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The Six Companies

The Chinese who immigrated to the United States were very diverse socially, economically, regionally, culturally, and linguistically. Social organizations in China were usually based on regional origin, including the important huiguan. A huiguan was an association of men from the same district who were away from their home on business or social trips. An even tighter bond of social organization was based on common family ties in addition to common regional origin; members of one clan tended to live in the same village or adjacent villages. Another foundation of social organization was common family lineage regardless of regional origin. This led Chinese with the same surname to form a huiguan on the assumption of a shared distant ancestor.
A Chinese man arriving in the United States would first seek out other Chinese who spoke his dialect. This linguistic connection served as the basis for many huiguan among Chinese Americans. In 1853, an attempt to form an umbrella organization of the various huiguan, called the Four Houses, lasted only a few years. Efforts at creating a viable federal association finally succeeded in 1862 with the establishment of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies.
Its ruling body was the Congress of the Six Companies. Headquartered in San Francisco, the Congress was comprised of elected representatives from each huiguan. The Congress arbitrated disagreements between individuals and companies, contested discriminatory laws, attempted to curb prostitution, and organized celebrations and other public events in the Chinese-American community. While the Six Companies was set up to protect Chinese immigrants from being exploited and discriminated against, critics accused them of encouraging and overseeing all the vices associated with the Chinese-American culture: coolie labor, prostitution, oriental despotism, gambling and opium dens, secret tribunals, and monetary extortion of the immigrants themselves.
Source consulted:

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)


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