relations between Washington and Beijing.


The content of this page was made possible by the hard work of Associate Librarians Madelyn Horton & Corinne Pitcher.