Introduction to "The Chinese American Experience".

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The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction

By William Wei
Professor of History, University of Colorado at Boulder

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to believe that once upon a time in America, Chinese were considered heathens and subjected to widespread persecution and violence. The earlier hostile attitude toward Chinese is a far cry from the contemporary esteem for them as a "model minority" to be emulated by others. But as the pages of Harper’s Weekly document, in the 19th century, many people considered the Chinese to be unassimilable and therefore unacceptable—hence, their eventual exclusion from America in 1882.

In the mid-19th century, Chinese came to "Gold Mountain," as they called America, to join the "Gold Rush" that began at Sutter’s Mill, Sacramento, California. As the lure of gold diminished, they came simply to work. Initially welcomed, they became a significant part of the labor force that laid the economic foundation of the American West. Chinese could be found throughout the region, laboring in agriculture, mining, industry, and wherever workers were needed. They are best known for their contribution to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the completion of which united the country economically and culturally.

In spite of their indispensable role in the development of the American West, the Chinese suffered severe exploitation. They were discriminated against in terms of pay and forced to work under abysmal conditions. White workers viewed them as economic competitors and racial inferiors, thereby stimulating the passage of discriminatory laws and the commission of widespread acts of violence against the Chinese. According to John Higham:

No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s. Lynching, boycotts, and mass expulsions…harassed the Chinese. *

Under the racist slogan, "Chinese must go!" an anti-Chinese movement emerged that worked assiduously to deprive the Chinese of a means of making a living in the general economy. The movement’s goal was to drive them out of the country. This hostility hindered efforts by the Chinese to become American. It forced them to flee to the Chinatowns on the coasts, where they found safety and support. In these ghettos, they managed to eke out a meager existence, but were isolated from the rest of the population, making it difficult if not impossible to assimilate into mainstream society. To add insult to injury, Chinese were criticized for their alleged unassimilability.

Finally, Chinese workers were prevented from immigrating to America by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Its passage was a watershed event in American history. Besides identifying for the first time a specific group of people by name as undesirable for immigration to the United States, the act also marked a fateful departure from the traditional American policy of unrestricted immigration.

After China became an ally during World War II, the exclusion laws proved to be an embarrassment and were finally repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943. This bill made it possible for Chinese to become naturalized citizens and gave them an annual quota of 105  immigrants. While the bill ended an injustice that had been committed sixty-one years earlier, the damage to the Chinese community had already been done. Between the 1890s and 1920s, the Chinese population in America declined. But the worst effect was to undermine the one thing that was most precious to the Chinese, their families. Chinese men were forced to live lonely bachelor lives in the almost all-male society that was Chinatown. Meanwhile, wives and children were forced to remain in China, supported by remittances from the United States and rarely seeing their husbands and fathers. Such separations made it difficult to maintain strong family ties.

As the annual quota of 105 immigrants indicates, America’s immigration policy was restrictive and particularly discriminatory against Chinese and other Asians. Equality in immigration only came with the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965, which repealed the iniquitous national origins quota system that had been established earlier. Since the 1960s, Chinese have immigrated to the United States in significant numbers, taking particular advantage of the immigration policy’s emphasis on family reunification. At the end of the 20th century, there are an estimated 2.3 million Chinese-Americans.
Today, Chinese-Americans are doing relatively well. They are generally seen as hard-working professionals or small business people, with stable families. Indeed, the most recent census data indicates that they have median household incomes and educational levels higher than their White counterparts. While problems of discrimination still exist, they are mild compared to those reported in Harper’s Weekly over a century ago.

Harper’s Weekly and the Chinese

As one would expect from a publication of such stature, Harper’s Weekly reported on the Chinese in America. Besides carrying articles on Sino-American relations and some of the more exotic features of Chinese culture, Harper’s Weekly provided lengthy essays on aspects of the Chinese that were of interest to the public, such as opium consumption and Chinese coolies. These writings and the detailed illustrations that accompanied them provide important information about the daily lives of the Chinese. As the "Chinese Question" evolved from a regional to a national issue, Harper’s Weekly increased its coverage of the Chinese community. It looked at events such as the signing of the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, between China and the United States, in terms of its implications for the Chinese in America.

Even more significant than the articles were the editorials in which the editors of Harper’s Weekly commented extensively on the Chinese. In keeping with the sentiment of the times, the editorials perceived the Chinese as the most alien of the immigrants to come to American shores. As such, some of the editors were ambivalent about the assimilability of the Chinese. However, the editors staunchly defended the right of Chinese to be here and to be treated with dignity, basing their arguments on American ideals and a shared humanity. They implicitly challenged the popular 19th-century definition of "the American" as a White person and considered the Chinese to be citizen material. Furthermore, the editors roundly condemned the acts of violence that were perpetrated against the Chinese, including the massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.
In Harper’s Weekly, the efforts of the editors were complemented by the work of Thomas Nast, the most accomplished political cartoonist of his age. He drew over fifty cartoons featuring the Chinese, depicting their trials and tribulations, criticizing their unfair treatment and relating it to the plight of other people of color, such as Blacks and Native Americans. Nast’s work contrasts with that of Frank Bellew, a fellow Harper’s Weekly cartoonist, who caricatured the Chinese and ridiculed their speech.
The significance of Nast’s work is indicated by the continued use of his drawings by contemporary scholars. For example, his Harper’s Weekly depiction of the Rock Springs Massacre was used on the dust jacket of Alexander Saxton’s classic study, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (University of California Press, 1971), and his political cartoons were featured in the documentary, "Misunderstanding China," that was produced on the eve of President Richard M. Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.
In sum, Harper’s Weekly is an important primary source about Chinese living in America during the 19th- century, providing information about them and their communities, and commenting on the controversies that surrounded them. Much to their credit, the editors exercised their moral responsibility and decried the injustices visited upon the Chinese during their most difficult period in America.
*From Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Antheneum, 1963), p. 25

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