[TIMELINE] Chinese Servants in the American West
- Stepping Stones to Empowerment: Chinese Servants in the American West
A paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian
American Studies, April 19, 1997, Seattle, Washington.
Head, Special Collections and Archives
University of Idaho Library
Moscow, ID 83843-2351
Many Chinese laborers in the American West used domestic service as
an entry point to entrepreneurial opportunities. Following a brief
description of the role of Chinese servants in the American West, we
will examine case studies of individuals who used domestic service
as an effective stepping stone to more entrepreneurial, higher-
status activities. Since not all servants became entrepreneurs, we
will look at characteristics of entrepreneurship for insight into
the life decisions made by Chinese servants and laborers. "Stepping
Stones to Empowerment: Chinese Servants in the American West"
continues the author's earlier research on Chinese servants in the
American West. Travel support to make this presentation was provided
by the University of Idaho's John Calhoun Smith Memorial Fund.
Chinese Servants in the American West
After the discovery of gold in the West, labor was always scarce
because every laborer mistakenly believed that work in the gold
fields was more remunerative than any other kind of employment. At
the very least, the gold rushes drained off large numbers of workers
who otherwise would have been filling jobs and building communities.
There was also a resulting imbalance between the number of males and
females, with females in decidedly shorter supply. The larger
society greatly felt the lack of lower-class women who could serve
as domestics. At one point, San Francisco bachelors even shipped
their dirty laundry to Hawaii to be washed. (For background on
Chinese servants: Abraham, Terry. Class, Gender, and Race: Chinese
Servants in the North American West. A paper presented at the Joint
Regional Conference Hawai'i/Pacific and Pacific Northwest
Association for Asian American Studies, Honolulu, March 26, 1996,
On laundry to Hawaii, see Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of
California. San Francisco, History Company, 1888. v.6, p. 236.)
The shortage of labor for such tasks as doing the laundry or
building the transcontinental railroad meant that employers sought
to import workers, either from the eastern states or from across the
Pacific. Coupled with outward propelling forces such as war, famine,
and floods, southern China responded to the pull of work by sending
laborers to western ports.
In accordance with Chinese custom, where women were expected to stay
at home and sustain the husband's family, these immigrant laborers
were almost entirely male. The demand for domestic labor eventually
met the supply of Chinese workers. As a result, male Chinese
laborers assumed the usually female role of domestic servant on the
West Coast of the United States and Canada, despite efforts to
recruit from traditional sources in the eastern and southern states.
(Katzman, David M. Seven days a week: Women and Domestic Service in
Industrializing America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1978. p.
Domestic service involved cooking, cleaning, waiting table, laundry,
child care, and the hundreds of other tasks that the primary
caregiver in each home provided. Many households required servants
simply because the amount of work was too much for any one person.
In addition, social mores stressed the incapacity of adult women for
domestic labor. The weak and wan dependent woman of popular
literature could not be expected to carry and boil tubs of water to
do the laundry every week. These kinds of jobs required sturdy
immigrant women who didn't have fainting spells. (Katzman, David M.
Seven days a week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing
America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1978. pp. 111, 120,
149.) In addition, the rich social life of upper and middle-class
women required more "free" time than continual house-cleaning and
cooking provided. Afternoon social calls, teas, receptions, and
expansive dinners were part of the life-style of the socially
conscious. However, as one observer noted: "For what good purpose
this assistance [of servants] sets the women free is not easy to
guess; rocking the chairs seems the most arduous duty in many
Californian homes, and it is one which is faithfully carried out."
(Shepherd, William. Prairie experiences in handling cattle and
sheep. Freeport, Books for Libraries Press, [1971 reprint] 1885. 116-
Into this economic niche resulting from overwhelming demographic,
social, and political factors stepped the Chinese laborer. The
Chinese were no more suited for domestic service in the West than
were the Basque fishermen who became sheepherders there; this was
just an artificial economic niche that circumstances made it
possible for them to fill.
While much of the late Victorian era social life existed only in the
magazines and other taste-arbiters, it did seem that every home must
have its Chinese servant. Not just in the provincial capitals such
as San Francisco or Victoria, but even in remote mining towns in
Idaho, and inland communities such as Boise, Walla Walla, and
Lewiston. In mountainous Pierce, Idaho, for instance, in 1880, there
were seven household cooks and three Chinese servants. (Stapp, Darby
C. "The Documentary Record of an Overseas Chinese Mining Camp." in
Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese, ed.
by Priscilla Wegars. Amityville, Baywood, 1993. p. 15.) One woman
remembered of Boise, "nearly everyone whom I knew had a Chinese
cook, and usually he was not only the cook but generally house boy --
washing, ironing, and doing all of the heavy work." ("Boise in the
Seventies was a Delightful, Gay City," Idaho Statesman, 23 July
1939, p. 6, as quoted in Yu, Li-hua. Chinese Immigrants in Idaho.
Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 1991. pp. 128-
129.) Another noted: "All the first families had them, and so did
the young officers stationed at Boise Barracks." ("Dragon is Gone,"
undated Statesman clipping in ISHS vertical file, as quoted in Yu,
Li-hua. Chinese Immigrants in Idaho. Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling
Green State University, 1991. p. 129.) It was not uncommon for
military officers to have Chinese servants in the western posts.
(Photographs of General O. O. Howard's Chinese servants, as
presented by Donna Wells of Howard University, Society of American
Archivists' annual meeting, Washington, D.C., September 1995; Roe,
Frances. Army letters from an officer's wife, 1871-1888. New York,
D. Appleton & Co., 1909. passim.) In Walla Walla, in eastern
Washington, "In those days anyone who aspired to be classed as one
of the Nob Hill set simply had to have a Chinese cook." (Bennett,
Robert. Walla Walla, a town built to be a city: 1900-1910. v. 2
(n.p. 1982) 159; as quoted by Jewell, James Robinson. "Straw hat
work force: The Chinese role in small town economies." Pacific
Northwest Forum, Second Series, 6:1(Winter-Spring 1993) 47.)
Domestic service provided a number of learning opportunities for the
Chinese who chose this route. They learned how to cook "American-
style," accomplished the rigors of house-cleaning and laundry, and
even coped with child care. In addition, servants were in an
excellent position to "get inside" the dominant culture. Unlike the
railroad or cannery worker who was insulated from the Caucasians by
the contractor, the servant was thrown into the midst of a "white"
milieu. Learning some English was a requirement, since the lady of
the house was certainly not going to learn Chinese.
In addition to domestic duties, many cooks were also the shoppers.
They would go to market, interact with the shopkeepers, and select
and pay for the food supplies. As butlers and while waiting table
they interacted with the social and political elite of the
community. A Lewiston, Idaho, resident recalled having a U.S.
Senator as a houseguest. During dinner, the Chinese servant asked to
be introduced to the assembled company and went around the table
shaking hands. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing
Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24.)
Others took advantage of their situation to learn business skills.
Gee Sing asked his employer how to read the exchange rates in the
newspaper; every night he would study the price of silver in Hong
Kong. When it reached his target, he was off to the bank to buy or
sell, in order to increase his stake being held for him in China.
(Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44
(April 29, 1933) p. 67.)
Domestic service as a stepping stone to entrepreneurship has not,
and perhaps can not, be proven. However there are numerous examples
in the literature of Chinese men who began their American life as
servants and moved out to establish businesses and other ventures.
Among these are:
He reported in the 1930s that after his arrival in southern
California he first washed dishes in a French restaurant, and then
went into domestic service for six years. Following that period he
became a gardener. Eventually he bought land and became a farmer.
(Gin Chow. Gin Chow's First Annual Almanac. Los Angeles: Wetzel
Publishing, 1932. p. 29.)
A bright, young go-getter, Gee Hing became a cook for a Californian
after learning the trade in the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco.
He also had experience driving a laundry truck. He mother called him
back to China for an arranged marriage, after which returned to the
States, as planned, to become a merchant. As a grocer in San
Bernardino, he kept in touch with his previous Caucasian employer.
(Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44
(April 29, 1933) p. 68.)
He came to the United States in 1877 and found his first job in San
Francisco as a servant. Like many, he found this role too
constricting and by 1882 he signed on as packer in an Alaskan salmon
cannery, and was later promoted to foreman. Based on that
experience, he set up his own labor contracting business in San
Francisco. Forced to find alternate sources for the Chinese goods
needed by his laborers, he opened his own import business.
Unionization of the Alaskan canneries diminished Quong's role as a
labor contractor and supplier of goods. He retired, and died soon
after, in 1938. (Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San
Francisco Chinatown and its people. San Francisco, Chinese
Historical Society of America, 1989. pp. 80-84.)
James was born in 1891 in Olympia, Washington. He started out as a
houseboy and cook, and at age twelve or thirteen received three
dollars a week. Later in life he was a Minneapolis restaurateur.
(James, Walter. "Walter James: Reminiscences of my younger days,"
Interview by Him Mark Lai, Laura Lai, and Philip P. Choy; edited by
Marlon K. Hom. in Chinese America: History and Perspectives 1995.
San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1995. pp. 75-
Dong Tien Shong
A goldsmith by trade, Dong Tien Shong left Hong Kong in 1873 and
found work in Gonzales in the Salinas Valley as a servant for a
Spanish family. On his $20 per month salary, he saved $800. He then
quit and started a small store offering Chinese goods to the
laborers in the valley. He expanded into Salinas and then Pajaro,
opening a restaurant as well as additional stores. He died in 1933
at the age of 78 after overexerting himself assisting the survivors
of a Pajaro Chinatown fire. (Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific:
San Francisco Chinatown and its people. San Francisco, Chinese
Historical Society of America, 1989. pp. 229-234.)
Early Case Studies
These brief biographical mentions can be supplemented by closer
examination of three individuals whose rose from domestic service to
positions of prominence and appreciation within their respective
communities. These are Ted Loy and Gue Owen of Lewiston, Idaho and
Goon Dip of Seattle, Washington.
Ted Loy [Eng Moon Loy]
Born in the Taishan district of China in 1879, Loy followed his
parents to Seattle in 1891. (U.S. Census 1920: Idaho, Nez Perce
County, Lewiston, Precinct 3, sheet 2A; Campbell, Thomas W. The
Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C;
Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101.
Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B; Loy's grandson
stated that Ted Loy's name was actually Eng Moon Loy; Eng was his
surname (Gorden Lee, personal communication to Priscilla Wegars,
1994). His gravestone in the Lewiston Normal Hill Cemetery gives his
name as Eng Ted Loy. I appreciate Priscilla Wegars' provision of her
notes on Lewiston pioneers Ted Loy and Gue Owen.) A few years later,
possibly after working as a cook in Portland, he was employed on a
steamboat traveling on the Columbia River and Snake Rivers, from
Celilo Falls to Lewiston, Idaho. (Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/
Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C;
Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101.
Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B. Loy's grandson,
Gorden Lee, stated that Eng Moon Loy was "driven out of Portland for
union activities" because he had "joined with Caucasian cooks trying
to [work] fewer hours [in order] to spend more time with their
families" (Gorden Lee, personal communication to Priscilla Wegars,
1993). For more on steamboats on the river, see Randall V. Mills,
Stern-wheelers up the Columbia. Palo Alto, Pacific Books, 1947. pp.
In 1900, by some reports, he was noticed by the local agent for the
steamship company, John P. Vollmer, and was offered a position in
that household. (Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston
Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted
Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21
March 1981, p. 2B; Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho Chinese Lore.
Caldwell, Caxton, 1970. p. 22. Loy lived on the second floor in the
Vollmer house.) Vollmer was a prominent businessman in Lewiston with
interests in trade, banks, flour mills, electric power, telegraphs,
telephones, and transportation. ("John P. Vollmer," in French, Hiram
T. History of Idaho. Chicago, Lewis Publishing Company, 1914. v.3,
pp. 1006-1007.) Later, Loy transferred his employment to the home of
another Lewiston banker, William F. Kettenbach. (Lewiston Morning
Tribune, 4 June 1962, p. 14.)
Leaving domestic service, Loy apprenticed under Louie Kim at the
Portland Cafe and then moved on to the kitchen at the Bollinger
Hotel. (Trull, Fern Coble. The history of the Chinese in Idaho from
1864 to 1910. MA Thesis, University of Oregon, June 1946. pp. 58,
60; Lewiston Morning Tribune, 6 October 1935, sect. 2, p. 6. The
dates of Loy's Portland Cafe employment are not known. Lewiston
Morning Tribune, 4 June 1962, p. 14.) Married in 1918, by 1920 he
owned his own restaurant. (U.S. Census 1920: Idaho, Nez Perce
County, Lewiston, Precinct 3, Sheet 2A. The name of the restaurant
he owned at that time is not known.) He remained active in the
restaurant business as cook, owner and manager of a variety of
establishments until his retirement in 1968. (Campbell, Thomas W.
The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p.
5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101.
Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B; Bailey, Robert G.
and Paul B. Blake, compilers. Nez Perce County, Idaho and Asotin
County, Washington 1927 Directory. Lewiston, ID: R. G. Bailey and P.
B. Blake. . pp. 57, 60; Lewiston Morning Tribune, 4 June 1962,
p. 14; Polk, R. L. and Company. Polk's Lewiston City and Nez Perce
County (Idaho) Clarkston City and Asotin County (Washington)
Directory 1931-32. Seattle: R. L. Polk and Co. 1931. p. 120;
Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho Chinese Lore. Caldwell, Caxton,
1970. p. 22; Bailey, Robert G., compiler. City of Lewiston and Nez
Perce County, Idaho; City of Clarkston and Asotin County, Washington
1948 Directory. Lewiston, ID: R. G. Bailey.  pp. 65, 79, 85,
96-A, 128-D.) He was a member of the local temple society, along
with other Lewiston restaurateurs. (Idaho State Historical Society
photograph, No. 2961.) He died in Lewiston in 1981, age 101.
(Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101.
Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B. Ted Loy's
gravestone, in the Lewiston Normal Hill Cemetery, is engraved in
both Chinese and English. The English reads, "Eng Ted Loy / July 3,
1880 / Mar. 19, 1981.")
Gue Owen [Ng Gue Owen]
Gue Owen arrived in Idaho around 1875 at about twelve years of age.
He first worked in the mines at Elk City but soon quit that and
dropped down to the Camas Prairie above Lewiston, Idaho. Here, he
cooked for prominent landowner Loyal P. Brown in Mt. Idaho.
(Lewiston Weekly Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January 1894.) He apparently
worked for a Mrs. Owen, from whom he derived his surname. She taught
him to make bread, a skill he used to supply loaves to the Army
troops defeated by the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in 1877.
(Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9
(February 1938) p. 24.)
Gue Owen was employed by the Robinson family in Grangeville from
1875 to about 1885. While in Grangeville he attended school where he
honed his English. He also worked for a Mr. John T. Brown and at a
Grangeville laundry. (Lewiston Weekly Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January
1894. Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Pioneer days in Idaho County,
v.1. Caldwell, Caxton, 1947. p.136-137; in 1904 he is reported as
having "lived in Lewiston and vicinity since 1877." Lewiston Morning
Tribune, 14(285)2:3, September 1904.)
In 1887 or so, he returned to China to get married. After a year,
and the birth of a boy, he returned to Idaho. (Lewiston Weekly
Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January 1894.) In 1889 he was apparently
employed as cook and servant to anthropologist Alice Fletcher and
her troupe who traveled throughout the Nez Perce Indian Reservation
re-allotting Indian lands. (Gay, E. Jane. With the Nez Perces: Alice
Fletcher in the field, 1889-92. Lincoln, University of Nebraska
Press, 1981. p.12.)
Late in 1899 he ran the Kwong Lung Laundry in Lewiston. (Pfafflin,
Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938)
p. 24; Lewiston Teller, 23(58):3, 17 May 1899. Owen apparently
preceding Ted Loy in the position as servant to the Kettenbach
family.) From there he moved back into domestic service, for a local
banker. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho,
1:9(February 1938) p. 24.) About 1900 he worked for a year as a cook
in the men's dorm at Lewiston Normal School. (Trull, Fern Coble. The
history of the Chinese in Idaho from 1864 to 1910. MA Thesis,
University of Oregon, June 1946. p. 57.) According to one local
historian, "after he left the dormitory, he ran a hotel [and
possibly a store] in downtown Lewiston. He eventually retired, went
back to China, and was, according to rumor, robbed and murdered."
(Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Pioneer days in Idaho County, v.1.
Caldwell, Caxton, 1947. p.136; Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho
Chinese Lore. Caldwell, Caxton, 1970. p. 20.)
Goon Dip (Goon Yun-Dip)
Goon Dip was born in 1862 in the Taishan district of China. In 1876,
aged 14, he traveled from Hong Kong to Portland and on to Tacoma
where he became a laborer for relative. In 1885 or 1886 he returned
to China and married. (Information on Goon Dip has been extracted
from Chew, Ron, ed. Reflections of Seattle's Chinese Americans: the
first 100 years. Seattle, University of Washington press, 1994. pp.
141-142, and from Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon Dip:
Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the Chinese
Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham, 1984. pp.
On his return to Portland, he despaired of employment in the face of
the anti-Chinese sentiment in the air. He was taken in by Miss Ella
McBride. Repeating the family story, Goon Dip's grandchildren
reported: "She brought him home to meet her parents and they
employed him as a houseboy. Ella taught the young Goon Dip English
and introduced him to the customs of the new world. The bond between
him and this young woman was so deep that in later years, Goon Dip
would name his youngest daughter after his American friend. The
gesture signified his gratitude for her assistance in helping him to
adjust to American life." (Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon
Dip: Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the
Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham,
1984. p. 42.)
Later in this account, it is noted that "within a short time, Goon
yearned to advance himself above the level of being a servant." He
left the McBride family and became the assistant of a Chinese labor
contractor, Moy Bok-Hin, and the two remained partners in different
ventures for many years. Although he reportedly worked on the
railroads in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, he did not speak of it
within the family. (Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon Dip:
Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the Chinese
Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham, 1984. p.
42. Chew, Ron, Reflections of Seattle's Chinese Americans: the First
100 Years. Seattle, University of Washington Press, Wing Luke Asian
Museum, 1994, p. 141, repeats the account of Goon Dip's labors in
Montana and elsewhere.)
He initiated a program of retraining disabled Chinese workers as
hemstitchers, thus establishing Portland's garment industry. About
1900 he and a cousin opened a store. Then his cousin took over the
business and Goon Dip started his own dry goods and hemstitching
By 1906, Goon Dip had expanded his activities to the Seattle area.
There he was appointed honorary consul for China representing the
interests of the Chinese government, and later made full consul. In
that role he was an official representative to the 1906 Alaska-Yukon-
Pacific Exposition in Seattle.
It was in that capacity that he met the owner of extensive Alaskan
canning operations who needed a ready supply of laborers. Goon Dip
became his labor contractor. Well respected and honored for his
activities, Goon Dip died in 1933 at the age of 71.
Paths to entrepreneurship
Learning English, and, as a consequence, American ways aided the
inclusion of the Chinese workers into American society. Washington
State's new Governor, Gary Locke, reported that his grandfather
learned English as a houseboy for the Yeagers of Olympia where he
worked for free in exchange for the opportunity to learn English.
(Locke, Gary. "Address to AAAS," Seattle, Washington, April 17,
1997; Locke, Gary. "Inaugural address," AsianWeek, January 24, 1997.
Then as now, immigrant workers sought help learning the dominant
language. Missionaries were eager to teach English as a way of
spreading the gospel. Employers also mistakenly believed that
Christian teachings would make the Chinese better servants. The
Chinese were accused of using the mission school solely as a "free
day school" and as an employment service, rather than for religious
purposes. (Vernon, Di. "The Chinese as house servants." Good
Housekeeping, 12(January 1891)21.)
Newspaper articles complained that the only result of such education
was that the pupil would just quit and go "elsewhere for higher
wages." ("Chinese Domestic Servants," Idaho Signal (Lewiston), 1:49
(February 8, 1873)1, reprinted from the "S.F. Chronicle.") As might
be expected, this was the whole point of the effort. It was this
kind of upward mobility towards entrepreneurship that the former
Florence Grohman found herself acting as teacher to her servant; in
exchange for home security she gave him lessons. She wrote: "...I
disliked being alone in the house during the long November evenings.
Although I had many kind friends who took pity on my loneliness,
very often I felt it would be more canny if Gee could be induced to
stay in the house till nine or ten o'clock. He did not seem to like
the idea at all when I suggested it, and nothing more was said about
it for a few days." Then he offered to stay in with her in the
evening, giving up his free time in Chinatown, if she would teach
him to read and write English. (Grohman, Florence. "The Yellow and
White Agony: a chapter on Western Servants" in, Fifteen years' sport
and life in the hunting grounds of western America and British
Columbia. by W.A. Baillie-Grohman; with a chapter by Mrs. Baillie-
Grohman. London: Horace Cox, 1900. 336-337.)
Learning English, as we have seen, became the predominant
characteristic of the Chinese who successfully made for the
transformation from laborer to domestic to entrepreneur. Proficiency
in English placed the Chinese at a transfer point between the two
cultures. Taking advantage of that juncture is one of the marks of
But not all
While there were many Chinese who found the rigors of domestic
service (always on duty, managing the household and the household's
relationships, dealing with the continual patronizing) so onerous
that even work in the canneries might have been preferable; there
were those who found great satisfaction in the job and were well
treated by their employers. (In fact, of the examples reviewed here,
none left service because of mistreatment.)
In the old days, when a Chinese servant became attached to a family,
he stayed attached. There are plenty of instances where they have
served three generations. I had a cook once - Wong Suey, ...who
worked for one family for thirty-five years and then left only
because the family had practically disappeared. There have been
hundreds of families in California where these faithful, expert,
skillful servants have come to be major-domos, have had complete
control of the ménage, which, by the way, is an obligation a good
Chinese cook of the old school takes upon himself whether his
employer wants it so or not. And he is usually so competent the
employer is glad to submit to his management. (Blythe, Samuel
G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44(April 29, 1933)10.)
Others were drawn in alternate directions. Chin Quong, born in 1861,
learned English in a mission school in China. Upon arrival in San
Francisco he found his language skills and his mission training
helpful in employment at the Chinese Congregational Church and as a
domestic servant. Rather than following his initial dream to Gold
Mountain, he remained in service to the Church for most of his life,
while managing to send three of his six children on to college.
(Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and
its people. San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America,
1989. pp. 84-87. This is a different individual than the previously
mentioned labor contractor.)
Wing Yee, another example, began in California as a houseboy, then
became a cook. He remained with the same family for many years,
assuming greater responsibilities as general farm manager. He was
encouraged to bring a wife from China, who became housekeeper in his
place; and his employers built a home for his growing family next to
the main house. (Wong, H.K. Gum Sahn Yun: Gold Mountain Men. n.p.,
n.p., 1987. 125-130.)
Defining and analyzing entrepreneurship has always been a puzzle to
economists and sociologists. Economists complain that there are too
many social characteristics to entrepreneurship while the social
scientists found too many economic factors at work. One study found
that certain non-economic factors proved to be nearly as important
as economic circumstances in the emergence of entrepreneurship in a
culture. Those identified as significant were, first, the legitimacy
of entrepreneurship, or the cultural acceptance of the
entrepreneurial role; second, social mobility, the fluidity of
movement from one class to another; third, marginality, the
mediating role of the entrepreneur on the margins of society.
(Wilken, Paul H., Entrepreneurship: a comparative and historical
study. Norwood, Ablex, 1979. pp. 8-13; 261-262.)
Chinese entrepreneurs in the West demonstrated the validity all of
these characterizations. Frontier culture was socially and
geographically mobile. The Chinese in particular, spread out from
the port cities to the highest mountains and the deepest valleys.
Their value as laborers placed them in the heart of the Midwest,
eastern metropolitan areas, and the fisheries of the gulf states.
With the increasing availability of the railroad, people of all
backgrounds traversed the country. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of
those who took an emigrant train across the U.S. in 1879; one car,
set aside for them, carried only Chinese. (Stevenson, Robert Louis,
From Scotland to Silverado, Edited by James D. Hart. Cambridge,
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966. pp. 115, 117, 135.)
Socially, the boundaries were more sharply drawn but in comparison
with class structures in China, even Chinese laborers in the United
States had greater social and economic mobility.
The dominating ideology of the respective cultures was favorable to
entrepreneurship. Working hard and getting ahead was valued by both
societies. The Anglo-Saxon ethic prized the "go-getters" who made
things happen. The Chinese (or more precisely, Southern Chinese)
characteristic that sustained the entrepreneur was acquisitiveness,
where wealth accumulation was the means to status for one's family
and lineage. (Hafner, James A. "Market gardening in Thailand: The
origins of an ethnic Chinese monopoly." in The Chinese in Southeast
Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore,
Maruzen Asia, 1983. p. 41; see also: Pan, Lynn. Sons of the Yellow
Emperor: A history of the Chinese diaspora. Boston, Little Brown,
1990. pp. 244-245.) In becoming merchants, it has been noted, the
Chinese in America found a higher status than they would have had in
the same role in China. This is often attributed to the importance
of trade in the American scheme of things; but it appears to be a
cultural signifier more common to South China. (Gosling, L. A.
Peter, "Chinese crop dealers in Malaysia and Thailand: The myth of
the merciless monopsonistic middleman." in The Chinese in Southeast
Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore,
Maruzen Asia, 1983. p. 151.)
Not only was the entrepreneurial role encouraged by the society; but
the Chinese, as ethnic and racial minorities, found themselves at
the very margins of the majority society. Truck gardeners were a
prime example of how the Chinese assumed a mediating role between
cultures. Growing vegetables for their own use, Chinese gardeners
found their crops in high demand among the Caucasian population. In
remote mining communities, they carved carefully sited garden
terraces into south facing hillsides at lower elevations. They then
provided early vegetables to the miners still locked in winter's
snows at higher elevations. (Fee. Jeffrey M. "Idaho's Chinese
Mountain gardens," in Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the
Overseas Chinese, ed. by Priscilla Wegars. Amityville, Baywood,
1993. pp. 65-96.) Here the Chinese found an entrepreneurial niche
that the dominant culture rewarded.
Studies in South-East Asia have identified other characteristics
that fostered Chinese entrepreneurship. The Chinese had little
incentive to invest in agricultural enterprises requiring extensive
land holdings; they needed quick access to their capital both in
response to anti-immigrant pressures and their own desires to cash
out and return home. Newly developing market economies such as those
in the West also offered increasing economic opportunities, often
requiring little in the way of capital expenditures. (Lim, Linda
Y.C. "Chinese economic activity in Southeast Asia: An Introductory
Review." in The Chinese in Southeast Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin
and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore, Maruzen Asia, 1983. pp. 2-3.)
Entrepreneurship is the ability to see value where others do not. It
is also the ability to "make lemonade when life hands you lemons."
Living on the margins of the culture attunes one to the imbalance of
goods and services. Domestic service provided the Chinese with an
experience at the heart of the culture, within the Caucasian home,
in the bosom of the family; an experience that offered glimpses of
needs that could be fulfilled from the margin. Many seized the
entrepreneurial moment and made a successful life for themselves in
a strange land among a strange people.