Please enjoy this sample chapter from my upcoming book project, An Inconvenient Minority:
How the Chinese Were Driven Out
This chapter and its contents are copyrighted by the author and publisher and may not be reproduced without written permission from the author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a perception that immigrants fulfill the jobs that American citizens do not want to do. In a 2020 Pew Research poll, 77 percent of Americans said that undocumented immigrants mostly did jobs Americans would not do (as compared with jobs that Americans want), and 61 percent said the same for legal immigrants.
But there is a flaw in this stereotype, and it relates specifically to Asian-Americans. From the very beginning, Asian-Americans were put in competition with Whites for jobs and status in this country. The first immigrants from Asia came to America and immediately sought jobs that many White Americans were looking for as well.
In the early and mid-19th century, the first Chinese-Americans arrived on California shores. There were various reasons why they came: to flee rebellion, to search for gold, and to trade with Americans. The First and Second Opium Wars, which were fought between the Chinese and the British and resulted in a devastating Chinese loss of sovereignty, caused many Chinese to seek their futures elsewhere. At first, most Chinese sought only to stay temporarily to help their families back home; however, more economic opportunities in America prompted them to stay.
Nearly all of the Chinese who came to America during the first wave of Chinese immigration in the mid-19th century were male. This is significant, because the implication is that nearly all of the Chinese who came here came to work, to compete, and to make money. Most of them had families back home. The rare Chinese woman who came was truly from another world. Indeed, Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to come to the United States, was paraded around by two fellows named Nathaniel and Fredrick Crane and exhibited as “The Chinese Lady.” The few Chinese women who came to America were gawked at and fawned upon by White and Chinese American men alike.
As such, the stereotypes of both Chinese men and women began to surface almost immediately. A deep bitterness and resentment arose towards Chinese men. To the White miners and gold rushers out in the West, it appeared as if Chinese men, with their idiotic long braids and slanty eyes, were invading the space that appeared to be rightfully theirs. In the eyes of these White miners, who had journeyed from their life on the East Coast out into the wilderness to scruff out a living in the unmarked West, the last thing they needed was foreigners from the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean coming in to take their jobs.
And yet they came. Hundreds of thousands of them. Again, nearly all men. By 1850, twenty-five thousand of them; by 1880, three hundred thousand. To these miners, they represented the very epitome of undesirability. Competing with them for jobs, the Chinese men worked hard on the railroads, mines, and shops, to feed their families back home. They also had to pay off their debts to the merchants who paid for their cross-country travel. They had little choice but to put their heads down and work any job that could take. And that meant they would take whatever job they could take.
The Chinese immigrants were also entrepreneurial. Forced to be self-sufficient, they developed little enclaves across the West Coast that blossomed into Chinatowns, hives of male economic activity that came with hairdressers, grocers, and entertainment. Self-sufficiency, however, came with an ugly side effect: isolation from Whites.
So more and more Chinese came, and took on more and more labor that Whites wanted, and lived in exclusively-Chinese neighborhoods away from the Whites. You can see how this is going to go down.
Initially, the Chinese immigrants worked in the gold mines. While the White miners tended to be more individualistic (think: cowboy), the Chinese miners banded together in groups, partially out of their own safety (violence against the Chinese was commonplace), and partially out of efficiency. Indeed, they frequently gained a higher yield than the White miners, and left the fields happier than their disgruntled Caucasian counterparts.
The White miners did not take long to vent their frustration to the local and state governments, which had no Chinese representation. California lawmakers passed a Foreign Miner’s tax which took away about half of the typical Chinese worker’s wages. Then, when that didn’t scare them away, anti-Chinese activists pushed through a Supreme Court decision The People of the State of California vs. George Hall that disallowed Chinese witnesses from testifying in court. This allowed Whites to lynch Chinese migrants with impunity, and drove the Chinese out of gold mining entirely.
Still, they didn’t give up on work entirely – for there was backbreaking work to be done inland. The Central Pacific Railway – with America’s hopes for transcontinental access at last – had dreams to build the first truly cross-nation railroad in North America. They needed reliable labor. The White laborers were not attractive candidates, as they demanded high wages and lodging. The Chinese were willing to work on far less with no lodging. Despite racial misgivings, capitalism won out in the end. The Central Pacific Railway brought the scraggly, lean, and lithe Chinese men to work the dangerous job in blowing up mountains to make room for the revolutionary railway.
And boy, did they perform. Despite being underpaid and worked to near-exhaustion, the Chinese laborers proved clean, reliable, and remarkably efficient. In no time at all, the Central Pacific Railway sent messengers to import more and more Chinese labor, until they formed a clear majority of the railroad workforce.
Now the White railroad workers were pissed. Here were these Chinese men, who walk in and just work, day and night, and don’t complain, and even appear grateful, for their meager wages, while these White workers sit out in the cold without jobs. They couldn’t outwork them. They had to resort to different measures.
These measures, it turned out, were based on politics. Specifically – ethnic identity politics.
Denis Kearney was like a lot of the Chinese immigrants in California – hardworking, industrious, entrepreneurial. An immigrant from Ireland to the American West, he quickly became successful running a drayage (transportation) business in San Francisco, to the point where he owned five wagons and shipped goods to people across the whole city. He became successful – and then parlayed that success into becoming one of America’s most notorious anti-Chinese campaigners.
What’s even more surprising about Kearney’s turn towards ethnic agitation was that he initially started his foray into politics by criticizing the conditions of big business – a position many Chinese would probably be sympathetic to. After all, according to Kearney in his infamous “Our Misery and Despair” speech:
“Our moneyed men have ruled us for the past thirty years. Under the flag of the slaveholder they hoped to destroy our liberty. Failing in that, they have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose…”
Chinese railroad workers: Huzzah! Huzzah!
“…To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.
These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.”
Chinese railroad workers: Uh oh.
Yet, you read between the lines of Kearney’s anti-Chinese screed, and you sense a surprising sympathy for the Chinese, because even as he unleashes vile diatribes against the Chinese race, he maintains that they, too, are being exploited by the greedy capitalists and big businesses. Indeed, he attacks those big businesses for “rak[ing] the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth.” He later even says that these businesses treat these Chinamen “as serfs, worked like slaves, and at last go back to China with all their earnings.”
The nuance of Kearney’s position cannot be avoided. It would be easy, in a more reductive environment, to simply debase Kearney and his position as that of a racist lunatic. And perhaps it was, but one also must understand that Kearney’s hatred of the Chinese is intermingled with an even more fundamental hatred: hatred of big business and their exploitation of American labor. In his speeches he generally refers to the Chinese as passive creatures, with no agency. They are “slaves,” “docile,” “obedient in all things.” Obedient to what? To the whims of big business, of course. The reason why he believes the Chinese are so inimical to The American Way is because he believes that they are exploitable, they are weak, and they won’t fight for what he perceives to be the central American struggle against big business and their exploitation of “real Americans.”
Chinese-Americans must learn – yes, learn – from Kearney and his legions of followers how to present an effective attack on an ethnic group that can convince enough of the ruling elite to squash them. What Kearney did to destroy Chinese-American hopes on these shores cannot be underestimated. First, he appealed to a sense of competition – a sentiment that many Whites already felt in the gold mines and railroads. The Chinese are competing for your jobs! They’re out to overwhelm you! 900,000 Strong! Read one California news headline. Second, he degraded the Chinese through stereotypes on character, stereotypes that have shown remarkable staying power over the past century-plus of American life: Asian men as docile, Asian men as sexless, Asian women as prostitutes.