The Event: Era that saw widespread opposition to Chinese immigration at the local, state, and federal levels
Location: West Coast of the United States, primarily California
Significance: The Anti-Chinese movement developed out of anti-Chinese attitudes in the mining fields of California during the 1850’s to become a more widespread movement during the 1870’s. The movement was successful in helping to get the federal government to pass legislation restricting Chinese immigration that was enforced from the 1880’s until the 1940’s.
Contemporary newspaper illustration of the anti-Chinese rioting in Denver, Colorado, in 1880. (Library of Congress)
When Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States, they were accepted because they performed work considered undesirable by European Americans. However, as their numbers increased, strong resentment developed on theWest Coast, particularly in California. Chinese immigrants encountered prejudice and discrimination that were sometimes manifested in violence. Ultimately, the anti-Chinese movement helped foster federal legislation that severely restricted Chinese immigration for several decades.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 initiated the first significant wave of Chinese immigration to the United States. The state of California attempted to limit the ability of Chinese immigrants to assimilate. Miners of European descent were angered that the Chinese were gaining mining permits and finding gold that, in their minds, was rightfully theirs. The state government of California passed Foreign Miners’ License Tax laws in 1850 and 1852 that required all miners who were not U.S. citizens to pay three dollars per month in taxes (later increased to six dollars, and finally lowered to four dollars). Because Chinese workers were ineligible for U.S. citizenship, more of them had to pay this tax than members of any other immigrant group.
In 1851, John Bigler was elected governor of California on an anti-Chinese platform. Four years later, the state’s supreme court ruled that Chinese had the same limited rights as African Americans and Native Americans, meaning that they could not testify against white citizens in court. There was such a strong anti-Chinese feeling nationally that when a bill was introduced in Congress that would give Chinese Americans the right to vote, it was rejected. Many Americans who supported the anti- Chinese movement in the West regarded the Chinese as morally and intellectually inferior to all other minority groups in the region. These people consistently blamed the Chinese for the ills of the community.
As time passed, anti-Chinese sentiment gained support among the wider population. As the national economy suffered during the 1870’s, labor union leaders led the outcry against the Chinese for keeping wages low and taking potential jobs from white Americans. Labor leaders, along with politicians, used the charge that Chinese would work for lower wages as a way to win votes. Along with the economic issues, the movement focused on the cultural differences and stereotypes of the Chinese immigrants. Those opposed to Chinese immigration pointed to opium smoking, gambling, and prostitution as examples of the negative influences that Chinese immigrants had on American society. Furthermore, they looked down on the Chinese reluctance to assimilate and adopt the mainstream American way of life.
The anti-Chinese movement continued to grow during the 1880’s. With pressure from California, the federal government became involved as the movement gained national support. The federal government moved to stop Chinese immigration altogether. In the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China, the U.S. government had encouraged the immigration of Chinese nationals to the United States. Just over a decade later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended all immigration of Chinese to the United States. This act was amended in 1884 to make it more difficult for Chinese laborers working in the United States who left the country to return.
After new Chinese immigration was mostly eliminated, the anti-Chinese movement turned its attention against Chinese who were already residing in the United States. There had been scattered incidents of violence in California against Chinese during the 1870’s, but the movement became more violent throughout the West during the mid-1880’s. This tension had been growing in both the mining fields and along the railroads—two sectors of the economy that employed large numbers of Chinese workers. In 1885, large-scale violence erupted in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where white vigilantes stormed through the Chinese community, killing many people and driving away many of the rest. Additional incidents later occurred in other Chinatowns throughout the Far West.
After violence on the West Coast, the United States strengthened its anti-Chinese stance. First, the government approved the expulsion of Chinese laborers who owned property in the United States or had wives living in the country. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, which banned both the immigration and the return of Chinese laborers to the United States. This law had the impact of refusing reentry to tens of thousands of Chinese who had temporarily left the United States. The anti-Chinese movement was successful in renewing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892 and establishing a permanent ban in 1902. Because of the anti-Chinese movement, Chinese immigration remained outlawed until 1943.
David R. Buck
Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Good analyis of why the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth- Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area, McClain examines Chinese efforts to mobilize against discrimination in employment, housing, and education.
Miller, Stuart Creighton. The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Documents American anti-Chinese feeling from the arrival of the first Chinese in the late eighteenth century to 1882, the year in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Bibliographical references and index.
Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Considered by some historians to be the best work on the subject of anti- Chinese discrimination in California. Bibliographical references.
See also: Angell Treaty of 1880; Burlingame Treaty of 1868; California; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Exclusion Cases; Chinese immigrants; "Mongrelization”; Nativism; San Francisco; Stereotyping.