The Chinese were the first large Asian group to settle in both the United States and Canada and proved integral to the economic development of the North American west. As visible minorities, they were also the first to suffer from RACISM as well as nativism. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) in the United States and the Chinese Immigration Act (1885) in Canada were the first pieces of immigration legislation in each country to deny entry on the basis of race.
From the mid-1850s to 2002, more than 1.5 million Chinese immigrated to the United States, not including hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese from other countries. About 600,000 Chinese entered Canada during the same period. Over time, the Chinese in North America proved to be resilient, adaptable, and successful in moving up the economic ladder. As a result, by the 1990s they were often refused minority status in a variety of programs emphasizing racial balancing. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, about 2.9 million Americans and 1.1 million Canadians claimed Chinese descent. San Francisco was the early center of Chinese settlement in the United States. During the 20th century, however, significant Chinatowns were established in major cities across the United States. According to the U.S. census of 2000, New York City (536,966), San Francisco (521,645), and Los Angeles (472,637) have the largest Chinese populations in the United States. Toronto (435,685) and Vancouver (347,985) have the largest Chinese populations in Canada as recorded in the Canadian census of 2001.
China is the world’s largest country in population (1.3 billion in 2002) and third largest in landmass (3,696,100 square miles). It is bordered on the north by Russia, Korea, and Mongolia; to the west by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and India; to the south by Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam; and to the east by the Pacific Ocean. Developing one of the world’s earliest great civilizations along the Yellow River by about 1600 B.C., China exerted from thereon broad cultural influence throughout eastern and southeastern Asia, most notably in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Throughout its long imperial rule, China’s political and cultural supremacy was seldom questioned by either rulers or neighbors. Even when enemies such as the Mongols (1279–1368) and the Manchus (1644–1911) conquered China, they largely embraced its (Han) culture, maintaining the country’s long traditions. It was not until the 1830s that China’s encounter with the West and its new industrial technologies led some to question China’s traditional reliance upon the Confucian values of the ancient past. By the late 19th century, China had been carved into spheres of European influence. The Qing dynasty of the Manchus was so severely weakened that the country was defeated by the much smaller but rapidly modernizing Japan (Sino-Japanese War, 1894–95), and the dynasty itself was overthrown by republican forces in 1911. Throughout its history, China’s dense population left it particularly vulnerable to the famines and floods that frequently ravaged the country. This, coupled with China’s economic superiority in Asia, helped establish an ongoing tradition of migration that led to the establishment of large Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. Thus, when opportunities arose to migrate to North America, immigrants responded within a traditional framework for migration.
The first significant period of immigration to North America came between 1849 and 1882, when some 300,000 young, impoverished, and mostly male peasants came as contract laborers during the California gold rush. The young men of coastal Guangdong (Canton) Province, who suffered from increasing competition from European manufactured goods, loss of jobs, and interethnic conflicts, had both the means of learning of North American opportunities and access to the ships that would take them there. Few made money for themselves in the goldfields, but they proved to be valuable laborers for large mining corporations, and they frequently earned a living providing mining camps with food, supplies, and a variety of services. After the mines played out, the Chinese stayed to work on railroad construction, swamp reclamation, and in agriculture and fishing. They were considered ideal laborers and constituted about 80 percent of the labor force of the Central Pacific Railroad during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. Prohibited from becoming citizens, most planned to improve their financial position, then eventually return to China, an attitude reinforced by the rise of militant anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the West. By 1882, when Chinese immigration was virtually prohibited, there were about 110,000 Chinese in the United States, most in California and other western states.
The pattern of immigration and exclusion was remarkably similar in Canada, though on a smaller scale. Chinese people first came in significant numbers to British Columbia with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858. Within two years their population was 4,000. After the goldfields were exhausted, the Chinese increasingly became servants, ran low-capital businesses such as laundries and restaurants, and worked in agriculture and on the railroads. Between 1881 and 1884, it is estimated that 17,000 were brought in to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, more than half directly from China, but a significant number from the United States as well. As a result of local Canadian opposition, in 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act was passed, imposing a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants, thus drastically reducing their entry.
From 1882 until 1943, generally only students, merchants, and diplomats were allowed to come freely to the United States. With Canadian restrictions less severe, some laborers continued coming to Canada with the expectation of meeting relatives or of illegally entering the United States. Between 1886 and 1911, more than 55,000 paid the head tax, but many of these either returned to China or migrated to the United States. Due to the initial gender imbalance (27 men to one woman in 1890), prohibitions on interracial marriage, and immigration restrictions, the vast majority of Chinese women in North America were forced to become prostitutes, most sold into sexual slavery by impoverished Chinese families. This unusual social structure was usually hidden away in “Chinatowns,” where most Chinese lived and did business and where few whites, save missionaries and public officials, ever ventured. This social exclusion was strengthened in Canada with passage of a Chinese exclusion law of 1923, based on the doctrine that the two races were wholly different and could not work toward the same goals. Though making some provision for Chinese who had entered under the head tax to travel between China and Canada, the new regulations allowed virtually no new immigrants between 1924 and 1946.
World War II (1939–45) encouraged some change in both American and Canadian attitudes toward the Chinese. With China an important ally against Imperial Japan, and thousands of Chinese Americans volunteering for military service and working in defense-related industries, in 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although the number of allowable immigrants remained small, Chinese aliens did gain the right to naturalization. The War Brides Act brought some 6,000 into the country outside the quota, and various Refugee Acts associated with the cold war enabled another 30,000 mostly welleducated Chinese to enter. In Canada, Chinese were granted access to more professions, and it was made easier for them to acquire citizenship. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1947 and Order in Council P.C. 2115 did not represent a major change in immigration policy, however, as it only allowed Chinese Canadians who were citizens to bring their spouses and minor children into the country. During the 1940s, only about 5 percent were Canadian or British citizens.
A Chinese store in the interior of the “upper country,” British Columbia, ca. 1910. Between 1881 and 1884, more than 17,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Vancouver, most to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fears of a “yellow” west led to Canada’s first anti-immigrant legislation based on race, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. (National Archives of Canada)
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally removed race as a barrier to immigration to the United States, opening a new era to which the Chinese eagerly responded. In addition to large numbers coming to reunite with family members, some 250,000 highly educated scientists, engineers, and intellectuals migrated to the United States between 1965 and 2000 to take advanced degrees, with most remaining in the country. Tens of thousands emigrated from Taiwan (see Taiwanese immigration) and Hong Kong, principally for education and economic opportunities. Normalization of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979 opened a new immigration market. Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more than 1 million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees entered the United States; perhaps one-third were ethnic Chinese, who tended to settle in Chinatowns. Finally, during the 1980s and 1990s, the smuggling of Chinese laborers from the PRC became a growing problem. In 2000, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that there were about 115,000 unauthorized Chinese living in the United States, the largest number for any country outside the Western Hemisphere. Between 1992 and 2002, more than 700,000 Chinese from the PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan immigrated to the United States. Canada’s immigration regulations of 1967 similarly eliminated racial considerations in immigrant selection, leading to an upsurge in Chinese immigration, most coming from Hong Kong. Between 1991 and 2001, more than 400,000 Chinese immigrated to Canada, making them the fastest growing visible minority in the country. Hong Kong was the number one source country for Canadian immigration throughout most of the 1990s and was only replaced by the People’s Republic of China in 1997 as Hong Kong’s position within the PRC was regularized. Taiwan also placed in the top six source countries during most of the 1990s.
See also Angel Island.