Chinese immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the late twentieth century, Chinese became one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the United States. By the early twenty-first century, they constituted the largest Asian immigrant group in the United States and could be found throughout the North American continent.

Although most immigration from China to the United States occurred during the twentieth century, the earliest identifiable Chinese immigrants arrived in America during the 1780’s. However, the discovery of California gold rush;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]gold in California in 1848 brought a large wave of Chinese. In the following three decades, about 300,000 Chinese entered the United States to work primarily as miners in gold mines, laundry and grocery operators in urban communities, farm laborers in agricultural areas, or fishermen in fishing villages in California.Chinese immigrantsChinese immigrants[cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Chinese immigrants[01020][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Chinese immigrants[01020]

Push-Pull Factors

Similar Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]to their counterparts from other countries, early Chinese immigrants were “pushed” by forces in China and “pulled” by attractions in the United States. Natural disastersThe “push” mainly came from natural disasters, internal upheavals, and imperialistic aggressions in China during the 1840’s and 1850’s. The “pull” resulted from the discovery of gold in California and the economic opportunities in the United States.

The decades of the 1840’s and the 1850’s in China were full of natural calamities. The major ones were the severe draught in Henan Province in 1847, the flooding of the Yangtze River in the four provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, and the famine in Guangxi in 1849. Flood and famine in Guangdong gave way to the catastrophic Taiping Revolution (1850-1864), which devastated the land, uprooted the peasantry, and dislocated the economy and polity.

Moreover, the importation of opium deepened the social and economic crisis. As a result of the Opium WarOpium War of 1839-1842, opium traffic practically became unrestrained. The volume of imports rose from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 46,000 chests in 1848, and to 52,929 chests in 1850. The year 1848 alone witnessed the outflow of more than ten million taels of silver, which exacerbated the already grave economic dislocation and copper-silver exchange rate. The disruptive economic consequence of opium importation was further compounded by the general influx of foreign goods in the open ports. Canton was particularly hit because it had the longest history of foreign trade and the widest foreign contact. Local household industries were swept away, and the self-sufficient agrarian economy suffered. Those who were adversely affected became potential emigrants.

News of the California gold rush;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]discovery of gold in California (which the Chinese called Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain”) spread like wildfire to every corner of the world and soon attracted thousands of gold seekers to California. Among them were 325 Chinese “forty-niners.” During the early 1850’s, the number of Chinese increased dramatically: 2,716 in 1851 and 20,026 in 1852. By 1882, when the passage of the [a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882Chinese Exclusion Act ended the large-scale Chinese immigration, about 300,000 Chinese were living in the continental United States.

The Chinese gold seekers, referred to by their compatriots as Gam Saan Haak (“travelers to Gold Mountain” or “Gold Mountain guests”), were mostly adult males from Guangdong Province. Gold played a significant role in the lives of the early Chinese immigrants, and the majority of these gold seekers worked in the mining areas of California. U.S. Census statistics indicate that almost all the Chinese in the continental United States lived in California in 1860. Most Chinese miners worked in placer claims. They washed the gold-bearing sand in a pan or rocker to let the heavier particles of gold settle at the bottom.

As Chinese miners became ubiquitous in the California hills, white miners felt threatened and demanded that the California legislature eliminate the competition from foreign miners. In May of 1852, the state legislature passed the Foreign miner taxesForeign Miners’ Tax, which required every foreign miner who was ineligible for citizenship to pay a monthly fee of three dollars. Chinese immigrants, the primary targets of the California law, were considered ineligible for citizenship because of a 1790 federal law that reserved naturalized citizenship to “white” persons only.

In addition to mining, Railroads;Chinese workersChinese immigrants;railroad workersthe construction of the Transcontinental railroad;Chinese workerstranscontinental railroad absorbed a large number of Chinese laborers, many of whom were former miners. After the end of the U.S. Civil War, the U.S. government could once again devote its attention to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The eastern part of the railroad was contracted to the Union Pacific RailroadUnion Pacific Railroad to build westward from the Missouri RiverMissouri River, and the western part of the railroad to the Central Pacific RailroadCentral Pacific Railroad Company–financed by the “Big Four,” Sacramento, California;and transcontinental railroad[transcontinental railroad]Sacramento merchants Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and C. P. Huntington, to build eastward from Sacramento. In February, 1865, fifty Chinese workers were hired by the Central Pacific RailroadCompany as an experiment. As the Chinese workers performed various tasks of blasting, driving horses, handling rock, and doing pick-and-shovel work, they proved to be effective and reliable workers, and the company began to hire more Chinese. During the peak time of the construction, the Central Pacific Railroad Company hired twelve thousand Chinese, representing 90 percent of its Railroads;Chinese workersentire workforce.

While the majority of Chinese were digging gold and building railroads, some Chinese families fished for their livelihood in the Monterey Bay region. Chinese immigrants;railroad workersThe completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 forced most Chinese railroad workers to become farm laborers in California; many others had to migrate south and east, working in southern plantations or in new booming towns on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

Anti-Chinese Sentiments and Exclusion Laws

The anti-Chinese movement, compounded by the economic depression on the West Coast in the last decades of the nineteenth century, contributed to the redistribution of Chinese immigrants. Economic discrimination in the form of special taxes and levies targeted the Chinese. For example, Foreign miner taxesCalifornia’s foreign miner taxes discouraged Chinese in particular, and an 1870 Chinatowns;San FranciscoSan Francisco;ChinatownSan Francisco ordinance taxed Chinese laundrieslaundrymen without horses for their delivery wagon. (The Chinese did not use horses, so the law effectively discriminated against them.) Furthermore, anti-Chinese sentiment subjected immigrants and their businesses to violent physical attacks and abuse. The anti-Chinese violence generally took three forms: murder, spontaneous attacks and destruction of Chinatowns, and organized effort to drive Asians out of certain towns and cities.

The series of Chinese exclusion laws effectively banned the entry of Chinese into the United States. The passage of the 1882 [a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;provisions ofChinese Exclusion Act suspended the entry of all Chinese laborers for ten years. Merchants, diplomats, teachers, students, and travelers were exempt, but they still needed documentation. The ban was extended in 1892 and 1902, and made indefinite in 1904. The 1892 [a]Geary Act of 1892;provisions ofGeary Act required all Chinese laborers to register for a certificate of residence. Those who did not register could be arrested or deported. A storm of protest followed, but a test case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of the law.

Livelihood of Chinese Immigrants

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the laundering business had been a predominant occupation of the Chinese in the United States. After the 1870’s, prejudice against Chinese immigrants from American society effectively cut them out of the rest of the labor market. Persecuted and harassed, the Chinese could not find jobs, and they were forced to rely on their own resources. When they were excluded from the gold mines in the hills, they found an equally lucrative gold mine in the city. In setting up Chinese laundrieslaundries, they did not have to seek out jobs in established industries or incur the risk of heavy capital investment. All they needed for the business were scrub boards, soap, irons, and ironing boards. They would canvass a neighborhood, seek out a low-rent location, and open up a business.

Like laundries, restaurants were one of the most important businesses for the Chinese in the United States. Initially, Chinese restaurants started as a service for the bachelor communities of Chinese immigrants in isolated ranches, logging camps, mining towns, and other areas where Chinese men and women were willing to cook. When the eating places that the Chinese had set up for themselves soon attracted a number of outsiders, the Chinese realized that restaurants were profitable business enterprises well suited to their temperament. During the 1890’s, Chinese restaurants sprouted in the United States in many places. Most small Chinese restaurants were run as husband-and-wife businesses; the husband served as cook and dishwasher in the kitchen, while the wife worked as waitress, barmaid, and cashier in the front.

The grocery business ranked as a distant third occupation for Chinese immigrants before the 1940’s, although it was one of the major enterprises of the Chinese in some southern and western states. Chinese grocery stores provided Chinese ingredients for cooking and other goods for Chinese communities. Unlike the Chinese restaurants, the Chinese grocery stores found their clientele primarily among Chinese and other Asian immigrants. The stores were mostly located in Chinatowns and Asian communities.

Postwar Chinese Immigration

Anti-Chinese sentiment abated during World War II, when China became a member of the Grand Alliance and public images of the Chinese gradually changed. A more favorable attitude in America toward China and Chinese Americans continued after the war. Facing pressures from the public and other interest groups, Congress repealed a large number of exclusion laws, which for years had denied Chinese Americans fundamental civil rights and legal protection. On December 17, 1943, Congress passed the [a]Immigration Act of 1943;and Chinese exclusion[Chinese exclusion]Immigration Act of 1943 (also known as the Magnuson Act), which repealed all Chinese exclusion laws that had been passed since 1882, permitted Chinese aliens in the United States to apply for naturalization, and allowed 105 Chinese to immigrate annually.

In spite of the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws, the Chinese immigrant quota designated by the American government was quite low. This figure was one-sixth of 1 percent of the number of the Chinese in the United States in 1920 as determined by the census of that year. Nevertheless, nonquota immigrants were allowed to immigrate. More Chinese scholars came to teach in the United States–an average of about 137 each year, compared with 10 per year during the previous decade. More important, under the [a]War Brides Act of 1945War brides;ChineseWar Brides Act of December 28, 1945, and the G.I. [a]Fiancées Act of 1946Fiancées Act of June 29, 1946, alien wives and children of veterans and American citizens were permitted to enter the United States as nonquota immigrants. During the three-year operation of the War Brides Act, approximately 6,000 Chinese war brides were admitted. Thus, in 1947 the number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States climbed to 3,191, most of whom came on a nonquota basis.

Many Women;Chinesewomen also immigrated under other laws. The [a]Displaced Persons Act of 1948;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and the [a]Refugee Relief Act of 1953;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]Refugee Relief Act of 1953 allowed several thousand Chinese women to come to America. The former granted “displaced” Chinese students, visitors, and others who had temporary status in the United States to adjust their status to that of permanent resident. The latter act allotted three thousand visas to refugees from Asia and two thousand visas to Chinese whose passports had been issued by the Chinese Nationalist government, which lost power in mainland China in 1949. On September 22, 1959, Congress passed an act under which more Chinese on the quota waiting list obtained nonquota status. Thus, by 1960 the number of Chinese in the United States, as reported by the 1960 U.S. Census, had reached 237,292. This included 135,549 male and 101,743 female persons, of whom 60 percent were native born.

Among the women who immigrated during this period were many so-called War brides;Chinesewar brides who had hurriedly married Chinese American veterans before the expiration date of the [a]War Brides Act of 1945War Brides Act in 1949. In her article “The Recent Immigrant Chinese Families of the San Francisco-Oakland Area,” Rose Hum Lee describes the war bride:

The most publicized case of “getting married quick” was of the ex-soldier who enplaned to China, selected his bride, was married, and landed at the San Francisco airport the evening before his month’s leave of absence expired. His bride came later, a practice applying to many others whose admission papers could not be processed rapidly.

Whereas during the 1930’s an average of only 60 Chinese women entered the United States each year, in 1948 alone 3,317 women immigrated. During the period from 1944 to 1953, women constituted 82 percent of Chinese immigrants to America. For the first time, the number of Chinese Women;Chinesewomen and families in the United States noticeably increased. The male-female ratio dropped from 2.9:1 in 1940 to 1.8:1 in 1950, and 1.3:1 in 1960.

Post-1965 Immigration

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the consequent influx of new Chinese immigrants contributed to the transformation of Chinese American society. The act abolished the 1924 Quota systems;abolition ofquota system and set up three immigration principles of family reunification, the need for skilled workers, and the admission of refugees. According to these principles, the visas were allocated among quota immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere according to seven preferences:

•20 percent of total annual visas to unmarried children of citizens of the United States

•20 percent to spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents

•10 percent to professionals, scientists, and artists with “exceptional ability”

•10 percent to married children of citizens of the United States

•24 percent to siblings of citizens of the United States

•10 percent to skilled and unskilled workers in occupations “for which a shortage of employable and willing persons exists in the United States”

•6 percent to refugees

The architects of the 1965 act intended to make the immigration policies appear more humanitarian and impartial to applicants on one hand and more beneficial to the United States on the other. The new law allowed 20,000 quota immigrants from every country in the Eastern Hemisphere to be admitted to the United States each year, regardless of the size of the country. It reserved 74 percent (including 20 percent in the first preference, another 20 percent in the second preference, 10 percent in the fourth preference, and 24 percent in the fifth preference) of the total 170,000 visas annually allotted for the Eastern Hemisphere for family reunification.

The lawmakers anticipated that European immigrants would continue to be the cohort of new immigrants, since there was a very small percentage (0.5 percent of the total U.S. population during the 1960’s) of Asian Americans in the country. Two occupational preferences (preferences three and six) allowed the U.S. immigration authorities and the Department of Labor to select carefully only applicants with special training and skills who would fill the vacuum in the American job market. In the years following this act, the Chinese American population increased dramatically. In addition, the male-female ratio finally approached parity.

Changing Push-Pull Factors

The Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]majority of new immigrants came to the United States for economic reasons. The influx of Chinese refugees from Vietnam since 1975 were lured by economic opportunities in America. In addition to laboring immigrants, a large number of professionals (the better-educated and the wealthier from China, Taiwanese immigrantsTaiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia) also arrived since 1965. These new immigrants benefited from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which gave priority to refugees, to those who had close family members in the United States, and to applicants who had skills, education, and capital.

After the normalization of Sino-American relations in 1979, some Chinese who had family members in the United States were allowed to come to America as immigrants. Since many of them came for economic reasons and were determined to settle, they brought their families as allowed by U.S. immigration policies. Some resigned their professional jobs in China and started from scratch in the United States.

As of 2008, at least twenty-four national-origin groups had been officially tabulated into the U.S. Census. Americans of Chinese and Filipino ancestries are the largest subgroups, at more than 2 million each, followed by Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese, whose numbers surpass 1 million each. The nearly 2.9 million Chinese Americans tend to settle in urban areas and concentrate in the West. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, California;Asian immigrantsCalifornia by itself accounted for 35 percent of the 4.3 million people of Asian descent living in the United States and also had the largest number of California;Chinese immigrantsChinese. The state of New York State;Asian immigrantsNew York accounted for 10 percent (1.2 million) of all Asians, second only to California. Chinese were also heavily concentrated in New York.Chinese immigrants

Further Reading
  • Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A scholarly, comprehensive survey of Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Asian Indian ancestry from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1980’s.
  • Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. A comprehensive account of the political, social, economic, and cultural history of Chinese Americans over a century and a half.
  • Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington, 1988. Scholarly synthesis encompassing the two pioneer Asian American groups, the Chinese and the Japanese, from 1850 to 1980.
  • Ling, Huping. Chinese St. Louis: From Enclave to Cultural Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. The first comprehensive study of an ethnic community in the Midwest, this groundbreaking work proposes a “cultural community” model to interpret the new type of ethnic community that is defined more by its cultural boundaries than by geographical ones.
  • _______. Surviving on the Gold Mountain: Chinese American Women and Their Lives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. The first comprehensive history of Chinese American women from the mid-nineteenth century to 1990’s. Explores topics such as causes of immigration, settlement patterns, family, work, and community.

Anti-Chinese movement

Bayard-Zhang Treaty of 1888

Burlingame Treaty of 1868

Cable Act of 1922

California gold rush

Chinese American press

Chinese boycott of 1905

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Chinese family associations


Geary Act of 1892

Hong Kong immigrants

Taiwanese immigrants

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