[TIMELINE] Anti-Chinese Legislation Between 1850 to 1890
- Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan:
Affidavit and Flyers from the Chinese Boycott Case
Although a very small number of Chinese immigrants came to the
United States prior to 1850, it wasn't until news of the gold
strikes in California reached China that large numbers of Chinese
men, eager to earn money, sailed for "Gum San," or the "gold
mountain." Western encroachment and civil unrest had led to
inflation, starvation, and loss of land in southern China. Many
young men emigrated to the United States as a last hope for their
families. Among their occupations were mining, building the Central
Pacific Railroad, laundering, cooking, farming, and, if successful,
operating restaurants and becoming merchants.
Chinese men had been trapped as "coolies" or contract laborers bound
for South America, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies for years
before California became the more popular destination. A wage of
$1.00 per day could assist an entire family at home in China.
Husbands left wives and children, and parents sent their sons. As a
result, early Chinese communities in the United States were
comprised almost entirely of bachelors.
In 1850, approximately 450 Chinese men entered California; in 1852,
2,716 more arrived; and in 1852, 20,000 Chinese men crossed from
China to the Pacific Northwest. By 1880, the ratio of male to female
Chinese immigrants was approximately 20:1. They lived and worked in
Chinatowns, in groups according to their district or region and
The early Chinese immigrants were begrudgingly accepted by Americans
and were not the immediate targets of animosity or violence.
However, taxes aimed at foreigners made earning wages difficult.
California passed the foreign mine tax in the 1850s, which directly
affected the majority of the Chinese immigrants who were working in
the mines. In addition, they were required to pay an alien poll tax
of $2.50 per month until 1862, when it was declared unconstitutional.
Additional discriminatory legislation the Chinese faced during the
latter half of the 19th century pertained to segregated schools,
lodging ordinances, laundry licensing fees, prohibition of
intermarriage with whites, and bans from sections of cities.
In 1854, a California judge's ruling barred Chinese immigrants from
testifying in court after the testimonies of Chinese witnesses
resulted in the murder conviction of a white man.
The judge reversed the verdict citing the Criminal Act of 1850,
which had previously prohibited blacks, mulattos, and Indians from
testifying for or against a w hite man.
By 1855 Chinese merchants began organizing to protest these and
other discriminatory acts. Eventually this organization became known
as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, or the Chinese
Six Companies. The Chinese Six Companies settled arguments within
their own community, negotiated between the Chinese people and the
federal and state governments, and hired lawyers to challenge unfair
practices in court.
The main sources of anti-Chinese sentiment during this time were
workers' groups who described the influx of Asian workers to the
United States as "yellow peril." In addition to widespread
intolerance for people of color, many labor groups held that cheap
immigrant labor would lower wages for American workers.
In the 1870s, the Anti-Coolies Association and the Supreme Order of
the Caucasians ran boycotts of Chinese businesses and laborers and
caused riots in Chinatowns across the West. Many immigrants returned
to China, while others fled to San Francisco, home to the largest
Chinese community and Chinatown in the United States.
Fueling the anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States was the
widespread economic depression of the 1870s. It was believed that
overcapitalizing of railroads contributed to the Panic of 1873, and
as a result the railroads, big businesses, and the Chinese laborers
became targets. The public, upset with big business excesses and
rampant unemployment, supported early labor organizations such as
the Workingman's Party led by Denis Kearney, himself an Irish
immigrant. Their particular scapegoat was the Chinese immigrant. In
1877, the Workingman's Party led several violent demonstrations in
San Francisco alone.
Some courts did oppose attempts to harass and discriminate against
the Chinese. In one San Francisco case, a judge denounced a ruling
by the Board of Supervisors that required male prisoners' hair to be
cut within one inch, unofficially referred to as the "Queue
Ordinance." The judge described it as spiteful legislation intended
to discourage immigration. He ruled that such a hair-cutting law
purposely aimed at the Chinese, which was not enforced against any
other prisoners, violated the Civil Rights Act of 1870, the 14th
Amendment, and the Burlingame Treaty.
However, local courts could not prohibit federal legislation such as
the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, when passed in 1882, became the
most devastating of all anti-Chinese legislation. It barred Chinese
from entering the United States for 10 years, allowing only Chinese
merchants, teachers, students, or travelers in, and only under
strict regulations. It also required Chinese already residing in the
United States to have a permit to reenter the country, and it
granted all Chinese permanent alien status; this meant they could
not become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was extended two
times, once in 1892 for an additional 10 years, and again in 1902
for an indefinite time period. It was finally repealed in 1943.
As Chinese workers who remained in the United States migrated
eastward for work, discriminatory legislation and a poor economic
climate accompanied them. Thus, they continued to be scapegoats for
anti-immigrant labor organizations. The featured documents, an
affidavit by two Chinese merchants in Butte, Montana, and the
corresponding trade union flyers calling for a boycott of Chinese
businesses in Butte, are evidence of the existence of this activity
outside of California.
In 1884, labor unions in Butte ordered Chinese immigrants to leave
town, with no results. In 1891-92 and again in late 1896 during
another nationwide depression, the labor unions boycotted Chinese-
owned businesses as well as businesses employing Chinese, blaming
the immigrants for the adverse economic climate. Union flyers
promoting the boycott, several of which are featured as document 1,
were one means of notifying members and encouraging the general
public not to patronize these establishments.
While many Chinese fled Butte, some merchants retaliated in federal
court. In Hum Lay, et al. v. Baldwin, also known as the Chinese
Boycott Case, an injunction to stop the boycott was sought by
Chinese merchants. The court paperwork lists 132 Chinese names. The
affidavit of Huie Pock and Quon Loy, testimony in this case, is the
second featured document. The case was heard in the Circuit Court of
the United States, Ninth Circuit, District of Montana, and contrary
to the prevailing public attitude of the time, the court ruled in
favor of the Chinese plaintiffs. The defendants were "enjoined and
refrained from further combining or conspiring to injure or destroy
the business of the said complainants or any of them and from
threatening, coercing or injuring any person or persons becoming or
intending to become patrons of said complainants." The Chinese also
recovered costs of $1750.05 from the defendants for fees and
expenses. The relief sought was injunctive, which is an equitable
remedy, so the court "sitting in equity" rather than "at law"
provided relief in the form of prohibiting (enjoining) certain
behavior (injunction) or causing the defendant to perform certain
actions (specific performance) rather than money damages. In other
words, the federal court listened to the grievances of a hated
minority and ruled based on fairness rather than race. The union was
ordered to stop their activities.
Daley, W. The Chinese Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Yu, C. Y. Who are the Chinese Americans? In Gall, S. & Natividad,
I., eds. Reference Library of Asian America, Vol. 1, pp. 41-62.
Detroit: Gale Research, Thompson Publishing, 1996.