Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chinese on the Western Frontier

I. The Push Factors of Chinese Immigration

A. Political Inertia in China--the national government in the country was largely ineffectual during most of the 19th century, unable to address problems in the country, nor to resist foreign aggression.

1. First Opium War (1839-1842)--British merchants found the opium trade they had established in British India (including today's India, Pakistan, and  Afghanistan) to be highly profitable, but that countries were becoming increasingly reluctant to allow the importation of the drug, which they saw as debilitating on their populations. When the Chinese government tried to prevent the East India Company from importing opium into  the country, British naval ships showed up to force the issue.

B. Rural poverty--Chinese peasants, after several years of bad harvests, became increasingly desperate to find a way to change their condition of life. By the late 1850s, peasants that left to country after news of the California Gold Rush began returning to the countryside with the means to accomplish this, and this encouraged other peasants to pursue this path.

C. Entrepeneurial labor agencies--Chinese merchants quickly realized that there was money to be made providing passage and lining up employment for Chinese peasants willing to sign away most of their earning of their early years abroad in return for passage out of China.

1. Chinese Six Companies--six such firms in San Francisco banded together when the influx of Chinese workers created a huge backlash in an attempt to prevent this reaction from completely killing off their business. They agreed to advocate for voluntary reductions in Chinese immigration, prohibition of the immigration of women (some of whom worked as prostitutes for these companies, servicing the Chinese male population that found their money unwelcome in other San Francisco brothels).

II. Chinese "Otherness"

A. Physical differences--early Chinese immigrants tended to come from Guangdong Province in southern China, where for generations they had subsisted on a diet richer in carbohydrates (largely from rice), but lower in protein; the result was that the average Chinese immigrant was shorter than the average native white American, who demanded beefsteak as a birthright. The practice of wearing one's hair in a braided que was seen as provocative to some Americans, as well.

B. Strange food--the consumption of rice was unheard of in the United States at this time, while the huge consumption of beef in the United States was not possible in China. Linking these two phenomena  together, many in the United States began to argue that Chinese workers accepted lower wages because they could live on a diet that a white man found inadequate, and they must therefore be a lower order of human being.

C. Chinese Labor Contracts

1. "Coolie"  labor--in order to immigrate from China, most peasants had to sign labor contracts to book passage out of the country--not only to the United States, but also to places like the Caribbean Islands, and Central and South America.

2. Foreign enforcement--Chinese companies were able to convince foreign courts--particularly in the United States--that, no matter how odious the conditions of the labor contract, it was binding on the worker and should be enforced.

III.  Exclusion of the Chinese

A. The Workingman's Party--became the political vehicle for white workers in California to begin agitating for halting Chinese immigration

1. Denis Kearney--Irish-American carpenter in San Francisco who became recognized as the local leader of the Party.

2. Stopping Chinese immigration became a major political issue in California, particularly in San Francisco, where one out of every four workers was Chinese--even though they only made up about twelve percent of the population of the city.

B. 1877 Great Uprising--the spread of labor unrest in 1877, largely due to the continued hardships brought on by an economic depression that began in 1873, made political leaders around the country amendable to an act such as Chinese exclusion, since it affected only a small portion of the population and was extremely popular with most white workers.

C. 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act--banned Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States for ten years; in  1892 it was extended for ten more years, and in 1902 it was made permanent. The ban was not airtight, and "sons of nobles" were allowed to immigrate (which kept Chinese business and institutions like the Chinese Six Companies in business), but it did greatly slow Chinese immigration.  The ban remained in effect until 1943, when it was finally lifted in recognition of the fact that China was an ally in the war against Japan.

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