The dawn of Chinese immigration to the United States came after the discovery of exploitable gold in 1848, at Sutter’s Mill in California. Drawn to the United States by the possibility of escaping the deteriorating economic standing and political restiveness in China, the Chinese had made their contact with San Francisco in thousands by 1854. Most of them sought to attain prosperity as gold prospectors but as time wore on the majority settled as tradesmen around the western mining fields whilst some sought recruitment as laborers on the transcontinental railway. At this time immigration was largely unrestricted; but from their travelling patterns, it was discernible that these Chinese were only intent on attaining prosperity that they would eventually take with them back home. They were mostly male immigrants, between the ages of sixteen and forty and they arrived mainly without families, which could be elucidated to mean temporary sojourners.
At the end of the Civil War, and the completion of the transcontinental railway, California alongside most states in the west of United States began to experiences unprecedented rise in unemployment. This led to stiff competition for the few jobs available within the multi-racial state of California and beyond; the culmination of which was the racial tension directed at the Chinese in the 1870s.
In light of the unchecked influx of these immigrants and the resultant racial strife, both the state and federal governments sought to advance legislations that would mitigate the situation; the climax of which was the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Between 1882 1nd 1943, only an exempt class of native Chinese were allowed entry into the United States; namely merchants, teachers, students, government officials and specific family members of the exempted class.
The entry of the United State in the World War II necessitated the forging of alliances against the enemies. In the Pacific theatre, China which had long been frazzled by Japan formed an alliance against a common enemy. This newfound friendship precipitated the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, thereby subjecting Chinese immigrants once again to the National Origins Act of 1924. Other supplementary laws were passed to facilitate lawful immigration of refugees after the Communist party took power. Finally, in the face of growing claims for fairness, the Immigration and Nationality Act 1965 abolished racial discrimination in lawful immigration, setting the stage for a new wave of Chinese immigration into the United States.
It is apparent from the foregoing that the welcome of the Chinese from the 1840s gradually wore off, and was replaced by hatred, as the white working class regarded them as a serious threat to their livelihood; leading to arguably the harshest treatment of non-slaves in American history. The politicians in California found the Chinese exclusion clamor a possible shot in the arm as they campaigned for election; while the labor party extremists pushed the agenda in Washington. It has been argued that the anti-Chinese legislations was a response to three main factors; racism that emerged amidst dwindling job opportunities, influx of high number of immigrants coming into the United states, and the viability of the subject to politician’s quest for votes. This hatred was largely fuelled by the ability of the Chinese to work under extreme conditions and for less, than their white counterparts who would resort to industrial action in a bid to negotiate better terms. The hatred towards the Chinese was so strong that even the ones who had legally migrated to the United States and had such claims, were often forcibly evicted from their communities, whilst the state governments initiated legislations that were meant to frustrate their attempts at economic progress.
The Era of free Reign in Chinese Immigration
The very first wave of Chinese immigration into California and their eventual settling into San-Francisco; came between 1848 and 1882. Elmer Sandmeyer reports that they mostly arrived from Guangdong Province in China which was overcrowded and poor. This deplorable situation led to the ‘coolie’ trade with Cuba, South America, and some islands in the Caribbean. Many also found their way into western United States in pursuit of better opportunity. By 1870s when the ‘coolie’ trade ended, an estimated three quarters of a million Chinese men hand been sold into slavery.
At the height of the Gold Rush of 1848, there was a need for cheap labor in the mining companies. This demand spurred the first large-scale immigrant waves of Chinese to America. The economic situation had been worsening in China since the institution of the Qing Dynasty in 1644 and majority of poor Chinese had a strong motivation to leave their country. Between 1762 and 1846, the population had doubled, putting a strain on land and other natural resources.
Many employer in the United States resorted to capitalizing on this cheap labor for the Chinese were versatile, industrious and sublime. From the 1865, when the construction of the railroad began, the Chinese immigrants attained a new significance with the Central Pacific Railways employing about ten thousand of them. In areas where they faced a deficit of cheap, the companies hired directly from China through San Francisco based companies. So notorious was their labor adroitness that some eastern companies used them as strikebreakers in factories, a situation that became alarming to the trade unionists at the time.
Upon arrival, they tended to form closely knit Chinese communities with possible connections back in China. For the unsuccessful prospectors, the city of San Francisco offered ground for alternative entrepreneurial ventures such as curio shops, and restaurants. As the San-Francisco Chinatown grew, more organized associations were formed to help in the provision of social services. One of the main factor that encouraged strong cohesiveness was the anti-Chinese sentiments in California. In the face of these challenges, the ethnic associations transformed into larger power structures, known as the Chinese Six Companies and later the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. This organization became the driver of most social programs, resolved disputes and even acted as the unofficial ambassador to China in the absence of a proper consulate. Those who were not in this organization joined other secret societies, the ‘tongs’ which resembled the Triads in China. The ‘tongs’ did not shy away from breaking the rules and was mostly responsible for the crimes witnessed then. They lured young Chinese women into prostitution to meet the ‘growing demand’ for women among the men. The ‘tongs’ were very territorial in their protection of their trade, so much so that they often turned to public violence. They also introduced illegal many illegal businesses like gambling, drugs, brothels within their territories. This situation increased the negative sentiments among the general populace of California towards the Chinese.
The Checks and Balances of Chinese Immigration
Open violence against the Chinese erupted in San Francisco leading to a considerable number of Chinese leaving the state in 1880. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1881 with the intent on barring Chinese immigration for ten years. This was preceded by the Angell’s Treaty which granted the US rights to regulate immigration at her own terms but not prohibit it entirely. The Exclusion Act of May 6 1882 whose application was specifically for Chinese immigrants reestablished a class of persons who could be denied entry into the US. These stringent laws reduced the flow of the Chinese significantly by 1884, but the animosity continued all through other states culminating to the Snake River Massacre of 1887, where 31 Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon were fatally assaulted.
Years of Stability after the End of Exclusion
In the course of the numerous phases of Chinese-American evolution, many challenges were faced from blatant racism, mistreatment by law enforcement agencies, and the outfits that sought to control the agenda within the Chinese communities. Most notably, the Chinese are considered as the victims, but some of the social problems were actually resultant from the criminal gangs that operated from within. San Francisco’s Chinatown, just like most of the others that dot the west and eastern parts of the United States, were often regarded as dangerous, dilapidated, and full of all manner of crimes. Whilst the trend has changed in recent times, rendering them as significant tourist attractionsthere are still numerous social problems. In the modern times competing street gangs and organized crime outfits like tongs and the Hong Kong based triads run the show. The notoriety of organized crime within the Chinese community is akin to the Italian mafia outfits. The Hong Kong based triads still has a significant influence in the Chinese underworld of the United States. In modern-day Chinatowns, their core businesses are, extortion, money laundering, trafficking and prostitution. They are also heavily engaged in counterfeiting of a variety of goods and even currency.
The tongs are also active, though they are not specifically underground organizations. In recent times there has been some indication of remodeling into civic-minded organization with little or no criminal activities.
One of the most notable incidents about the criminal problem in Chinatown came in 1977. The Golden Dragon Massacre as it is notoriously called was a shootout between two rival gangs that took place in a restaurant leaving two tourist and several waiters dead. In response to the growing intensity of these gang related crimes, the San Francisco Police Department created an Asian Crime Unit to address these issues in specificity. Other areas of pure Chinese settlements have equally experienced incidents of gang related battles; for example Seattle where the Wah Mee Massacre killed 13 people at an illegal gambling club.
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