Monday, May 02, 2005

Asian American Heritage Month, day 2

Gold Mountain: A History of Chinese Immigration to America Early Chinese immigration to America began primarily in the mid 1800's, when both the discovery of gold in California and the end of slavery prompted an initially welcome wave of Chinese labourers to American shores (though there were earlier instances of Chinese landing in America as coolie labourers). Attracted by the finding of gold in 1848 in the Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for California that continues to this day), Chinese miners (primarily young men seeking to make their fortunes in America to support families back in China -- immigration was an expensive investment at the time and families would save up their money to send a strong son across the ocean) began making their way to America where they worked primarily as miners. However, as Chinese prospectors continued to immigrate to America, plantation owners in Hawaii found an irresistable source of cheap labour and began facilitating the voyage from China by signing eager Chinese males looking to pan for gold in California as contract labourers in Hawaiian sugar cane plantation -- the plantations would agree to arrange for passage to America in exchange for a certain number of years worked on the plantation in which the labourer would pay back the debt of their travel (minus lodging and food expenses), after which point they were free to go. However, this was rarely the case as corrupt plantation owners found new ways to prevent labourers from paying back what they owed for their travel to the States. Anti-Chinese sentiment continued to mount as initial awe and respect for the landing 'Celestials' gave way to deep-seated fear that the Chinese labourers (or 'coolies') were undermining the dream of a white American culture upon which the U.S. was initially founded. In 1850, the American government passed a Foreign Miner's Tax which was selectively enforced against Chinese miners requiring them to pay a heavy head tax for mining gold, effectively putting many prospectors out of business. Nonetheless, Chinese miners and labourers continued to immigrate to America, filling niches for cheap labour throughout the West Coast and establishing communities or ethnic enclaves where they could be safe from the largely intolerant attitudes of white Americans. By 1857, over 20,000 Chinese had landed in California, most of them men, when the California government passed a law banning the further immigration of Chinese and other 'Mongoloids' and in 1862, California further imposed a head tax of $2.50/month for every Chinese living within the state. With Chinese immigration at a standstill and Chinese unable to continue mining, the coolie population was larger than ever, with Chinese labourers continuing to do menial tasks considered beneath white men. At this time, small numbers of Chinese women began entering into America; many claimed to have been kidnapped from China and brought to America as prostitutes and sex slaves, others, hoping to make a fortune nonetheless found themselves in endentured sexual servitude as a means of paying back their travel to the U.S. In 1867, the Central Pacific Railroad Company decides to build the first transcontinental railroad and recruits hundreds of cheap Chinese workers to build the railway -- often with little regard for the workers' own personal safety. Whether from cave-ins, dynamite explosions, or exhaution, it is estimated that at least one Chinese worker died for every mile of railroad that was built. The railroad was completed in 1869, although Chinese workers in Texas sued the company a year later claiming they were not paid their wages. It must be remembered that until 1872, non-whites including Asians and Blacks were not allowed to testify in court, even on their own behalf. In 1868, the US and China reopened immigration by signing the Burlingame-Seward treaty recognizing the right of their citizens to emigrate. However, in 1875, the US passed the Page Law which, citing the 'moral decline' of America through the influx of foreign prostitutes, prohibited the importation of Chinese, Japanese and 'Mongolian' women into the States as contract labourers or prostitutes. This law effectively ended the immigration of all Asian women into America. As anti-Chinese violence continued to mount, the U.S. ruled in 1878 that Chinese, not being white, were not eligible for naturalized citizenship and thus were not eligible to the rights of a U.S. citizen. As California continued to mount a war against landed Chinese labourers who were no longer wanted, it was ruled that Chinese were no longer eligible for employment, Chinese children were not allowed to attend public schools, and in 1880, the U.S. and China revised their immigration policies allowing the U.S. to limit Chinese immigration to America. Meanwhile, Section 69 of the California Civil Code prohibited miscengation between the races, outlawing marriage between whites and "Mongolians, Negroes, mulattoes and persons of mixed blood." Any American-born woman who breaks this law stands to lose her citizenship. Following the revised immigration laws of 1880, in 1882, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited the immigration of any Chinese person for ten years, and in 1884, the law was amended saying that having a certificate was the only acceptable means of reentry. As several cities in the American West forcibly and violently removed the Chinese from their populations, Chinese immigration was ended to Hawaii and in 1888 the Scott Act nullified 20,000 Chinese reentry certificates. In 1892, further emphasizing the intolerance of America for its unwanted Chinese population, the Greary Law is passed renewing the Chinese Exclusion Act for another ten years. In 1898, in Wong Kim Ark v. U.S., it is ruled that American-born Chinese cannot have their citizenship stripped. However, Chinese and other non-white immigrants still cannot naturalize. Between 1890 and 1910, several bubonic plague scares lead to the burning of several Chinatowns throughout the American West. In 1902, the Chinese Exclusion Act is renewed for a third time. Sick of the constant renewals, the U.S. made the Chinese Exclusion Act indefinite in 1904, effectively closing the door on all Chinese immigration for the foreseeable future. It quickly became easy for America to pass a series of laws oppressing Chinese without mentioning them by name yet nonetheless targetting the landed Asian population. In 1913, California passed the alien land law which prohibited 'aliens ineligible to citizenship' from owning or buying land, or leasing it for a period longer than three years. After the first World War, the U.S. granted naturalization rights to any serviceman of Asian ancestry. However, victimization of Chinese and other Asians persists and in 1923, the US courts rules that 'aliens ineligible to citizenship' should be unable to own livestock. In 1924, the US passes the Immigration Act which further bars any Asian immigrant from coming to America, although the Chinese were already excluded from the indefinite Chinese Exclusion Act. During the Great Depression, as unemployment runs rampant, coolie labour increases as Chinese labourers continue to fill the gaps in menial labour, increasing negative sentiment against Chinese. White labourers saw themselves as starving as Chinese coolies thrived -- it was at this time that numbers of Chinese small business owners increased (becoming the stereotype of today) when Chinese opened businesses entering into traditionally 'women's work' shunned by white male labourers -- such as laundries and seamstress businesses. During WWII, Chinese were treated to a newfound tolerance as China became an American ally in the war. Chinese found themselves needing to wear signs indicating they were not Japanese; Japanese were being interned in camps throughout the Midwest. In 1947, the US amended the War Brides Act allowing Chinese American servicemen to bring brides back to the States. In 1949, the US grants refugee status to 5,000 educated Chinese escaping Communist China. In 1956, California repeals the alien land law and, at last, in 1965, the Immigration Act is revised to abolish "national origins" as a basis for restricting immigration, essentially re-opening the doors to Chinese immigration. Restrictions were now based upon education and workforce skills, leading to an influx of highly educated and wealthier immigrants of any nationality, including Chinese. Shortly thereafter, landed, foreign-born Asians were given the right to naturalize -- more than a century after the first Chinese made it to America, Chinese immigrants were finally able to call themselves citizens of their adopted homeland.


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