Although Chinese immigrants faced restrictions and discrimination in the United States, they contributed to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and created a new culture and lifestyle in the American West.
'Chinese Passengers on Deck, 1900–15' Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives
'Chinese Emigration to America—Sketch on Board the Pacific Mail Steamship Alaska' Photo Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Introduction to Chinese Immigration
When gold was first discovered in 1848 in northern California, and once the people in China found out about it, waves of Chinese immigrants began flowing into the American West. Although not many people were successful in discovering gold for themselves, there were other conditions like economic opportunities in the United States and unrest back in China that caused more of the Chinese to come and stay in America. In the United States, industries were rapidly growing and expanding westward, and the desire for labor, especially for obtaining natural resources and developing a transportation system, soared. Many of the jobs that were appearing required menial and gruesome work, and whites believed that Chinese workers were a fit for the dirty and dangerous work that whites did not want.(1) Recruitment of Chinese workers by labor agents began skyrocketing even more as soon as the Central Pacific Railroad began construction in the 1860s. Starting in 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company carried out transpacific steamship service and caused increased immigration of the Chinese and played a large role in the growth of San Francisco. Beginning in 1849, the numbers of Chinese immigrants coming to California grew exponentially. There were 325 in 1849, 450 in 1850, 2,716 in 1851, 20,026 in 1852, and by 1870, there were 63,00 Chinese in the United States, 77% of them in California.(2) Although the Chinese constituted 9 percent of the Californian population by 1870, they made up 25 percent of the whole workforce in California. Chinese immigrants, especially the adult males, were of great economic significance.(3) In addition, problems involving China prompted more and more Chinese immigrants to flee to the United States. For example, Japan defeated China in the Sino Japanese War that took place from 1894 to 1895. The Chinese Revolution in 1911 ended the long imperial rule in Chinese, and domestic conflicts between the Nationalists and Communists increased in the 1920s. Soon, China was involved in another war with Japan, and Japan controlled different parts of the country by the late 1930s. After the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States, for decades to follow, those who had already immigrated convinced relatives and friends to come to America, and then they convinced their friends to come, and so on, creating a chain of Chinese immigration to not only the American West but also all over the world.(4)
Sources: (1) Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History, reprint ed. (n.p.: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 59. (2) Ibid. (3) Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore, rev upd ed. (n.p.: Back Bay Books, 1998), 79. (4) Lee, The Making, 59.