Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land, Part 4

Posted on July 11, 2013 by Yvonne Lefort

Based on an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, this column narrates the history of California through the personal story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did. — Diana Gadaldi, international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley

Episode 4: New neighbors from the East: economic shifts and the rise of the largest Chinatown in the United States (sequel of episode 3: Being a miner’s wife in the time of the Gold Rush)

In 1848, when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills, California was hit by a large immigration wave. In as little as one year, San Francisco’s population boomed from 1,000 to 25,000 inhabitants. Many of these newcomers were Chinese workers who found employment in the gold fields and—throughout the 1860s—in the expanding industrial sector, especially in the Central Pacific Railroad Company. While a few of them eventually returned back to China, most of the young men settled in the United States, formed the first Chinese-American associations, and became an important segment of the local business class. In the two decades that followed, San Francisco’s Chinatown grew to become the largest Asian community in the United States, with as many as 138,000 residents.

In 1862, anti-Chinese sentiments among the white working class culminated in the approval of the Anti-Coolie Act. The act was based on the charge that Chinese immigrants took jobs away from white Americans by offering labor at exceptionally low wages. The act also sought to protect white laborers by imposing a monthly tax on Chinese immigrants seeking to do business in California. A few years later, due to the increasing unemployment rates and the economic recession that hit North America between 1873 and 1879, racial discrimination against Chinese people intensified, resulting in the Page Act of 1875. This new immigration measure prohibited the entry of Asian laborers—as it was assumed, whether it was true or not, that they would have performed “forced labor,” which was abolished in 1865—and to Asian women who were suspected of entering the country to engage in prostitution. Although prostitution and the consequential spread of diseases became serious issues at the end of the 19th century, the main purpose of keeping Asian women out of the U.S. was to prevent Asian couples from having children who, according to the Fourteenth Amendment enacted in 1868, would have become U.S. citizens. Later on, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the restrictions of the Page Act were extended to all kinds of laborers—“forced” or not—thus making it nearly impossible for Chinese people to immigrate to the United States.  

Tinted lithograph titled “What shall we do with our boys?” by George Frederick Keller,  published in The Wasp on March 3, 1882. Photo by Diana Gadaldi.

Tinted lithograph titled “What shall we do with our boys?” by George Frederick Keller,
published in The Wasp on March 3, 1882. Photo by Diana Gadaldi.

OMCA preserves evidence of the climate of racial prejudice that led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act: a tinted lithograph from the San Francisco-based magazine The Wasp. The political cartoon, titled “What shall we do with our boys?” is an early example of propaganda using anti-Chinese stereotypes. It was published on March 3, 1882; the Chinese Exclusion Act passed two months later, on May 6.

On April 18, 1906, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake shook San Francisco. Shortly after, the city began to burn. Over thirty fires, which lasted for three days, leveled 55 city blocks, leaving more than half of the city’s residents homeless. For Chinese immigrants, however, this disastrous event provided an unexpected opportunity. As City Hall was reduced to ruins, all official birth records were destroyed. As a result, Chinese immigrants had the chance to claim their citizenship by stating that they were born in the United States, as there was no evidence to contradict them anymore. Being “native born” not only allowed Chinese immigrants to travel back to Asia, but also to claim U.S. citizenship for their offspring born in China. This legal loophole thus created a backdoor to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Dating from the fire, many Chinese men who had traveled back to Asia started reporting the birth of a child, usually a boy, who would then appear at U.S. customs a few years later identifying himself as the legitimate son of a “native born” immigrant. While some of these boys were “real sons,” many of them were sons “on paper only,” meaning that they were Chinese-born with no family in the U.S. who had purchased false birth records to get round the restrictions of the immigration policy.

Collection of photos and notations in Chinese from ca. 1918 found in Sacramento, CA by a donor.  OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo by Diana Gadaldi.

Collection of photos and notations in Chinese from ca. 1918 found in Sacramento, CA by a donor.
OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo by Diana Gadaldi.

Along with the arrival of more and more “paper sons,” customs controls became more and more rigorous for Chinese immigrants who tried to enter the country on the basis of their presumed U.S. citizenship. Visa applicants were required to provide written documentation supporting their familial ties with their parents in the U.S., and this is probably how the little booklet featured in OMCA’s Gallery of California History—just next to the lithograph discussed above—came into being. Found by a couple of donors in a second-hand baby carriage that they purchased in Sacramento, the booklet appears to be documentation that was prepared for a visa case in 1918. There are photos of several young Asian men in it whose identity has not yet been established. Notations in Chinese refer to a steamship called Ruth Alexander, which, between 1913 and 1942, was used both as a cargo and as a passenger ship, and sailed between different locations in Europe, South America, and North America. Who are the young men in the pictures, and under what circumstances did they arrive in California? These are just some of the many questions in Chinese American history that are yet to be resolved.

Other sources for this article were:
A. J. DICKIE, F. A. STANLEY, The National Magazine of Shipping, Volume 19, 1922 (Google eBoek)

In the next episode: The myth of “La Estrellita” and the extraordinary story of a woman who moved to California to reinvent herself.


© Diana Gadaldi

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