How We Got Here: Chinese America’s Fight for “Simple Justice”

In 1849, rumors of untold riches across the ocean reached China. In California, or Gold Mountain as the Chinese knew it, the discovery of gold initiated a massive influx of settlers from across the globe. “Good many Americans speak of California,” one Chinese man told his brother. “They find gold very quickly…I think I shall go to California next summer.” By the end of the year, 325 Chinese, almost all from Guandong Province outside Hong Kong, joined the multinational contingent scouring California for gold.

But the Chinese arrived in a state already defined by ethnic cleansing. After a campaign of extermination against local Native Americans, Californians turned their wrath upon Mexicans and Latin American miners, expelling them through both discriminatory laws and brute force. “By the end of the gold rush,” Jean Pfaelzer notes, “California had become a giant company town, owned by and for white men.” New arrivals from China, unsurprisingly, proved an awkward fit for the newborn state.

chinese gold rush
Chinese Forty-Niners

At first, the Chinese were well-received. The cleanliness of their mining camps and their generally good comportment impressed many Westerners. “A disorderly Chinaman is rare,” Mark Twain observed, “and a lazy one does not exist.” If their dress and appearance – especially their long pigtails, or queues – occasionally excited comment, their hard work inspired admiration rather than derision. Before long, however, opinions changed, with California’s government levying a mining tax against foreigners that relegated Chinese to scavenging used-up veins of gold. It was the beginning of a long, slow road to exclusion, expulsion and bloodshed.

Increasingly barred from mining, Chinese immigrants found other work. They particularly prospered with restaurants and laundries, more from necessity than preference. “The Chinese laundryman does not learn his trade in China,” Lee Chew recalled. “The women there do the washing in tubs and have no washboards or flat irons.” Finding white settlers reluctant to wash their own clothes, however, immigrants like Lee filled a convenient niche; their businesses formed the cornerstones of segregated Chinatowns in cities across the Pacific Coast.

chinese railroad
Chinese railroad workers

Less fortunate immigrants traveled to the United States, separated from their families and unable to prosper despite decades of drudge work. They labored on railroads (the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the Transcontinental Railroad, relied overwhelmingly on Chinese immigrants), in mines and factories, harvesting crops on farms and ranches. Dubbed “coolies” (from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength”), these immigrants were exploited by corporations, resented by whites and debating how attached their attachment to their homeland, old or new.

Coolies traveled to the New World on cramped vessels (many repurposed slave ships), so bad that they triggered violence or suicide; in 1857, the SS Norway experienced a full scale mutiny by its mistreated passengers. Upon arrival to the United States, they were invariably herded into menial labor for poor wages and no protections against abuse or exploitation. The San Francisco Chronicle, no great sympathizer toward the Chinese, conceded that “when the coolie arrives here, he is as rigidly under the control of the contractor as ever an African slave was under his master.”

Crib Woman
Chinese prostitute in her San Francisco “crib”

Women fared even worse. Only one in ten Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s were female, and up to 50 percent of these were teenagers, and even young girls conscripted as prostitutes. Many were sold into slavery by their parents, then shipped overseas in crates, or sold on the docks of San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities. Inevitably exploited by Chinese tongs (whose owners imprisoned them in cage-like brothels called cribs) and patronized by men both white and Asian, these women were blamed for defiling white manhood both physically (by spreading venereal disease) and psychologically (their exploitation weakened America’s moral character and family structure).

Prostitutes were not completely without recourse. Donaldina Cameron of the Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House in San Francisco enlisted a group of women, both white and Chinese, to help prostitutes escape exploitation. Dubbed “the White Devil” by tong leaders, Cameron shrugged off harassment and death threats, helping up to 2,000 women escape prostitution and providing them funds for education and advancement. Among her charges was Bessie Jeong, the first Chinese woman to graduate from Stanford. Others found freedom through personal initiative; one prostitute, Ah Toy, bought her independence from the tongs and became Chinatown’s leading madam.

Donaldina Cameron
Donaldina Cameron (third from right) assisting Choie Lee at her immigration hearing

Chinese wives joining their husbands in America were, per historian Judy Yung, “doubly bound by patriarchal control in Chinatown and racism outside.” Women were subjected to humiliating examinations by immigration officials; many were separated from their children, who were often adopted by white families while their mothers awaited admission. Inside America, Chinese women received little respect or freedom; some only saw friends once a year, or less, because their husbands refused to allow them to leave home. “Poor me!” one wife lamented. “In China I was shut up in the house since I was ten years old, and only left my father’s house to be shut up in my husband’s house in this great country.”

Yet racism, whether official discrimination or Nativist distrust of immigrants, remained their primary obstacle. Novelist Edith Maud Eaton, who wrote under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, poignantly pondered the issue in her work. “Why is my mother’s race despised?” she asked, further stigmatized as mixed race. “I look into the faces of my father and mother. Is she not every bit as dear and good as he?” It was a dilemma Chinese Americans of all genders, backgrounds and professions faced.

Sui Sin Far
Edith Maud Eaton

Forced by circumstance into crowded tenements, Chinese came under attack for their lifestyle. Many took to gambling as their chief pastime, with games of chance often managed (and rigged) by tongs. Though opium was widely prescribed (and abused) in America already, white moralists and government officials moralized against the advent of opium dens in Chinatowns. “We have no right to crowd out our own people for the sake of encouraging barbarians,” scolded a Eureka, California newspaper, “who only brought dissension, opium eating, prostitution and leprosy in return.”

Even as Americans indulged in Chinese cuisine (“the best eating houses in San Francisco are those kept by Celestials and conducted Chinese fashion,” marveled miner William Shaw), they harped on the grossness of Asian dining habits. Anything in the Chinese diet Westerners found unsettling, from bird’s nest soup to, most notoriously, dogs, became grist for claims that the Chinese themselves were subhuman. Wong Chin Foo, founder of the Chinese Equal Rights League, acidly responded that “I never knew that rats and puppies were good to eat until I was told by American people.”

rock springs small
Massacre at Rock Springs

As press coverage and ingrained stereotypes dehumanized the Chinese, unions wrestled with the question of their laborers. Some unions embraced the Chinese as brothers: one Indiana socialist insisted that “the Chinamen coming here of his own accord…has as much right here as you or any German, Russ, Switzer, Frank, Turk, Pole or Irish or Ethiopian.” Other groups, from the American Federation of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World, made at least token efforts at welcoming Asian members. Yet many resented Asians as a source of cheap labor, ostensibly stealing jobs from white workers. Much as labor leaders might rage, and occasionally organize against Big Business, Chinese workers proved an easier target.

The Knights of Labor, the largest union of the 19th Century, became notorious for its hatred of Chinese. While founder Terence Powderly boasted of the organization’s inclusion of blacks and Irish Catholics, he had no room for Asians. In a typical blast, he complained that “the Chinese never associate with other people, never adapt themselves to our habits, modes of dress or our educational system; they carry their pagan idolatry into every walk in life…[and] see no difference between right and wrong.” With such guidance, it’s unsurprising that the Knights instigated numerous outrages, including Wyoming’s Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, where white miners killed twenty-eight Chinese in cold blood, and a bloody riot in Seattle the following year.

Chinese Americans found themselves caught on the horns of a familiar immigrant’s dilemma. If they failed to find work and fell into poverty and crime, they were attacked as lazy, disease-ridden, opium-smoking, rat-eating troublemakers who swindled whites and lived on the government dole. If, on the other hand, they succeeded (especially with their own businesses), they became a threat to white workers and must be punished.

Nast Kearney
Thomas Nast cartoon mocking Denis Kearney

Democrats in California made political capital from their reputation as “the White Man’s Party.” Party leaders voted against the Fifteenth Amendment and suffrage for nonwhites generally, while sanctioning Klan-inspired paramilitary groups like the Order of the Caucasians to terrorize Asian immigrants (along with white businesses who hired or did business with them). Mainstream politicians like Senator John Franklin Miller paired with demagogues like Denis Kearney, whose San Francisco Workingman’s Party excoriated the “cheap slaves” he called “wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things.” Kearney invariably ended his perorations with a cry of “the Chinese Must Go!”

National politicians of both parties weren’t any more subtle. “One complete man, the product of free institutions, and a high civilization, is worth more to the world than hundreds of Barbarians,” asserted Senator Miller, while Congressman George Hazleton of Wisconsin labeled the Chinese immigrant “a loathsome…revolting… monstrosity” who “lives in herds and sleeps like packs of dogs in kennels.” Terence Vincent Powderly, immigration commissioner under William McKinley, vowed to “check the advancing hordes and whores who seek our shores in search of wealth and…work.” William Calkins of Indiana went even further, claiming that by allowing Chinese immigration, “you plant a cancer in your own country that will eat out its life and destroy it.” 

Of all the statesmen who battled for exclusion, James G. Blaine of Maine was the most powerful. Unsurprisingly, Blaine couched his bigotry as concern for the American laborer: “I would never consent, by my vote or my voice, to drive the intelligent workingmen of America to that competition and that degradation.” After all, “you cannot work a man who must have beef and bread…alongside of a man who can live on rice.” Blaine, future Secretary of State and Republican presidential candidate (whose anti-Catholic scaremongering wasn’t more subtle), proved particularly influential in swaying public opinion; one historian claims that he “single-handedly made racist attacks on Chinese immigrants an honorable act.”

James G. Blaine

These political fulminations led to a drumbeat of legislation, restricting immigration, importation of coolies and women that the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 with China only temporarily staunched. It reached a crescendo in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended all Chinese immigration for a period of twenty years. “Any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States,” the Act proclaimed, “shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came…after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to…remain in the United States.”

Unsurprisingly, legal repression begat violence. Individual attacks on Chinese – fights, beatings, occasionally murder – were common from the start, often on the slightest pretext. “I was sorry to have to stab the poor fellow,” a California tax collector wrote after murdering a Chinese miner, “but the law makes it necessary to collect the tax and that’s where I get my profit.” Bandits found the Chinese easy targets: Joaquin Murieta, the legendary Mexican outlaw who terrorized Gold Rush California, boasted that he “loved to smell the blood of Chinamen” and frequently kidnapped and tortured Chinese miners to death. But often the bloodshed, far from being the act of individuals, became a communal experience.

In October 1871, a feud between Chinese tongs in Los Angeles resulted in the death of a white rancher and the wounding of a policeman. Accusations that Chinese were “killing whites wholesale” resulted in a savage outburst of violence on October 24th, with a mob of 500 white men ransacking Chinese homes and businesses along Negro Alley. One witness recalled how rioters “found huddled in corners or hidden behind boxes, eight terror stricken Chinamen, who…pleaded piteously for their lives…One was killed by dragging him over the stones by a rope around his neck. Three were hanged to a wagon on Los Angeles Street, although they were more dead than alive from being beaten and kicked and mangled…Four were likewise hanged to the western gateway of Tomlinson’s corral, on New High Street.” Eighteen Chinese in total perished.

Chinese LA
Massacre in Los Angeles

Riots blighted cities from Denver to Seattle and San Francisco, along with small towns, mines and railroad camps across the West. Violence proved most frightful outside the cities, though aside from Rock Springs it received less attention. In 1887, thirty-one Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon, Oregon were waylaid by white vigilantes who robbed them, murdered them and then mutilated their bodies in the era’s bloodiest incident of anti-Chinese violence. “Every one of them was shot, cut up, stripped and thrown into the river,” one account ran; one killer re-purposed a victim’s skull as a sugar bowl, which he proudly displayed in his parlor. Three men were indicted, all acquitted for lack of evidence.

Other locales organized wholesale exile. In the fall 1883, Tacoma, Washington expelled its Chinese population by force, with a mob of armed whites organized by the “Committee of Fifteen” carrying out the pogrom. Lum May, a local storekeeper, recounted how “I saw my countrymen marched out of Tacoma on November 3rd. They presented a sad spectacle. Some had lost their trunks, some their blankets and their things.” Lum’s wife resisted and was violently dragged from her home, an experience which caused a mental breakdown. When Lum protested to Tacoma’s Mayor Jacob Weisbach, the Mayor taunted Lum as “a baby because I cried over my loss of property.” Over 700 men and women were expelled, and Tacoma’s Chinatown burned to the ground.

Committee of Fifteen
The Committee of Fifteen: Tacoma’s white saviors

Many Chinese, naturally, despaired from these experiences. Some fled to Canada, which experienced its own wave of anti-Chinese hysteria; not a few committed suicide; others returned home. Those who stayed, however, found ways to resist. Lum May, for instance, joined other Tacoma Chinese in a lawsuit against the Federal government for indemnity. (Having relocated to Canada, he was no longer an American subject and not permitted to testify.) Resistance took a variety of forms, from legal recourse and political pressure to civil disobedience and even violence, belying the stereotype of Asian immigrants passively accepting injustice.

In communities under immediate threat, Chinese Americans stockpiled rifles and revolvers for self-defense (which often inflamed, rather than discouraged further violence). Irish railroad laborers antagonized their Asian counterparts at their own risk, finding the latter more than capable of self-defense. After an escalating series of confrontations in early 1869 (including brawls with shovels and pickaxes along the rail line), Chinese workers snuck into a Union Pacific camp and detonated explosives, killing several Irishmen. Afterwards, Iris Chang observes, “the behavior of white workers towards the Chinese immediately improved.”

The Chinese government also tried to shield immigrants with threats of boycott and censure. After the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885, Cheng Tsao Ju, China’s Minister to the United States, commissioned a mixed American-Chinese committee (headed by American diplomat Frederick Bee, an outspoken opponent of Chinese exclusion) to investigate. Cheng demanded the massacre’s perpetrators be “brought to punishment” and insisted upon a full indemnity. He also hinted that China might rescind its protection to American missionaries and businessmen within his own country. After all, Cheng cautioned, “American citizens in China have no other and no greater treaty guarantees and rights than Chinese subjects in the United States.”

Rock Springs Investigation
Rock Springs committee: Frederick Bee, its leader, is third from left

Despite efforts by Grover Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Thomas Bayard, to sidestep the issue (Bayard claimed that since Wyoming was a territory, Chinese residents there were not protected under law), the combination of diplomatic pressure and press outcry forced them to act. Congress passed the Belmont Act in 1887, paying out $424,367 in indemnities to cover “all other losses and injuries sustained by Chinese subjects within the United States,” including not only Rock Springs’ victims but Tacoma’s exiles. Whether by accident or design, the money went directly to the Chinese government, with little reaching the actual victims.

Chinese Americans also organized their own resistance. Groups like the Six Companies (later the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association), a conglomerate of San Francisco civic and business leaders, provided funds, homes, medical care, funerals and legal counsel for displaced and victimized Chinese. Often corrupt, self-serving and discouraging of integration with broader American society, these organizations nonetheless granted immigrants an arsenal of weapons with which to fight exclusion. Their power would be put to the test in 1892, after the passage of the Geary Act.

six companies
Leaders of the Six Companies, ca. 1890

California Congressman Thomas Geary proposed a bill requiring Chinese, whether visitors or prospective immigrants, to carry an identity card with two duplicate photographs (a crude version of the modern green card). Quickly passed by Congress (Benjamin Harrison, hoping an anti-immigration stand would bolster his reelection chances, signed it into law), it triggered an immediate backlash among Chinese Americans, who branded it the “Dog Tag Law” designed to further dehumanize them. The Geary Act, Jean Pfaelzer writes, “created perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States.”

The Six Companies, feeling their oats, issued a provocative proclamation to all American Chinese. “The Geary Act is an unjust law and no Chinese should obey it,” they charged. “The law degrades the Chinese and if obeyed will put them lower than the meanest of people…No Chinese can read this law without a feeling of disgust.” The only recourse was resistance: “We do not want the Chinese to obey it.” Backed by a formidable team of lawyers, including San Francisco activist Thomas Riordan (who deemed the Geary Act “clearly unconstitutional”) they prepared their challenge.

dog tag
Sample “dog tag”

Throughout 1892 to 1893, Chinese immigrants refused to register with immigration authorities, who proved unable to deal with the overwhelming scale of dissent. Boycotts were launched against Chinese businesses whose leaders registered; immigrants were encouraged to contribute to a legal defense fund. Geary unsuccessfully urged the prosecution of the Six Companies under conspiracy law. Within a year of the Act’s passage, only 3,169 of an estimated 110,000 Chinese Americans nationwide registered.

The Government appeared at a loss to confront the backlash. Sheriff’s posses and  vigilantes forcibly hauling unregistered Chinese to consulates and immigration centers, or imprisoning them without trial in San Quentin and Fulsom Prisons, triggered outraged press coverage and political backlash. Even Congress, which had approved the Geary Act with little dissent, began to reconsider. Robert R. Hitt of Illinois complained that “never before in a free country was there such a system of tagging a man like a dog…with the exception…of the sad days of slavery.”

Wong Chin Foo

The most dramatic campaign originated with Wong Chin Foo, founder of the Chinese Equal Rights League, publisher of New York’s Chinese American newspaper and all-around activist. He was a tireless organizer and a firebrand, whose inflammatory lectures and newspaper articles decried American racism. Not universally liked (his pamphlet, “Why Am I Heathen?” outraged integrationist Chinese with its denunciation of Christianity), Wong nonetheless earned wide admiration for his fearlessness. Threatened by Denis Kearney during a visit to San Francisco, he offered to duel the Irishman with “chopsticks, Irish potatoes, or Krupp guns.”

On January 26, 1893, Wong addressed Congress. Despite his halting English, Wong presented the case against the Geary Act with stark, passionate eloquence. “Is it…a crime to be a Chinaman?” he asked the committee. “Shall I be dragged from my bed at midnight because I shall refuse to be photographed? No, I will not be photographed against my will like a criminal. I would rather be hanged first.” Wong did not consider his demands unreasonable, asserting that Chinese-Americans “do not ask for favors; we appeal for simple justice.”

Wong impressed many of the committee members (the bill’s opponents lined up to shake his hand afterwards), but not Congressman Geary. With undisguised condescension, Geary lectured Wong that “there is no use in your talking like that” and advising that “if the law is barbarous…you should assist in its enforcement and its own barbarity will soon bring about its appeal.” After the committee tabled the repeal motion, journalists blamed Wong’s militancy. “The Chinese Equal Rights League,” the New York Times scolded, “should be more moderate in its presentations and more modest in its demands.”

Thomas Geary

Within months of Wong’s unsuccessful plea, a legal challenge appeared. Two New York laundrymen, Fong Yue Tin and Wong Quan, were arrested in May 1893; a judge ordered them deported. Within a matter of days, due to assistance from the Equal Rights League and represented by Tom Riordan, the two Chinese received a date before the Supreme Court. Riordan argued that the Fourteenth Amendment rendered the Geary Act unconstitutional, and that the government therefore had no right to deport the two men.

Incredibly, Solicitor General Charles Aldrich cited Indian removal in the United States and Russian pogroms against Jews as valid legal precedents. In view of past experiences of civilized communities with hordes of barbarians,” Aldrich insisted, “it does not seem possible that a rule never yet ingrafted upon this principle of self-preservation will have its origin in this court.” The Supreme Court accepted the Government’s case, upholding the two men’s deportation (and the Geary Act) in a 5-3 decision.

The Act’s status nonetheless remained in limbo; Congress, paralyzed by the political furor, declined to provide funding for the Act’s enforcement, while President Cleveland, fearing backlash from the Chinese government, did nothing. In lieu of government action, vigilantes again filled the gaps; riots broke out from Los Angeles to Atlanta, targeting Chinese communities nationwide. In Fresno, Chinese were driven onto trains at gunpoint; in Madera, California, white terrorists used bombs. Not all violence was one-sided; in San Bernardino, Chinese armed themselves and engaged vigilantes in an all-night shootout until the National Guard arrived.

Chinese Cartoon Bat

Finally, in October 1893 Cleveland ordered a halt to the Geary Act’s enforcement. The law, Chinese protests and white reaction had seen nationwide chaos and bloodshed beyond anyone’s imagining. War Kee, a Chinese American journalist, warned whites of the consequences of their shortsighted racism. “When your crops remained unharvested in the fields and your factories are closed down because the labor to operate them cannot be obtained there will be such a clamor for the return of the Chinese that it cannot be resisted…Perhaps you will not find it easy to bring them back.”

Despite intermittent attempts at repeal, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained on the books until 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt abolished it as a gesture towards America’s World War II allies (even as he sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps). Yet distrust of Chinese Americans continued throughout the Cold War, when they were frequently accused of espionage or divided loyalties, along with resentment of their educational and business success. And America’s present Administration not only brands China an economic and geopolitical enemy, but proposes banning Chinese students and castigates them as vectors for disease.

Despite lingering distrust, Chinese Americans (and Asians generally) are lauded as a “Model Minority” whose hard work, intelligence and thrift make them more likely to succeed (especially over other, less-than-model minorities). But “the model minority myth hides the pressures and paradoxes inherent within an Asian American identity,” writes Sarah Soonling Blackburn. “If you don’t fit into the myth, it is hard to find your place at all.” And so modern Chinese Americans who resist injustice are encouraged to forget their ancestors’ long, bitter fight for “simple justice.”

Chinese cartoon4

Sources and Further Reading

For general background on early Chinese immigrants, see Iris Chang, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act (2000); Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (2003) and The Making of Asian-America: A History (2015); Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese-Americans (2007); Elmer Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1973 edition; originally published in 1939); and Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (2012).

For opposition to the Geary Act, see Pfaelzer, Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (2013) and Qingson Zhang, “The Origins of the Chinese Americanization Movement: Wong Chin Foo and the Chinese Equal Rights League” in K. Scott Wong and Seucheng Chan (eds.), Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era (1998).