“We are not the degraded race you would make us.”
“You argue that this is a republic of a particular race . . . this proposition is false in the extreme.”
Norman Asing’s pointed letter to Governor John Bigler reflects the concerns of many Chinese immigrants living in the United States in the 1850s. Initial welcome had turned to hostility, and as anti-Chinese sentiment grew, Chinese immigrants found themselves the target of racial violence and efforts to permanently drive them out of California. Anti-Chinese politicians and labor leaders depicted the Chinese as a threat to the life and livelihood of white Americans. The California legislature reacted by declaring the Chinese a menace to the well-being of the state’s mining industry. In response to public demands for action, Governor Bigler gave a speech on April 25, 1852, echoing the arguments of anti-Chinese labor leaders and advocating for restrictions on Chinese immigration. The San Francisco Daily Alta California published Asing’s letter to Bigler on May 5, 1852. The letter boldly attacks and counters anti-Chinese rhetoric at the same time that it represents the heroic efforts of the Chinese American community to directly combat racial prejudice.
Following the discovery of gold in 1848, Chinese immigrants arrived in California seeking their share of America’s wealth and an opportunity to provide for their families back home. They found employment in the mines and later in the shops, on the railroads, in the factories, and on the farms throughout the West. By 1852, Chinese immigrants numbered around twenty-five thousand and represented approximately 10 percent of California’s population. At first welcomed as an industrious and cheap labor supply, the Chinese soon found themselves the targets of nativist efforts to oust them and prohibit their future immigration. Although the 1870s and 1880s marked the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, culminating in outright violence, demands for restrictions on Chinese immigration began as early as the 1850s. White workingmen who saw the presence of Chinese laborers as a threat to their own jobs and economic livelihood called on the governor and other elected officials to either act or risk losing office in the next election.
Anti-Chinese rhetoric presented the Chinese as members of a barbaric and inferior race and often attempted to associate the “heathen Chinese” with African and American Indian races. The Chinese were viewed not only as an economic drain on the economy but as moral threats to the sanctity and security of white families. The Chinese community as a whole was defined as lacking traditional domestic relations and middle-class family values. In 1852, when a committee of the California State Assembly issued a report declaring the Chinese a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the state, Governor John Bigler responded in a special message to the state legislature. In his address, Bigler outlined the potential moral, political, and economic dangers posed by the Chinese in California and called on legislators to act by passing legislation to restrict Chinese immigration.
The Chinese American community was understandably upset by these attacks. Community leaders responded by organizing to resist anti-Chinese rhetoric through letters, petitions, and legal challenges. Chinese American merchant Norman Asing, a San Francisco resident, penned a retort to the governor’s claims, intending to make his objections public. The San Francisco Daily Alta California published Asing’s open letter to the governor on May 5, 1852. Asing’s letter represents a direct challenge to the authority of the governor and the power of the anti-Chinese movement.
Norman Asing, born Sang Yuen, was a merchant of significant influence in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Asing was among the earliest Chinese immigrants who risked the long journey to come to the United States. He arrived in New York City in 1820 and later made Charleston, South Carolina, his home. There, he established a business and eventually attained United States citizenship. Asing considered himself a loyal American citizen and was proud of his Christian beliefs.
The California gold rush sparked a rapid rise in the number of immigrants to the United States from China. The large number of miners who flocked to the cities and gold fields of California needed supplies and sustenance. Enterprising individuals recognized that if money was to be made in the gold rush, it would not be in the mines. Besides laborers, Chinese merchants also migrated to California with the intention of making their fortune by providing for the miners who had journeyed so far from home.
Asing recognized the opportunities available in California. By 1850, he had moved to San Francisco, where he operated a restaurant in Chinatown. At that time, San Francisco’s Chinatown was fairly small. Asing became a prominent member of the local community and helped to found and lead the Yeong Wo Association, an aid society that provided financial assistance and other support services for new Chinese immigrants. By 1854, he was serving as a foreign consul and had become well known in both the Chinese and European American communities.
Asing’s letter to Bigler was published in one of San Francisco’s leading newspapers. The letter would have elicited a wide range of responses from the people of San Francisco. Some resented the presence of the Chinese, viewing them in a light similar to that expressed by Bigler. Others, like the editors of the Daily Alta California, were less likely to see the Chinese question as an issue worthy of such hysteria. In fact, the editors had rebuked the governor and insisted that his claims of a “yellow peril” were overexaggerated. The newspaper defended the Chinese as industrious laborers and model citizens who contributed to the prosperity of the state. Those who were more ambivalent toward the Chinese and did not share the strong opinions of either Bigler or the newspaper editors may have nevertheless been swayed by the eloquence and persuasiveness of Asing’s letter.
Asing’s public condemnation of the governor’s address to the legislature is an example of one of the ways in which the Chinese deflected criticism and fought back against racist policies in early California. By petitioning public officials and publishing letters in local newspapers, Chinese immigrants found an avenue for expressing their discontent. Asing’s letter is clear and to the point. He starts by calling on Governor Bigler to fulfill his public duty as the chief representative of the state. In this case, that means acting as a representative and protector of all individuals living in the state, including the Chinese. Asing’s letter then moves on to systematically deconstruct the arguments of the anti-Chinese movement. He counters the view of the Chinese as an economic deficit by focusing instead on the contributions of his people to the development of California. Asing also objects to the stereotype of the Chinese as an uncivilized, degraded race and offers evidence to the contrary. Finally, Asing takes the daring move of reproving the blatant racism in Bigler’s arguments and insisting that Americans remember their commitment to liberty and equality.
Asing begins his argument by reminding the governor of the power of his position. He insists that the Governor’s “opinions through a message to a legislative body have weight.” Asing also encourages Bigler to carefully consider the effect that his words have on the people of California and the far-reaching implications for the Chinese living in the state. Although perhaps not the governor’s intention, Asing argues that the impact of the governor’s racialized rhetoric is to encourage those who would commit acts of violence against the Chinese: “the effect of your late message has been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil.” Asing was clearly aware of the ever-present reality of hate crimes targeted at the Chinese. Racial violence in the gold fields was becoming more and more common. Disillusioned miners often took out their frustrations over their financial struggles on the Chinese, who unfortunately became scapegoats. Public hysteria created by the thoughtless words of politicians had the potential to fan the flames of racial tension. In reminding the governor of his duty as a defender of the rights of all Americans, citizens or otherwise, Asing is calling upon Bigler to exercise his public duty, especially as the leading public servant of California.
In the body of the letter, Asing directly and systematically targets each of the claims of the anti-Chinese movement, beginning with the argument that the Chinese are an economic drain on the people and the state. In response to the governor’s calls for immigration restriction, Asing questions the logic of his argument “that by excluding population from this State you enhance its wealth.” Instead, Asing makes a point that would become quite common in the arguments made by the Chinese community in their efforts to defend their presence in the state. He points to the ways in which Chinese laborers contribute to the economic growth and development of California, working not just in the mines but in the factories and on the farms. In fact, recruiters specifically sought out their labor, recognizing the value of Chinese immigrants as workers. Asing suggests that Chinese immigrants have contributed far more to California and its people than they have taken away.
Asing also objects to the common argument made by anti-Chinese politicians that the Chinese come to the United States as temporary sojourners with the sole intention of making money and returning home. The large number of Chinese bachelors immigrating to America and their tendency to save their money and send it home to their families in China was often presented as proof of this claim. This argument expands on the view of the Chinese as parasites who deplete the state of its resources. Governor Bigler took it one step further by claiming in his address to the legislature that the Chinese are unwilling and ultimately incapable of assimilation. Although Asing acknowledges that some Chinese laborers do intend to eventually return to their homes in China, he argues that an unacknowledged number of immigrants desire to make a permanent home in the United States and to apply for the right of citizenship. Asing uses himself as an example here, declaring that he is “attached to the principles of the Government of the United States” and “a lover of free institutions.” As a naturalized citizen, he intends to correct the governor’s false claim that the Chinese are incapable of assimilation. Nevertheless, it would be the United States government that would later declare the Chinese unable to apply for US citizenship, denying them the right to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to do so. Lacking the rights and privileges of American citizens, many Chinese immigrants would eventually choose to return to China.
Asing rightfully takes offense to one of the most unpleasant stereotypes perpetuated by Bigler: the representation of the Chinese as barbaric and uncivilized. Anti-Chinese rhetoric tended to paint the Chinese as animal-like heathens barely capable of governing themselves. Asing notes that many white Americans have assigned Chinese immigrants a place in the racial hierarchy ascribed to African Americans and American Indians. Chinese American community leaders often pointed to the advances of Chinese civilization in an attempt to counter the perception that the Chinese were a barbaric race. Historical fact itself stands as a strong testament to the achievements of the Chinese culture. The comparatively short history of the United States did little to help American racists validate their arguments of racial and cultural supremacy. Asing makes this point deliberately clear: “we would beg to remind you that when your nation was a wilderness, and the nation from which you sprung barbarous, we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life.” Asing argues that the Chinese developed language, literature, science, art, manufacturing, education, medicine, and charitable institutions long before the existence of the United States, thus invalidating American claims to superiority in advancement and civilization.
In direct response to the criticism that the Chinese who immigrated to California represent a “degraded race” of common laborers, Asing argues that the Chinese pursue “honorable” and respectable professions. This is especially important, since calls for immigration restriction often pointed to the imbalanced sex ratio, the lack of two-parent middle-class families, and the existence of crime and prostitution in Chinatowns as evidence of the alleged inherently degenerate nature of the Chinese race. Asing counters this assertion by insisting on the normalcy and propriety of the Chinese American community. He argues that the Chinese are not a class of criminals but are “peaceable and orderly” and that none have become dependent on the state as paupers. Asing even goes so far as to defend proprietors of saloons and gambling houses as pursuing respectable careers in the sense that their labor provides for the financial support of their families. Simply by referring to the many Chinese immigrants who have families to provide for, Asing is countering a common misconception of the Chinese as predominantly single men who failed to establish respectable domestic relations. The tactic of highlighting the numbers of Chinese American middle-class families living in America would prove important in the decades to come.
It is also significant that Asing does not refrain himself from declaring Bigler’s statements racist. He argues that Bigler’s logic is “reprehensible” and directly challenges the governor’s authority when he states, “You argue that this is a republic of a particular race—that the constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme; and you know it.” Instead, Asing argues, the Declaration of Independence, the government, the American people, and American history all stand in opposition to Bigler’s racist line of thinking. Asing denies that the governor has a right to determine “to whom the doctrines of the Constitution apply” any more than he does to propose immigration restrictions. This is especially true when such policy is determined on the basis of racism. Asing insists that “as far as regards the color and complexion of our race, we are perfectly aware that our population have been a little more tanned than yours.” In this acerbic statement referencing skin tone, Asing is pointing to the overall irrational nature of Bigler’s proposition and challenging the governor’s and the nation’s established racial hierarchy.
Although he is justified in denouncing the racism in the governor’s statement, Asing’s statements also ironically reflect a degree of racial prejudice themselves. In a tactical move, Asing seeks to distance himself and the Chinese community from association with so-called inferior races. Instead he allies the Chinese more closely with Caucasians, claiming that the Chinese race is more similar to Europeans than to Africans or American Indians. This tactic, although limited in effectiveness, reveals some of the racial attitudes that existed in the Chinese community at the time. Alliances with African Americans or American Indians in their battle for political, economic, and social equality seemed only to weaken the Chinese community’s efforts. Instead, community leaders focused on emphasizing the ways in which the Chinese differed from these groups. Still, Asing condemns the extent of American racism, if not the reality of racism itself. He specifically decries African slavery and the degradation of African Americans through the very existence of slavery as an institution. Asing suggests to Bigler that the Founding Fathers never intended to create “an aristocracy of skin.”
Perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments that Asing makes is his delineation of the hypocrisy in the American attitude toward immigrants, especially given the country’s unique history. Asing appeals to Americans’ sense of history and national pride when he argues that England’s attempt to restrict immigration in the colonies was one of the principal causes of tension that led to the American Revolution. He points to the irony of calls for immigration restriction by Americans who in the past saw such regulation by the English Crown as a sign of despotism. This is especially hypocritical, he argues, given that immigrants helped build the American nation into the powerful country it has become. This argument, more than perhaps any other, is intended to appeal directly to the heart of the readers who opened up the Daily Alta California and read the newspaper that day. By calling on Americans to stand by their commitment to the pursuit of liberty and justice for all, Asing is insisting on equal rights for his people.
Norman Asing’s public letter to Governor John Bigler represents the struggle of early Chinese immigrants to overcome racist and discriminatory laws and to ultimately establish a place for themselves in American society. Asing recognized the illogical and racialized rhetoric of the governor’s arguments and found the courage to write in public protest. Especially given the hostile attitudes of many native-born white Americans toward foreigners, the Chinese had quite the battle before them. By the 1870s and 1880s, anti-Chinese hostilities would reach a boiling point. The demands of labor leaders and anti-Chinese politicians for an end to Chinese immigration would culminate in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which would succeed in severely restricting their numbers. By excluding Chinese laborers but allowing Chinese merchants, the exclusion act reflected both race- and class-based biases. Subsequent laws and regulations further restricted Chinese immigration, effectively halting it for sixty years. The United States immigration bureau would develop intensive procedures to ensure that Chinese laborers did not enter the country.
Anti-Chinese agitation did not end with the passage of Chinese exclusion. The act also deprived those who had been able to immigrate to the United States from becoming US citizens. This denial of the right to citizenship was reinforced in the Immigration Act of 1924 (National Origins Quote Act), in which the Chinese were among those declared “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Prejudice extended to other areas of daily life as well. Denied access to equal and integrated public education, segregated in public spaces, and prohibited from pursuing a range of job opportunities, the Chinese in San Francisco struggled for full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by American citizens. The era of Chinese exclusion lasted from 1882 to 1943. During that period, many individual and collective efforts to resist discriminatory laws would rely on arguments similar to those espoused by Asing in his letter to Bigler. His efforts on behalf of the Chinese community were ultimately not in vain.
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