Chinese not welcome: brushing up against America’s ugly past

During my summer wanders through America, one day I looked up and saw a giant mural of men with long queues down their backs and conical hats on their heads constructing a railway. Standing in the main hall of Union Station in Ogden, Utah, I was not far from where America’s transcontinental railway was completed in 1869.

Mural in Union Station of transcontinental railway workers

Detail of mural in Ogden, Utah’s Union Station

Detail of mural in Union Station

Detail of mural in Union Station

Transcontinental railway construction mural at Union Station, Ogden

In the second half of the 19th Century, the American dream was a magnetic force that tempted many from their ancestral homes. Several branches of my own family tree, downtrodden coal miners and farmers, were tempted from England and Sweden across the Atlantic during this period.

Similarly, many from China crossed the Pacific in search of stability and work. The initial wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1850s to try their luck in the Californian Gold Rush, or as they termed it: 金山, “Gold Mountain” (“gam saan” in Cantonese).

More came in the 1860s to build the Transcontinental Railway. These men–they were nearly all men–came from Guangdong Province. They were pushed by the unrest of the Taiping Rebellion and pulled by the hope of (relatively) high wages to send home to their families.

Ogden’s Union Station houses the Utah State Railroad Museum which features the following information about the Chinese laborers:

Help from abroad

In 1864, the Central Pacific hired James Harvey Strobridge to supervise workers on the rails. He was a workaholic with a hot temper and sharp tongue — good attributes for the job. Strobridge soon learned that workers imported from the eastern states were loyal only until they were paid. Then they deserted to the gold or silver mines. The Civil War also took workers away into the military.

The Central Pacific’s leaders saw California’s Chinese population as the solution. Strobridge disagreed. He thought the Chinese were inexperienced and too small for the heavy work. But he discovered that the Chinese worked hard with few breaks and without complaining.

He later said, “Wherever we put them we found them good … If we found we were in a hurry for a job … it was better to put Chinese on it at once.”

Strobridge eventually supervised a crew of 10,000 Chinese — the largest concentration of labor in North America at the time. [emphasis mine]

Chinese laborer statue at Utah State Railroad Museum

Chinese railway laborer, Utah State Railroad Museum

A write-up that is informative, colorful and patronizing all at once.

While some of these laborers came directly from the California gold mines, others were recruited from China on a term basis and intended to return home. Some did return to China either voluntarily or forcefully (see, for example, the shameful Anti-Chinese Seattle Riot of 1886 which resulted in the ejection of 200-300 Chinese from the city). Others persevered and made new lives for themselves in America.

The Chinese railway laborers were willing to (or rather had no choice but to) work for less than European laborers. The Chinese earned $27 (later $30) per month as opposed to the $35 per month earned by Irishmen, the main alternative labor force. This wage disparity gave many established American workers’ unions fits; as they saw it, “cheap, Chinese labor” undercut their bargaining position. (Query: Since racism was also rampant, would the European laborers have been just as upset had the Chinese been paid the same wage?)

Chinese arrivals (like all arrivals at the time) increased, and in 1880 there was an ethnic Chinese population of 105,000 in America. Unions complained, people who feared the “yellow peril” complained, and America passed a hugely racist piece of legislation, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which specifically barred a class of immigrants based on race.

Everyone welcome but the Chinese. (Source: Time via The Society Pages)

Everyone welcome but the Chinese. (Source: Time via The Society Pages)

As a result of the Act, Chinese men, who often initially came to America on their own, could not bring their families to a join them. Furthermore, the law restricted Chinese residents from leaving and then returning to America and barred them from becoming naturalized US citizens.

This restriction was in place until 1943, when China allied with America during World War II and the legal bar to Chinese immigration became a clear diplomatic embarrassment.

Chinese were excluded from entering American for 60 years, a period during which European immigrants hit the shores like a tidal wave. Imagine how completely different the ethnic composition of America would be today had Chinese immigration been allowed during this period? Would Panda Express have more locations than McDonald’s? Would it produce edible food? Would suburban housing developments be called things like “Hangzhou Gardens” rather than “Somerset Farm”?

As it stands, the ethnic Chinese population dipped to a low of 61,000 in 1920, re-bounded to 118,00 in 1950 and now stands at 3.3 million, about 1% of the US population.

The next time I’m tempted to complain about China’s opaque and ever-shifting visa policies for Americans, I’ll reflect on the 1882 Exclusion Act and be glad I can enter at all. And the next time someone talks about America’s great historic ethnic “melting pot” I’ll remember who was sharply excluded.



  • Population statistics from the US Census via Wikipedia here.
  • Information on the Transcontinental Railway and Chinese participation in construction here, here and here.
  • Information on the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act via the US Department of State here.

Related post:

20 responses to “Chinese not welcome: brushing up against America’s ugly past

  1. Going through the opaque visa process as we speak I am not quite as willing to forgive Chinese process, but great article on how history can shape the present. What if?

      • No, not at all, however it now takes 4 weeks and there are some tougher definitions. It is more the inconvenience of it. You would think they would have a fast lane for people here over a certain period of time!

  2. Thank you for posting about this period of US history that is not widely taught in US history classes. I didn’t learn about this until I was in university and taking an ethnic studies course. I also find it interesting even after the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, wider-scale Chinese immigration to the US did not occur until more than 20 years later, after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which is also when my parents immigrated to the US in the late 60s from Taiwan.)

    • I wonder if they teach it high school these days? Maybe in Seattle. I only learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act as part of an optional immigration law class in law school. Agreed that it’s an incredible and largely unknown part of American history.

      Was there an all over jump in Chinese immigration (incl from Taiwan) in the late 1960s? Is that when they changed the per country quotas?

      • Yes exactly, the 1965 law got rid of the national origins quota system. I think it’s called the Hart-Cellar Act, and radically altered US immigration policies and changed US demographics. Under the previous system, Latin Americans, Asians and Africans were excluded vs. the preferred northern and western Europeans (and even southern and eastern Europeans were less preferable vs. northern and western Europeans.) I think it was kind of an embarrassment during the civil rights movement that the US simultaneously practiced a somewhat contradictory immigration policy until the passage of Hart-Cellar. Here’s where I got my info (I know it’s only Wiki, but it’s better than digging through my old college notes!)

  3. Shameful is right. Not long ago, I visited Sutter Mill in Coloma, which is right by where I grew up. It’s where gold was discovered in California, and I was fascinated upon my visit to see Chinese buildings and pictures of the Chinese working in the mines… Things I’d never payed much attention to before… Exclusion in any form is terrible.

    • Funny the little things we all notice and observe differently after experiences abroad. I also visited Seattle’s Chinatown this summer; something I hadn’t done in ages (and was very pleased to now be able to read many of the signs!)

      • Jen, as I’ve been corrected by other Seattlites before, it’s the “International District” and not Chinatown;)

        I don’t recall learning much about American Indians being chased away to the Great Plains or Japanese internment camps either, so there’s a clear trend in history classes…

        Thanks for liking my post about Bandung! Have you visited any particular architecturally pleasing college campuses (abroad)?

      • When I first moved to Seattle in 1997, I was also taught to call it the “ID,” but now I see they’ve started calling it “Chinatown/International District.” A little sleuthing reveals that the Chinese community was never thrilled with the name “International District” so the name has swung back the other way.

        As for foreign universities, I’ve been at many sprawling Indian universities, but no interesting architecture springs to mind except many one uni in Kerala that I can’t remember the name of…

  4. I didn’t know the US was so exclusionist to the Chinese till I read your post.

    I also have a so-called Chinese caps with a fake braid running down the back, which I purchased in HONG KONG. It’s ironic that a Chinese vendor in Hong Kong would perpetuate this rather derogatory Chinese stereotype of himself (like the picture of the Chinese man in The Society Pages) just to make a few bucks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s