Who were the early Chinese immigrants?

 

The vast majority of early Chinese immigrants into North America were men. They were mostly laborers, lured into coming here by stories of "Gold Mountain”—enormous wealth waiting for miners and others in the new land—or by companies that were created to find cheap labor for the industrial expansion of the North American West. Either option seemed preferrable to the terrible conditions in China left by the Taipai Rebellion and a series of natural disasters at the time. 

The first Chinese to arrive were greeted with a coridal public welcome. An article in the The Daily Alta Californian newspaper in 1852 said “Quite a large number of the Celestials have arrived among us of late, enticed thither by the golden romance that has filled the world. Scarcely a ship arrives that does not bring an increase to this worthy integer of our population. The China boys will yet vote at the same polls, study at the same schools, and bow at the same altar as our own country.” (Wellborn)

It didn't take long, however, for that sentiment to change. Chinese miners, eager to establish themselves in a new land, often accepted wages at much less than what white workers were paid. As more Chinese laborers appeared on these shores, greedy miner owners soon began to lay off white workers so they could bring in cheaper labor. This led to a rapidly increasing resentment against the new immigrants that soon escalated into outright racism and hostilities. 

At the same time conditions for the new immigrants were harsh. All of them had survived a long and arduous crossing of the Pacific, most spoke no English, and many times they were indentured under a contract to work with little wages in order to pay off the cost of their travel. At first the new immigrants banded together out of language and cultural bonds, but it didn't take long for them to realize they needed to stay close together for their own safety as well.

 

Photos from Chinese Immigration Forms 1900-1905

Top row, l to r: Louie You - Boise; Lee Wing - Seattle; Lee Seong - Seattle; Woo Way - Seattle; Chin Quan Chan - Salt Lake City; Wong Fook - Helena; Lee Cue - Spokane 

Middle row: Gum Chong - Baker City; Ah Gam - Seattle; Dong Loon - Spokane; Lee Fook - Portland; Ah Jim - Seattle; Lee Fung - Seattle; Sam Foon - Olympia

Bottom row: Yung Moon Eng - Wall Wall; Go Yim - Arcade; Chow Eng - Wall Walla; Ah Li - Olympia; Lew Bark - Seattle; Soo Ling - Olympia; Moy Bang - St. Paul

These are randomly selected photos from original Chinese immigration forms found in the U.S. National Archives, Seattle.

​All spellings are taken directly from immigration forms and reflect the poor transliteration of Chinese names into English during this period.

The Places

The Faces of Immigrants

A 1910 Chinese immigration form required under the Chinese Exclusion Act 

© 2017 Tim Greyhavens. All rights reserved.

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