During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the fares Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean to the United States paid ranged from fifteen to forty-five dollars–amounts that few Chinese workers could afford. American companies recruiting workers in China advanced money to immigrants to cover their travel expenses. The immigrants often ended up paying these loans several times over, but this so-called credit-ticket system enabled tens of thousands of Chinese to reach the United States.
Before 1850, Chinese migration to the United States was rare. Both China and the United States placed restrictions on emigration that tended to discourage all but a handful of merchants, scholars, and sailors from settling in the United States. When stories concerning a massive
Paying the cost of travel, however, was a difficult problem for the average Chinese worker, even though foreign companies were actively seeking Chinese laborers. In response, the “credit-ticket system” was established. Chinese immigrants received loans to cover their travel costs from hiring agencies employed by foreign companies. After the new immigrants reached their destination, they paid back these loans, plus interest, out of their wages. The
The credit-ticket system had some serious faults. Most immigrants preferred using it over becoming indentured or contract laborers because it allowed them to choose their own employment. However, paying off the loans typically required months of labor. With interest and fees, loans of forty dollars could easily rise as high as $160. The money that Chinese immigrants made was never great. Even successful gold miners typically realized only modest incomes, and wages paid to Chinese workers for other kinds of employment, such as railroad work, were low. On average, it took seven months for workers to pay off their debts. Nevertheless, the credit-ticket system remained firmly in place and popular until Chinese immigration was halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and admittance to the United States stopped by the Scott Act of 1888.
Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Kuhn, Philip A. Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times (State and Society in East Asia). Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Pan, Lynn. Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. Yung, Judy, Gordon Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds. Chinese American Voices: From Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Burlingame Treaty of 1868
California gold rush
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Contract labor system