Definition: System by which American employers lent nineteenth century Chinese immigrants travel money at their ports of departure with the understanding that the immigrants’ wages in the United States would be garnished to repay the loans
Significance: During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the fares Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean to the United States paid ranged from fifteen to forty-five dollars—amounts that few Chinese workers could afford. American companies recruiting workers in China advanced money to immigrants to cover their travel expenses. The immigrants often ended up paying these loans several times over, but this so-called credit-ticket system enabled tens of thousands of Chinese to reach the United States.
Before 1850, Chinese migration to the United States was rare. Both China and the United States placed restrictions on emigration that tended to discourage all but a handful of merchants, scholars, and sailors from settling in the United States. Whenstories concerning a massive gold rush in the United States started circulating in Canton, China, however, foreign travel became a far more desirable proposition. By 1851, drought, war, and social upheaval in China encouraged many youngmento abandon their agricultural way of life and seek better opportunities elsewhere; a trend further encouraged in 1860 by the Chinese government reluctantly permitting emigration.
Paying the cost of travel, however, was a difficult problem for the average Chinese worker, even though foreign companies were actively seeking Chinese laborers. In response, the “credit-ticket system” was established. Chinese immigrants received loans to cover their travel costs from hiring agencies employed by foreign companies. After the new immigrants reached their destination, they paid back these loans, plus interest, out of their wages. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 removed most of the restrictions on Chinese immigration, and the credit-ticket system enabled tens of thousands of Chinese workers to reach California.
The credit-ticket system had some serious faults. Most immigrants preferred using it over becoming indentured or contract laborers because it allowed them to choose their own employment. However, paying off the loans typically required months of labor. With interest and fees, loans of forty dollars could easily rise as high as $160. The money that Chinese immigrants made was never great. Even successful gold miners typically realized only modest incomes, and wages paid to Chinese workers for other kinds of employment, such as railroad work, were low. On average, it took seven months for workers to pay off their debts. Nevertheless, the credit-ticket system remained firmly in place and popular until Chinese immigration was halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and admittance to the United States stopped by the Scott Act of 1888.
Julia M. Meyers
See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Burlingame Treaty of 1868; California gold rush; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Contract labor system; Coolies; Indentured servitude; Paper sons; Railroads.