Identification: National network of benevolent social organizations for Chinese Americans
Date: Established in 1882
Also known as: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
Significance: Begun to promote community cooperation and to protect ethnic identity in the face of discrimination and violence against first-generation Chinese immigrants in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, the Chinese Six Companies quickly grew into a powerful national organization that worked to defend the civil and political rights of Chinese Americans in the face of increasingly anti-Chinese federal legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress between 1880 and 1920.
For the nearly 100,000 Chinese immigrants who came to California during the mid-nineteenth century— mostly to work in the newly opening gold fields—assimilation into the established European American community was never a possibility. Divided from the established Americans by sharp social, cultural, language, and religious differences, as well as obvious physical differences, the Chinese immigrants came to live in tightly closed neighborhoods. The most famous of these was Chinatown in San Francisco. These immigrants were mostly poorly educated men fromrural China. After arriving in California, they worked diligently and quickly became an essential element of California’s developing economy. The Chinese Six Companies had their roots in this era. Loose confederations of neighbors in the Chinese districts helped arrange work for new immigrants and provided new arrivals with shelter and food.
As the numbers of Chinese immigrants increased and the gold fields were played out, the immigrants extended the range of their economic activities to fishing, food services, farming, service trades (most prominently laundering), and, most famously, helping to build the transcontinental railroad. Meanwhile, violence against these immigrants became more common. They were perceived as threats to the economic livelihood of “real” Americans. By the early 1880’s, such resentment and violence had become routine. Within the Chinese neighborhoods of San Francisco, the largest enclave of Chinese immigrants in the United States, neighborhood organizations made up of successful merchants and political activists began to provide a kind of pseudo-government structure to the neighborhoods. At the same time, they promoted pride in their shared ethnic identity. After the original Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was chartered in San Francisco in 1882, it was soon followed by five other community organizations which joined to become the Chinese Six Companies.
In the face of an organized effort to use federal legislation to curtail the immigration of Asians generally and the Chinese specifically, the Chinese Six Companies took an increasingly prominent role in publicly defending civil rights for Chinese immigrants. Federal laws initially denied the Chinese immigrants the right to become naturalized citizens, but the controversial 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act virtually ended Chinese immigration. It then fell to the Chinese Six Companies to maintain community integrity. The organizations encouraged immigrants to develop urban trades, most notably restaurant management, factory labor (particularly in the thriving garment industry), and import-export businesses. In addition to encouraging employment, these community organizations settled petty disputes, helped develop neighborhood schools, sponsored the building of Buddhist temples, and funded community cultural and social events to preserve the sense of Chinese identity.
Over the decades, as immigration restrictions slowly eased, the Chinese Six Companies continued to grow, chartering councils in more than a dozen cities. As a collective, these companies initiated significant law suits that brought discrimination issues to the U.S. Supreme Court. Locally, they continued to encourage community involvement for Chinese Americans and provided a sense of continuity and ethnic identity to generations long removed from the immigrant experience. The organizations have continued to promote business opportunities for Chinese American neighborhoods and to seek political support for agendas that promote issues key to the Chinese American community.
See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Asian American Legal Defense Fund; California; California gold rush; Chinatowns; Chinese American Citizens Alliance; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese family associations; Chinese immigrants; Coolies; History of immigration, 1783-1891; San Francisco; “Yellow peril” campaign.