Takaki proclaims that “Caliban also could have been Asian.” During the 19th century, certain white Americans believed that the next step of the Manifest Destiny included “civilizing” Asian peoples. After the annexation of California, Asian immigrants began arriving in large numbers. Chinese immigrants were seeking refuge from the British Opium Wars as well as other conflicts. They were also fleeing starvation. Most migrants were men; few had much education and most were illiterate. They were seduced by the employment opportunities America provided, which were far better than what was available to them in China.
The reasons why Chinese immigrants decided to come to the US are similar to those of most other immigrant groups: a combination of fleeing danger at home and seeking better opportunities in America. Like other groups, these opportunities would come at the steep price of prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion.
Many borrowed money to pay their ticket to the US, which left them indebted as soon as they arrived. Men often left wives behind, not knowing when they would see each other again. By 1930, 400,000 Chinese immigrants had come to the US, about half of whom had settled there for good. However, a 1790 federal law made them ineligible for naturalized American citizenship, which was reserved for white people. In the 1860s, Chinese workers toiled in California mines in harsh conditions. Once the mining industry began to decline, workers switched to the railroad.
Again, it is difficult to consider how much workers like the Chinese immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries sacrificed, only to be denied basic rights such as the right to naturalized citizenship. The American government took advantage of the desperation of immigrants, and in return kept them in a state of dispossession and precarity.
By the 1860s, 90% of workers for the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. They provided both the manual labor and technical skill required to build the railway, often facing deadly conditions. In 1867, the Chinese workers went on strike, arguing: “Eight hours a day good for white men, all the same good for Chinamen.” However, the company would not fold, taking extreme tactics of confining them to their works camps without food, and the workers ultimately surrendered. Across California, Chinese workers lived in both urban and rural areas, performing both industrial and agricultural labor. These agricultural workers were “the vital factor” in allowing California to shift from wheat to fruit farming.
The Chinese workers’ assertion that they deserved the same labor rights as white people is a crucial example of how a group of nonwhite immigrants decided to shape the future of the country themselves. Rather than accepting the inferior and degraded position they were assigned, they refused to concede that they were second-class citizens, and demanded better treatment.
Chinese agricultural workers were paid low wages, and several times went on strike in order to demand higher pay. At the same time, white people were brutally resentful of Chinese workers, and instigated violent riots across California at the end of the 19th century. Many Chinese men also ran laundries during this era, something they never would have done back in China where this was considered women’s work, and thus degrading for men to do. In the US, however, a competitive labor market made running a laundry the only option for some men.
When immigrants moved to the US, social norms changed by necessity. In some cases, this had a positive effect, for example by opening up opportunities for women that did not exist back in their home country. In the case of the men operating laundries, while a loosening of the strictly gendered division of labor may ultimately have been a good thing, it also made Chinese men feel degraded.
Most Chinese immigrants lived in the West of the nation, but there were some in the South too. After the Civil War, some white Southerners thought Chinese labor was the solution to the “problem” of the free black population. Planters decided that hard-working, disciplined Chinese immigrants would be good role models for black workers. In reality, however, most Chinese immigrants did not want to work on plantations and thus left for work in the cities.
Here, Takaki provides another example of workers of different ethnicities being pitted against each other by white people according to racist ideology. In reality, it was of course no compliment to the Chinese to be labelled as docile and obedient.
There was a feeling of uncertainty about what Chinese immigrants’ role in American society would be. Some felt that Chinese people should be only temporary migrant workers, and that they could serve a useful purpose of doing labor now considered too degrading and dangerous for white men. Once again, negative stereotypes about black people—including duplicity, childishness, and immorality—were now being applied to the Chinese. Similar fears emerged about the supposed threat Chinese men represented to the “purity” of the white race, and intermarriage was banned. Chinese people were likewise characterized as “savages” in the same manner as Native people.
Although racism takes many forms and is applied in different ways—and to differing degrees of severity—this passage highlights the fundamental interconnectedness of racism. Partly because racism has no basis in reality, but is rather meaningless prejudice and projection, racist ideas are often applied to different groups at will, with no coherence or logic.
In 1854, after a Chinese man served as a witness in a California Supreme Court case, the Chinese were, like black and Native people, disqualified from testifying against white people. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese workers. There was no real basis for this, as at the time only 0.002% of the American population was Chinese. During this period, unemployment had become a problem in the US for the first time, and this issue—and the ensuing social problems—fueled racism against the Chinese. In 1902, the Exclusion Act was extended indefinitely.
In the history of the US, nonwhite races have been perceived as threats long before they were actually a substantial presence in the US, let alone presented any kind of “threat” to white people’s power. In this sense, racism is a distinctly paranoid position. It operates through outlandish fears of what other races could possibly do, when in reality the real threat has essentially always been that presented by white people to people of color.
Chinese people fought back against the discrimination they faced. Yet it was difficult to defend themselves against both legislative and interpersonal prejudice, and few felt comfortable bringing their families to the US. In 1900, only 5% of the Chinese population in the US were women. This was partly because of cultural norms, which dictated that women have little independence from their families. Some historians also believe that Chinese women stayed home when their husbands immigrated in order to ensure that these men would one day return and not settle in the US. Meanwhile, white people also feared that the arrival of Chinese women would mean the Chinese would become a permanent and growing part of American society, and in 1875 a law was passed that restricted the entry of these women.
The convergence of forces that prohibited Chinese women from immigrating to the US helped create a situation in which male Chinese immigrants did not feel that the US was truly their home. Without women, they were isolated and cut off from their culture, norms, and family. Instead, the entire focus of their lives was forced to be on their status as workers—a grim and depressing way to live.
While some wives did immigrate, most of the Chinese women who travelled to the US in the 19th century were sex workers, many of them indentured servants. Some had been tricked into sexual servitude, thinking they were being offered other labor opportunities. These women became “virtual slaves,” and many became opium addicts. They suffered from STDs and violence, and some ended up killing themselves. In an 1870 census, 61% of the Chinese women in California gave their occupation as “prostitute.” However, this dropped to 24% within ten years, as these women were able to pay their debts and get married. Yet there were still so few Chinese women in the US that most Chinese men had no hope of finding a wife.
Sex workers have historically been one of the few categories of women who can achieve a degree of financial independence in highly patriarchal societies. However, this independence comes at the steep price of social stigma, exploitation, and violence. Furthermore, as this passage shows, some sex workers were tricked or forced to do this type of labor, making their suffering even more intense.
Although many were determined to see the Chinese as a temporary population, in reality there were always indications that they intended to stay. One such indication was the establishment of bustling Chinatowns across the nation, which served the needs of the Chinese community. Chinese organizations flourished; there was a proliferation of tongs, which helped immigrants while also running gambling, prostitution, and opium operations. In addition, fongs, which consisted of members of the same family or village, provided further support. Because most Chinese men were bachelors, they spent their free time engaged in activities like the going to the theater, gambling, or just chatting in the backs of stores.
Conditions may not have been ideal for the Chinese immigrants who first came to the US, but these immigrants nonetheless determinedly established a home for themselves in the country. Again, Takaki emphasizes that one of the key methods for doing this was by building kinship and community networks in order to provide mutual support. Indeed, this is one of the ways in which voluntary self-segregation can be essential to the thriving of a particular ethnic group.
The wives left behind in China would describe themselves as “widows” and write anguished letters to their husbands lamenting how much they missed them. In return, husbands wrote back apologizing for not having been able to make more money. Some family members back in China begged those who had immigrated to the US to come home, particularly considering that they were not receiving the money they had hoped for. However, most men who moved to the US never returned to China. Despite the prejudice they faced in the US, many ardently desired to embrace it as their home and become American citizens.
Chinese immigrants who left their wives at home and faced prejudice and discrimination in the US were caught between a rock and a hard place. Conditions were bad in both nations, and it would have been difficult to imagine abandoning the life and work they had built in the US in order to go back and start all over again in China.
Chinese immigrants hoping to be reunited with their families sought ways around the immigration restrictions. Some pretended to be merchants, as (unlike laborers) they were allowed to bring their families. In 1906, an earthquake hit San Francisco, and the ensuing fires destroyed almost all of the city’s municipal records, which inadvertently “opened the way for a new Chinese immigration.” Chinese men who were born in San Francisco were entitled to bring their wives to the US. Without records to prove otherwise, wives and sons came from China claiming American citizenship. The Chinese population of San Francisco boomed.
The earthquake and ensuing boom in Chinese immigration highlights how much of history comes down to random strokes of fate. Furthermore, the earthquake also shows how legal citizenship is essentially an arbitrary category. For so many Chinese immigrants, the existence of a flimsy piece of paper that could be destroyed in a moment was the only thing standing in the way of them becoming a citizen.
The boys who falsely claimed to have a Chinese-American father were called “paper sons.” They faced challenging interrogations from immigration authorities, and about 10% of new arrivals were turned away and sent back to China. Those who were admitted settled in cities all over the US, although 40% of the Chinese population were concentrated in San Francisco and New York. Chinatowns no longer catered to the lifestyles of bachelors, but to entire families. Some of the earlier bachelor immigrants were astonished by the sight of Chinese children after having not seen any for years. For these children, education was seen as the route to success in American society. Some children became highly assimilated, and felt that they were forever “caught between two cultures.”
The arrival of children caused a shift where the Chinese population finally had a greater stake in the US and a more solid sense of the country being their home. Indeed, the story of the “paper sons” shows that it was not white Americans or the government who decided to open the country up to the Chinese. Rather, it was a stroke of fate and the ingenuity of the Chinese population that led them to insist that they had a right to be in the US, and to begin building a flourishing, permanent home there.