Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Chinese Exclusion Act Revisited

“The Magic Washer . . . The Chinese Must Go,” c. 1886
Courtesy Library of Congress
“The Chinese Must Go,” asserted this late-19th-century ad for laundry detergent shortly after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. “We have no use for them since we got this WONDERFUL WASHER,” the advertisers explained, relying on widespread anti-Chinese sentiment to target a traditionally Chinese laundry business—one of many reasons why Uncle Sam should kick the Chinese out of the United States.
On May 1 this year, Assemblyman Phil Ting (Democrat, District 19, San Francisco) proposed Assembly Joint Resolution 14 marking May 6, 2017, as the 135th anniversary of the enactment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As the AJR 14 summary explains, the resolution would “recognize the harm caused by racially discriminatory immigration measures, and to honor the contributions of all immigrants and refugees who have enriched our communities.” 
Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the Unites States. Renewed in 1892, amended in 1902, and made permanent in 1904, it prevented Chinese laborers from entering the United States and denied a pathway to citizenship to Chinese immigrants for more than sixty years, until 1943, when Congress repealed the nation's exclusion acts.
First page of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Today, we remember the passage and impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act with this summary by noted historian Charles Wollenberg, an account with chilling relevance to the anti-immigrant sentiment our nation faces today.
—Shelly Kale

J. D. Borthwick (artist), Chinese Camp in the Mines, c. 1850s
California Historical Society

The Gold Rush began the heritage of Asian-Pacific Islander migration to the United States. By 1849, gold seekers were arriving from Hawaii and Australia, and Chinese began coming in large numbers in 1851–52. Before the end of the 1850s, they were the largest nonwhite group in the mining districts and already a major target of resentment and discrimination. As a result, Chinese often sought out occupations that served rather than competed against the white majority. In a largely male society, those occupations sometimes included what the nineteenth century defined as “women’s work,” including laundry, cooking and domestic service. Chinese also became low-wage manual laborers, and in that role served as the major workforce for construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad.

“A Chinese Laundry in San Francisco, California—The Coming Man Washing, Drying, Sprinkling, and Ironing Clothes”
Published in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870

Alfred A. Hart (Photographer), Heading of East Portal, Tunnel No. 8, from Donner Lake Railroad, Western Summit, c. 1867
Courtesy of Alfred A. Hart Photograph Collection, Stanford University

In the 1870s, Chinese labor also became central to the expansion of California agriculture and important in several urban industries.  But the seventies was a depression decade, and the hard times strengthened white fear of Chinese economic competition. The anti-Chinese movement became increasingly violent and politically powerful.  In 1882 Congress responded with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning almost all further Chinese immigration to the U.S.

Chinese Picking Grapes, Fair Oaks Ranch
Courtesy, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Photo Archives

The law was the first significant immigration restriction in American history, the first reversal of the principle of the Open Door. Ironically, the Statue of Liberty, the greatest symbol of America’s Open Door to immigrants, was under construction in 1882, just as the nation was turning away from that very principle. Chinese Exclusion began a forty-year process of increasing immigration restriction, which eventually applied to European migration as well. But it is important that the first target of restriction was the only significant nonwhite immigrant group coming to the United States at that time. And the major political and social pressure for Chinese exclusion came from California.

Thomas Nast, Pacific Chivalry, 1869
Published in Harper's Weekly, vol. 13, August 7, 1869

Chinese exclusion lasted for more than sixty years and produced a shortage of immigrant labor in California. In the 1890s, many California employers formerly dependent on Chinese labor turned to Japan as a new source of workers. Not surprisingly, by the early twentieth century, California’s well-established anti-Asian movement increasingly made Japanese immigration its primary target. Unlike 19th-century China, early-20th-century Japan was an emerging world power, and Japan’s new status produced political and diplomatic conflicts with the United States. Interethnic relations in California both reflected and reinforced these international tensions. Some influential Californians warned of a “Yellow Peril,” in which Japanese immigrants supposedly served as shock troops in a conspiracy threatening “white civilization” throughout the Pacific Basin.

—Charles Wollenberg

Immigration Officer D. D. Beatty used his 1894 journal to track Chinese immigrants
in Sierra County 
California Historical Society 
Activating historical memory recounted above, the ARJ 14 summary further notes that the measure would “declare the opposition of the Legislature to recent executive orders signed by President Trump relating to immigration, call upon the President to rescind those orders, condemn the expansion of deportations planned under the current administration, and reaffirm that the Legislature is open and welcoming to immigrants and refugees who are integral to life in our state.” 
As Erika Lee, Director of Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, has written, “At a time when new government policies are deporting and banning new immigrants, remembering the consequences of this dark chapter in our history is more important than ever.”

Charles Wollenberg teaches history at Berkeley City College and is an Affiliated Scholar at the UCB Center for California Studies. He is a Fellow of the California Historical Society.

Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society.


Learn more about the Chinese Exclusion Act on the CHS blog:

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