Chinese immigrants in California in XVIII-XIX centuries

Today, the Chinese in California are highly educated professionals and well-paid employees. However, the first Chinese immigrants were uneducated individuals who agreed to perform any menial work at a meagre wage and were willing to survive in California society, though being forced to endure harsh work conditions, opposition of the local population, and infringing rights through the racial laws adopted by the government. The Chinese migration to the USA happened in waves in accordance with the increasing demand of the construction industry. On the whole, the Chinese were highly valued for diligence and discipline, but they did not enjoy the same rights as the U.S. citizens, which considerably complicated their lives.

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Although the first American resettlement expedition to California occurred in 1841, these lands came under control of the United States only in 1846. The first Chinese numbered about 11 people until 1848 arrived there as a part of the American expedition along the California Trail. In 1848, the news about gold discovered in California became spread worldwide. Thus, the Gold Rush started in the West, which required much cheap workforce. It directly affected the immigration pattern of America at the time. The Gold Rush was spreading with unprecedented speed, and a huge number of adventurers and those wishing to get rich quickly flocked to California from all over the world. Among the miners who arrived in California in 1848-1849, there were several thousands of Americans who came from the northwestern USA, and a large number of French, Irish, and Chinese. The Gold Rush era is considered to be the beginning of the Chinese immigration to the United States, which amounted to about 25,000 people in California in 1852. Although the Chinese were not allowed to be directly involved in the gold mining process, they did much work related to development of the gold fields.

After exhausting the gold mines, the estimated number of the Chinese was about 2/3 of all miners who worked in the mines of California. They mined not only gold but also salt, borate, coal, and mercury on the southwestern coast of the United States. According to the census of 1870, the Chinese amounted to 61% of miners in Oregon; 21%, in Montana; 59%, in Idaho; and 25%, in California. However, it is impossible to name the exact number of the Chinese working for American companies, Chinese contractors, or themselves.

Chinese immigrants settled in the autonomous areas, the so-called Chinatowns. The Chinese Association ensured their employment. The immigrants provided themselves with food, which mostly consisted of rice and dried fish, and also kept their usual entertainment and addiction: gambling and opium. Thus, Chinatowns were growing in various large cities unchanged in terms of opium dens and massage parlors.

However, the most extensive use of Chinese labor could be observed during the construction of railroads. Chinese immigrants built the California Central Railroad in 1858 and proved themselves as diligent workers. Although they were not as fast as Euro-American builders, they worked almost without break from dawn to dusk.

In the middle 1840s, the USA became a country washed by two oceans. In 1863, the U.S. government authorized the construction of the transcontinental railroad and telegraph line, which had to connect the West and East coasts. Charles Crocker, the chief executive officer of the construction, was the first one to propose solving the labor shortage problem employing the Chinese. At the time, the Gold Rush started to decline, and the Chinese laborers offered their services at low wages. In the autumn of 1865, three thousands of the Chinese immigrants were involved in the railroad construction process. Four-fifth of those who participated in the construction of the Central Pacific Railway were Chinese. After exhausting local human resources, people started to hire workers directly from China. Thus, the second wave of Chinese immigration began. The Chinese soon became an example of diligence, assiduity, and purity. There were no fighting or so-called “Blue Mondays” when workers did not come back for work on Mondays because of having a hangover. They were quiet, peaceful, patient, hardworking, thrifty, and always willing and able to obtain new knowledge required for the construction. Thus, soon they became qualified enough to compete with white workers.

However, patience of the Chinese workers was not endless. They fought for their rights when they had the opportunity. In 1867, 2,000 of the Chinese laborers involved in the construction of railway in the mountainous region, organized a strike. They demanded to increase their wages to match those of white workers, reduce working hours in open areas to 10 hours and in tunnels, to 8 hours. They also asked for banning the whip and allowing workers to retire when they deemed it necessary. The strike lasted for a week. The Central Pacific managers acted quickly and precisely. First of all, they contacted New York and asked to transfer ten thousands of African-Americans to replace the striking Chinese. Then they stopped delivering provision to the strikers' camp. As a result, after a week of “imprisonment” and starvation in the Sierra, the workers capitulated. The strike was widely publicized in the local newspapers, but the actions of the Chinese laborers did not receive any response from white workers. A high level of competition and extremely different cultures caused negative and often hostile attitude of the local population towards Chinese immigrants. Therefore, the Chinese learning to use strike to defend their interests only irritated white workers and did not help them to unite in the fighting for their rights.

However, considering the global trend of the abolition of slavery, American businessmen were interested in workers from the countries that provided the most hard-working workforce. Therefore, in 1868, the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, which permitted unrestricted entry and exit for the citizens of these countries. However, legislation in the United States was not advantageous for the Chinese on its territory. In 1870, the Naturalization Act was adopted, which stated that white people and people of African descent had the right to have U.S. citizenship, thereby perpetuating the racist ideology in terms of the law. Thus, the Chinese could not become U.S. citizens. Therefore, they were not allowed to participate in elections, buy land, or even submit statements of claim. They were labeled “the aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

The issue of Chinese women in California and in the USA in general is also noteworthy. Chinese society in the United States due to historical circumstances almost entirely consisted of men. All of them went to America hoping to earn money and then return to their families rich. According to the statistics, in San Francisco, the proportion of Chinese diaspora was 4018 males to every 7 females. With the growth of demand for cheap Chinese labor, the number of the Chinese male population increased as well as the number of women. However, the ratio of women to men was still 1:18. Therefore, it is not surprising that prostitution prospered in California during the Gold Rush. The only difference between Chinese and Euro-American prostitutes was the fact that the latter came to work in California brothels on their own. However, Chinese prostitutes were usually delivered in the country under a contractual obligation after being taken from poor families or even kidnapped. The demand for Chinese prostitutes was enormous. According to the law, sexual relations between Chinese men and white women were prohibited, and the number of Chinese women was quite limited. As a result, Chinese workers had no opportunity to create a family. In 1860, 85% of Chinese women in California were prostitutes. The situation resulted in the series of laws, which considerably complicated the entry to the United States for Chinese women.

To conclude, great numbers of the Chinese started to arrive in California in 1848 as a part of the American settlement expedition along the California Trail. The first wave of Chinese immigration to the United States was caused by the Gold Rush: their number increased to about 25,000 people in 1852. After the gold mines were exhausted, the Chinese comprised about 2/3 of all miners in California mining not only gold but also salt, borate, coal, and mercury all over the western coast of the USA. However, the most extensive use of Chinese labor could be observes during the construction of railroads. The Chinese became an example of diligence, assiduity, and purity working for 12 hours a day with almost no rest at extremely low wages, which created strong competition to the local population and resulted in aggressive and violent reaction. The attempts of the Chinese workers to strike were often unsuccessful and caused discontent of the company's management and their co-workers as well. The Chinese population of California in 18-19th centuries was mainly male because the first Chinese immigrants intended to earn money and come back to their motherland. The female Chinese representatives were mostly prostitutes brought to California against their wishes. Thus, growing discontent of the local population, which was caused by the high competition level and numerous violators of the US laws in Chinatowns, led to the adoption of several racial laws that greatly complicated lives for the Chinese in California.

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