Chinese Begin Immigrating to California Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The California gold rush drew thousands of Chinese immigrants to the region, especially San Francisco and the Sierra Nevada mining towns. The Chinese furnished hard labor and provided everyday services for the growing region but also suffered nativist antipathy and xenophobia, which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal legislation restricting immigration to the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1848, the electrifying news that gold had been discovered in northern California was carried by every ship sailing from U.S. ports. Spread to every corner of the world, the news soon began to draw adventurers from their families and livelihoods to seek their fortunes in this distant land. In 1849, a large number of pioneers—German, Irish, Scandinavian, Russian, Mexican, and others—streamed into San Francisco, doubling the population of the state within two years. Among these “forty-niners,” as they came to be called, was one group set apart by race, dress, and language—the Chinese. Drawn to the United States by the promise of golden wealth, the Chinese arrived in ever-increasing numbers, to the growing alarm of California residents. California;Chinese immigrants Chinese immigrants;and California gold rush[California gold rush] Immigration;to United States[United States] Mining;in California[California] Mining;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] San Francisco;Chinese immigrants [kw]Chinese Begin Immigrating to California (1849) [kw]Begin Immigrating to California, Chinese (1849) [kw]Immigrating to California, Chinese Begin (1849) [kw]California, Chinese Begin Immigrating to (1849) California;Chinese immigrants Chinese immigrants;and California gold rush[California gold rush] Immigration;to United States[United States] Mining;in California[California] Mining;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] San Francisco;Chinese immigrants [g]United States;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] [g]China;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] [c]Immigration;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] [c]Economics;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] [c]Business and labor;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] [c]Social issues and reform;1849: Chinese Begin Immigrating to California[2670] Achick, Tong K. Assing, Norman Bigler, John Tingley, George B.

The majority of Chinese entering the United States at that time came from the area around Canton, in the southeastern province of Kwangtung. For centuries, Cantonese peasants made their living as laborers, farmers, and fishermen. During the late 1840’s, floods, Floods;Chinese famines, Famines;Chinese peasant revolts, and overpopulation forced many to leave their villages and seek work in nearby countries along the South China Sea. When word reached the province that gold mines were opening in California, the Cantonese were eager to leave their impoverished homeland for the chance of riches across the Pacific Ocean. They were cautious, however—the journey was long, expensive, and uncertain. Only three Chinese made the trip in 1848.

In 1849, the news of larger and richer gold claims in California enticed 325 Cantonese to set sail for San Francisco. Most of these young and unskilled men were sojourners, hoping to prospect for a few years, acquire wealth, and return home. Like other new arrivals in the city, they outfitted themselves with supplies, including sturdy boots in place of their cotton shoes, and set out for the gold-bearing mountains around Sacramento. They often traveled and worked in groups for companionship and protection, taking over low-yielding claims that had been abandoned for more prosperous sites. Through diligence and frugality, honed by generations of marginal existence in China, they frequently turned abandoned claims into profitable ventures.

Not all Chinese immigrants, however, sought wealth in the gold mines. Some found work in the cities, particularly San Francisco, which offered abundant opportunities for unskilled laborers. Shops, restaurants, liveries, hotels, and other businesses grew desperately short of workers as able-bodied men abandoned their jobs to pan for gold. Chinese—newly arrived immigrants or disheartened miners—began filling these positions as general laborers, carpenters, and cooks. They also assumed jobs normally reserved for women—who were in short supply in this rugged frontier boomtown—such as seamstresses, launderers, and domestics. Their conscientious work style, quiet demeanor, and dependable service made them ideal employees. California businessmen soon began sending advertising notices to Canton, recruiting Chinese workers for their various enterprises.

Successful Chinese miners and workers also began opening their own businesses in the cities. In addition to equipping miners and supplying mining camps, they established restaurants, hotels, and various small businesses catering to both Chinese and Westerners. Norman Assing, Assing, Norman an English-speaking Chinese man who settled in San Francisco, managed his own candy store, a bakery, and a popular restaurant in which he often entertained local politicians and police officers with lavish banquets. In December, 1849, his fellow countrymen elected him as the leader of the first Chinese mutual aid society in the United States, an organization assisting newly arrived Chinese immigrants. This association filled an important role for the Chinese, who relied greatly on family and village relations for social and economic sufficiency.

Cover of an 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly showing Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco.

(Berkeley DIG Library SunSITE)

Through letters and returning sojourners, news of profitable work in the cities and mines reached relatives and friends in Kwangtung. In 1850, approximately 450 more Chinese emigrated to California; the following year, the number jumped to more than 2,700. These new arrivals found assistance and familiar food and lodging in San Francisco’s new Chinatown San Francisco;Chinatown , a district in which Chinese had begun to settle for convenience and safety. After a short period of adjustment, most Chinese immigrants followed their predecessors into the mountains, joining one of the many Chinese mining camps operating around Sacramento. Others remained in the city to work as manual laborers. In general, these early Chinese immigrants worked with exceptional diligence, industry, and enterprise and led a reticent existence in the mining camps and cities.

These positive qualities earned the early Chinese immigrants acceptance among the California business community. Although their waist-length braided hair, blue cotton pants and jackets, and broad-brimmed straw hats set them apart from the rest of the townspeople and forty-niners, they were warmly welcomed as a valuable and respected segment of the citizenry. A San Francisco judge summed up the early goodwill of Americans toward the Chinese: “Born and reared under different Governments and speaking different tongues, we nevertheless meet here today as brothers. . . . You stand among us in all respects as equals.”

That goodwill wore thin as increasing numbers of Chinese arrived in the city. In 1852 alone, more than twenty thousand Chinese landed at San Francisco, bringing the total number of Chinese on the coast to approximately twenty-five thousand. The flood of new arrivals severely taxed the city’s resources, particularly in Chinatown, where most settled, at least temporarily. In packed Chinese boardinghouses, one cot was often rented to a number of workers who slept on it on a rotating basis. Overcrowding created sanitation problems, increased crime, and caused higher prices. Abundant cheap labor stimulated competition for unskilled work that, over time, drove down wages. The white settlers’ attitude toward the Chinese and Chinatown began to shift from curiosity to contempt.

The attitude of white miners in the goldfields also changed. Prior to 1852, bandits and claim-jumpers had occasionally driven Chinese off successful excavations, but these attacks were generally motivated by greed, not racism. After 1852, antagonism and violence against Chinese miners increased. In Jacksonville, white miners drove Chinese miners off their claims and out of town. In Chili Gulch, a mob beat a Chinese miner to death. For protection, Chinese workers banded together in large mining camps, easily recognized by names such as China City, China Creek, China Flat, China Gulch, and China Town.

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Under Nativism, U.S.;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] the slogan “California California;nativist movements for Americans,” nativists began demanding legislation to restrict Chinese laborers and miners. In 1852, the California legislature responded by passing the state’s first discriminatory tax law, the Foreign Miners’ Tax. This law required all miners who were not citizens of the United States to pay a monthly license fee. Since the Chinese were the largest recognizable group of foreign miners and already were concentrated in easily accessible mining camps, they constituted the majority of those taxed.

Also in 1852, California state senator George B. Tingley Tingley, George B. introduced a bill to eliminate “coolie ”Coolies"[Coolies] labor”—contracts made with Chinese laborers for work in California for a set number of years. (“Coolie” is a derogatory term used to describe unskilled laborers.) California governor John Bigler Bigler, John also began a crusade against Chinese immigration on the grounds that it constituted a danger to the welfare of the state. Tong K. Achick Achick, Tong K. , a missionary-schooled, English-speaking Cantonese who emigrated to San Francisco, represented the Chinese position before the California legislature. As leader of the advocacy group, the Four Great Houses, in San Francisco—forerunner of the famous Six Companies—he argued that these laws unfairly targeted law-abiding Chinese, who were an asset, not a liability, to the state.

The mood in California, however, had changed, and Tong and other Chinese advocates were unable to stop the growing anti-Chinese sentiment. California nativists Nativism, U.S.;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] continued to push for state and national legislation limiting Chinese immigration. Their efforts culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barth, Gunther. Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Describes the early years of Chinese immigration, providing a good examination of the development of anti-Chinese sentiment in California.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Although centering on European immigration, this work addresses issues common to the Chinese experience, which spurred people in other parts of the world to emigrate to the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Examines factors influencing Asian emigration and the problems Asians faced in adjusting to life in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coolidge, Mary Roberts. Chinese Immigration. 1909. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Comprehensively details Chinese immigration, the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment, and the politics of exclusion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dirlik, Arif, and Malcolm Yeung, eds. Chinese on the American Frontier. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. An introduction to the Chinese experience in the frontier West. Includes the chapters “Mapping the Chinese Presence on the U.S. Frontier,” “After the Gold Rush: Chinese Mining in the Far West, 1850-1890,” and “Army of Canton in the High Sierra.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabaccia, Donna R. Immigration and American Diversity: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. A survey of American immigration history, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, with an emphasis on cultural and social trends, ethnic conflicts, nativism, and racialist theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Victor R. A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants Between Old World and New, 1830-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004. A comparative study of the different challenges faced by members of eight major immigrant groups including the Chinese. Includes the chapter “The Chinese: Struggle on ’Gold Mountain.’”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. An innovative social history of the California gold rush that explores its multicultural dimensions and the collisions among vastly different cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A history of U.S. immigration laws supported by extensive extracts from contemporary documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Stuart Creighton. The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1795-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Examines Chinese immigration in terms of “coolie” (unskilled) labor and the fear that Chinese laborers would undermine labor and revive slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don’t Bring Women Here: Chinese Female Imusion. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Study of the special problems faced by female Chinese immigrants in the years leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1989. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Chapter 3 succinctly examines the early years of Chinese immigration. Other chapters explore the Asian immigrant experience in detail. A comprehensive work.

American Era of “Old” Immigration

California Gold Rush Begins

Burlingame Treaty

First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

Congress Enacts the Page Law

Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act

San Francisco’s Chinese Six Companies Association Forms

Anti-Japanese Yellow Peril Campaign Begins

Chinese Californians Form Native Sons of the Golden State

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Stephen J. Field. California;Chinese immigrants Chinese immigrants;and California gold rush[California gold rush] Immigration;to United States[United States] Mining;in California[California] Mining;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] San Francisco;Chinese immigrants

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