Chinese family associations

2011-09-22 00:24:18

Definition: Organizations composed of Chinese immigrants who share common surnames, ancestors, or places of origin. These associations provide mutual aid, protection and socialization and have been in existence since the first waves of Chinese immigrants came to California during the late 1840’s

Also known as: Fangs

Significance: Chinese family associations, or fangs, provided social and financial support to early Chinese immigrants living in hostile environments. Later, as many of these family groups combined to create larger organizations, they served to make residency and citizenship easier for immigrants and acted as informal chambers of commerce for Chinese businesspeople.

The first wave of Chinese immigration to the United States occurred during the late 1840’s and continued through the 1850’s. Due to economic problems in southern China, male Cantonesespeaking workers arrived in California to accept jobs in mining, various small industries, and on the transcontinental railroad. Most of them intended to stay only briefly so they could send money back to relatives in China. However, worsening economic conditions in their homeland and plentiful, if low-paying, jobs in the United States extended the stays of many Chinese workers.

Challenges to Immigrants

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad and anti-Chinese nativist sentiment rising on the West Coast, Chinese workers responded by starting businesses such as laundries and restaurants— enterprises often viewed as difficult and undesirable by U.S.-born businesspeople. With these businesses generally concentrated in Chinese neighborhoods, generally known as Chinatowns, and with the overwhelming gender imbalance (the vast majority of Chinese immigrant workers were men), Chinese business owners and workers were often viewed as “alien” by native-born Americans and even by members of other better-established immigrant communities. Because of this particular set of circumstances and significant language barriers, Chinese business owners often had little access to the financial and community support systems that other entrepreneurs did. To compensate, they formed family associations, or fangs, for mutual aid and support. Membership in these organizations was at first based upon common surnames or common ancestors, but membership in many individual organizations was later broadened to include all immigrants from particular villages or regions.


Some of the early Chinese family associations were formed in San Francisco. Because of the large numbers of immigrants who settled there, several small associations formed but, due to their size and the anti-Chinese sentiment beginning to grow during the 1870’s, many of these associations found it beneficial to combine. Six of the largest associations formed the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies. This combined family association provided support services for new immigrants as well as arranging small loans for businesses and protection for its members. The organization grew over time and established chapters in other cities.

As economic conditions worsened on the West Coast during the late 1870’s, family associations in other cities found it necessary to combine to ensure mutual aid and protection. Anti-Chinese sentiment grew so virulent that the U.S. Congress passed a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882, which suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. It permitted Chinese who had been already in the United States on November 17, 1880, to stay, travel abroad, and return. It also prohibited the naturalization of Chinese and created the “Section 6” exempt status for Chinese teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. Members of the exempt classes would be admitted to the United States upon presentation of certificates fromthe Chinese government. Many Chinese immigrants and longtime residents, fearing for their livelihood and safety, relocated to cities in the Midwest such as Chicago and St. Louis, and others emigrated to the eastern seaboard.

Even with these new restrictions, Chinatowns were established in midwestern and eastern cities after the early 1880’s. There immigrants faced better economic opportunities than were available on theWest Coast, but they were still subject to significant anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese family associations were formed in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston. Associations in these cities based membership on more traditional criteria, such as common surnames, ancestors, and home regions. This trend led to the establishment of tong organizations.

Tongs were secret fraternal societies that represented Chinese immigrants lacking connections with groups based on common surnames and native places. In cities such as Chicago, tong organizations vied with the more traditional fangs for economic opportunities. The result was that many tongs became involved in organized crime activities in Chinese neighborhoods. In New York City, however, the tongs and family associations combined in 1886 to provide a mutual aid and social welfare organization for new immigrants. A second combined organization was formed in Brooklyn a few years later. Both of these combined associations served to provide English-language instruction, housing, and job placement services for newly arrived immigrants.

Twentieth Century Developments

By the 1920’s and 1930’s, China’s civil war and the U.S. government’s relaxation of Chinese immigration quotas led to a rapid influx in Chinese immigration and an increase in the number of family associations formed in the cities’ many Chinatowns. In 1949, communist leader Mao Zedong’s victory over the Kuomintang led to another increase in Chinese immigration to the United States. This time, however, most of the immigrants were Mandarin speakers—unlike the earlier Cantonesespeaking immigrants—who swelled the populations of Chinatowns during the 1950’s.

Although many of the new immigrants established traditional fang associations, there was a greater tendency among these new Chinese immigrants to join long-established combined family associations, as these organizations already had resources needed by new arrivals. However, their full participation in these associations was weakened by the tendencies of Mandarin-speaking immigrants to move out of densely populated urban areas and into the suburbs of large cities. Later Chinese family associations have been formed mostly by ethnic Chinese who have immigrated to the United States from such countries as Malaysia, South Korea, and Vietnam. In contrast to the Mandarin-speaking Chinese nationals, these immigrants have tended to settle in urban centers and participate in combined fang associations or in the few remaining “legitimate” tong associations.

William Carney

Further Reading

  • Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. Excellent source for stories about specific Chinese family businesses. 
  • Jenkins, Shirley. Ethnic Organizations and the Welfare State: Services to Immigrants in Five Countries. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Overview of the ways in which Chinese family associations and other ethnic organizations fill the gaps in a country’s social safety net. 
  • Jung, John. Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain. Morrisville, N.C.: Yin & Yang Press, 2007. Fascinating historical, social, and psychological study of families in the important laundry business. Well illustrated. 
  • Li, Minghuan. “We Need Two Worlds”: Chinese Immigrant Associations in aWestern Society. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. Although this book is about the Netherlands, it provides useful insights into the workings of Chinese associations, which have broad similarities in cities around the world. 
  • Liu, Haiming. The Transnational History of a Chinese Family: Immigrant Letters, Family Business and Reverse Migration. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Excellent study of a single Chinese immigrant family that has operated an agricultural business through several generations. 
  • Siu, Paul C. P. The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation. New York: New York University Press, 1987. The son of a laundryman, the author presents an intimate but scholarly study of Chinese laundries in Chicago from 1870 to 1940. 

See also: California gold rush; Chinatowns; Chinese American Citizens Alliance; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance; Chinese immigrants; Chinese laundries; Chinese secret societies; Chinese Six Companies; Family businesses; Immigrant aid organizations.