During the years from 1865 to 1935 great masses of people were traveling from Europe and from China to the Americas looking for a way to fulfill their dreams. The Irish and Chinese immigrant experience was similar in the way that because they were both seen as “foreign unskilled labor” they were both given low-paying unskilled jobs without a path to progress to better jobs. They were both treated badly by the earlier immigrants to the country who now considered themselves the true, native Americans. Other than that the experiences between the two immigrant groups is very different. We will explore the differences and similarities in this essay.
Reasons for Leaving the Home Country
The immigrants reaching New York City were mostly from Ireland and Germany. The Irish were divided into two types of groups. The Scotch-Irish were ‘Scotch Presbyterians’ from Northern Ireland. In the 1700s their ancestors had settled in Ireland after leaving Scotland. The larger group of people from Ireland was the ‘Irish Presbyterian Lowlanders’ who were from Sothern Ireland “fleeing high rent and unemployment” (Brinkley 67). They were coming in families or at least eventually the whole family would arrive on the east coast so they would be together.
The Chinese immigrants were enticed to come to America after the Opium Wars and many headed for the gold rush so they were mostly found in California. They were young Chinese men who thought they could go to California ‘get rich quick’ then return to China with their riches to resume their lives there.
Life in America
Although life in a mining camp must have been difficult and filled with problems I think that the young Chinese men who found themselves prospecting in the great outdoors of California were better off than those Chinese and other foreign born immigrants in New York City. The Dutch photojournalist Jacob Riz has left a legacy of the horrible living conditions the New York City tenements offered. Looking at the photos I feel claustrophobic. Due to greed of real estate speculators and boarding house proprietors the rooms of formerly gracious mansions were divided and subdivided so that many rooms rented by one or even two families had no windows. The sanitation was terrible and both cholera (to the worse degree) and smallpox attacked the tenants as Riz observed before the legislature took any measures to improve the living conditions.
The Irish were offered unskilled labor jobs such as digging trenches in the sewers and for canals. They were also used to build the railroads. Little money was paid to them and if they were injured they had no health insurance or work benefits. Between the low pay and the unhealthy conditions at home many of the young men (first generation Americans) turned to crime and ran with street gangs.
The Chinese were discriminated against even worse than the Irish. Brinkley (472) notes that the Chinese were at first welcomed and respected by the Americans but then Americans started to resent them for exactly those reasons. The unions in the east didn’t like the Chinese workers because they would accept lower wages then union wages. Finally violence and hostility escalated to the point that they were banned from immigrating to the United States in 1852 for ten years then again in 1865 by law.
1 Riz, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. I have this as an e-book on Kindle cloud. See references on the last page.
The Chinese were pushed out of the gold mines by hostility and the “foreign miner’s tax.” So many Chinese were unable to get other work they ended being 90% of the work force who built the Central Pacific Railroad. (Brinkley 433). They also started small businesses to supply the Chinese immigrant population with Chinese medicines, food and the objects they needed for the Buddhist religion. They still are known for owning laundries which was work that no one else wanted in the 1700s so the Chinese started that type of business.
Integration into the New World
The Irish were more successful in integrating into the community of New York City because they didn’t leave once they got there and more relatives joined them there. An example of their success is that an Irish-Catholic, a former New York City governor ran for President in 1924. (Brinkley 485).
The Chinese had terrible obstacles of discrimination to overcome and lived in communities which were isolated by language and culture. Even today in large cities ‘Chinatown’ still exists.
Angeli, E. ,Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A. & Keck, R. (2011) American Psychological Association (APA) Style Guide. Owl.english.purdue.edu. 27 April 2011. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.
Brinkley, A. (2009). The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. Combined 6th Ed. [Hardcover] New York: NY. McGraw-Hill.
Riis, Jacob. (before 1923). How The Other Half Lives Special Illustrated Edition Including the Author's Photographs. [Illustrated] [Warner, S.B., Kindle Edition]. Amazon Digital Services. eBook. 2 Oct. 2011.