Surprisingly, Asian Americans have been in America for over 150 years. They are as diverse as the immigrants from Europe, ranging from China, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Korea, Philippines, India, Vietnam, and Laos. (Takaki, page 8 ) When many people think of American Immigrants, Asians are on the last of their lists. In The Uprooted, Harvard historian, Oscar Handlin, prize winning book with the subtitle “the Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People,” completely left out the “uprooted” from the lands across the Pacific Ocean. (Takaki, page 10) This paper will give some information pertaining to the Chinese immigration into America.
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China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It influence have reverberated throughout Asia. It’s presence is felt in many of the surrounding cultures. The Chinese people have tried to keep their society pure from outside sources. When foreigners entered their homeland and poisoned the population with drugs, the culture could not stop the imminent alteration of their ways. China was weakened severely and was taken advantage of by many countries.
Chinese came to America for a myriad of reasons. The main reason was because of the myth of the Gam Saan (“Golden Mountain.”) Other reasons were due to overpopulation, poverty, hunger, flooding, high taxes, bad economy, collapsing government, and crop failure. (Takaki, page 38) James Marshall discovery of gold in California in 1848 prompted many Chinese to take a sojourn into America to get rich quick. A young man in Canton wrote to his brother in Boston saying, “good many Americans speak of California, Oh! Very rich country! O hear good many Americans and Europeans go there very much. I think I shall go to California next summer.” Stories like these built up this dream of the “Golden Mountain.” The plan for most Chinese was to make their fortune, and return home to their family. The dream of getting rich quick has been around for ages. Due to this, a trickle of immigrants turned into a deluge.
The whole thing began in 1835. William Hooper, a young man from Boston, visited a sugar mill in Hawaii. He became determined to start the first sugar plantation in Hawaii. Without a large supply of laborers, Hooper hired “Chinamen” to aid in the success of the plantation. From this humble beginning, sugar grew into a large industry that would need a steady supply of laborers. (Takaki, page 22) In 1848, after a war with Mexico, the United States obtained a region known as California. Finding California to be a commercial and agricultural center, it became America’s gateway to Asia. (Takaki, page 20) With the large fertile lands of California, workers were needed to help reap the profits that would flow in. Aaron H. Palmer, a government official, stated, “No people in all the East are so well adapted for the clearing wild lands and raising every species of agricultural product as the Chinese.” (Takaki, page 21)
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In 1833, the British Empire abolished the practice of slavery. Plantation owners desperate for field labor made use of coolies. Coolies were basically Chinese that signed labor contracts and were held in virtual slavery. They were ensnared by brokers into this system by debts, clan war prisoners, or kidnapping. (Melendy, page 13) Like the African slave trade, this method flourished over Asia and had high mortality rates due to cramped quarters and malnourishment. It was referred to as the “buying and selling of pigs.” (Melendy, page 13) Hawaii made use of this practice in order to fulfill the great demand of the booming sugar industry. In 1962, the United States congress prohibited American citizens in American vessels from engaging in such activities. However, the laws were easily evaded, and not strictly enforced.
American Business man knew they needed a labor force. This gave way to the “unnumbered millions” of workers in Asia. (Takaki, page 28) In an 1869 magazine article called “Our Manufacturing Era,” a writer named Henry Robinson described California’s enormous economic potential. He stated that, “If Chinese labor could be used to develop the industries of California, it would be the height of folly to forbid its entrance to the Golden Gate.” (Takaki, page 28) There was a constant demand for Asian labor all across the Pacific Coast, because they were cheaper, and generally harder working. Robinson claims that, “…even a lowly job in America would be a step up for an Asian, who would do work that whites had “out grown.” Factories owners, bankers, investors, and other leaders of American industry used the Chinese workers to keep wages down. (Takaki, page 30) Chinese workers would work for cheaper wages, and would prevent strikes for higher wages from white workers. This naturally led to a buildup of animosity among the groups which then led to racial antagonism.
Toward the end of the 19th century, many whites felt that there were too many Chinese in the United States. Congress acted by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which banned the immigration of Chinese into America. As the number of Chinese immigrants increased, the anti-Chinese forces began to arise. The Chinese provided a cheap form of labor. Frank M. Pixley, editor of the San Francisco Argonaut, said that “… the Chinese are so successful as workers that they were driving away white labor.” (Melendy, page 18) Racism built up due to cultural and economic fears. The Chinese did not try to amalgamate with the dominant culture. Frank Pixley sums up the Pacific Coast prejudice, a view still held in the mid twentieth century:
“The burden of our accusation against them is that they come in conflict with our labor interests; that they can never assimilate with us that they are a perpetual, unchanging, and unchangeable alien element that can never be homogeneous; that their civilization is demoralizing and degrading to our people; that they degrade and dishonor labor class, without the desire of citizenship, without education, and without interest in the country it inhabits, is an element both demoralizing and dangerous to the community within which it exists.” (Melendy, page 28)
The Chinese were discriminated in many ways, from forming laws that specifically targeted them, to disallowing citizenship of the Chinese. In late 1860’s, violence started to arise from the hate. Whites rioted and killed many Chinese in towns all over California. In May, 1876 some whites burned a Chinese house in Truckee and then shot the Chinese as they tried to escape. Although the town claimed to be outraged, those arrested were acquitted at the trial. (Melendy, page 38) Examples like this show the inequalities of the legal system at that time period. Dennis Kearney, leader of the Workingman’s Party in California, said in a speech, “We will drive out the Chinese if we have to destroy the whole state of California.” Anti-Chinese riots broke out all across the West, driving out the Chinese by all means. In the 1885-86 riots, the Chinese had suffered a loss of more than 50 lives, and $250,000,000. (Melendy, page 40)
What has all this accomplished? Well, Asian Americans belong to the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Kept out by immigration laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asians have recently been coming again. In the early 1990’s, half of all immigrants entering annually are Asian. In 1960, Asians compromised a mere 0.5% of the population. By the year 2000, Asian Americans will make up 4% of the total population of the United States. In California already, Asian Americans represent 10% of the state’s total population. (Takaki, page 9)
Through the backbreaking labor of the Asian ancestors, the success of America was goaded. The Asians have made many cultural contributions to America. Chinese food is common place throughout the nation; it can even be purchased at any local supermarket. Chinese art, such as chinaware or “china”, is revered by many Americans. Even the name of the represents Americas debt. In addition, many Chinese trinkets and artwork are prized possessions among the American society.
The immigration of the Chinese into the United States has greatly supplemented the cultural heritage of the nation. (Melendy, page i) “Asians with their capacity for hard work in the face of economic and social adversity and to advance economically, have created cultural microcosms form which their children venture to become Americans.” (Melendy, page i) Unlike most European immigrants, Asians tend to disprove the original Melting Pot theory of America. The Asians, “… did not wish to amalgamate with the dominant society and most certainly white Americans of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s made it abundantly clear that they were opposed to Asian immigration and settlement.” (Melendy, page 1) The United States is a nation of immigrants. “All groups have left their mark upon the country’s fabric. Their physical stamina and intellectual abilities have enabled them to make their mark and to add measurably to the American heritage.” (Melendy, page 182)