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Fortune Cookie Says Chinese Helped Build America

Cool and cheap loot! Chinese slippers, lanterns, shoes, toys.
I said in my very first dispatch that growing up I never gave much thought to my ethnicity. Growing up around tons of Asian Americans in California, there was never a reason to think I was unusual or special by virtue of my race. But late last year, I turned on the T.V. and saw a Chinese man being dragged off in chains by the FBI. I later found out that his name was Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the famous nuclear laboratory, Los Alamos. He was charged with spying against the United States and could possibly spend the rest of his life in jail. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Out of all the scientists there, they happen to pin a giant conspiracy on a low level Chinese employee?


Highway 5 / The depressing drive

As I began learning more about the role Chinese immigrants have played in this country, it became clear that what happened to Wen Ho Lee was not some rare mistake on the part of the government. Rather, it was only the latest incident in a long history of discrimination towards a group whose enormous contributions to this country have not often been recognized, and yet should be. And I'm not just saying this because these people are my ancestors.

The first record of people from China arriving in the United States were three seamen who landed in Baltimore in 1785. But it wasn't until the California Gold Rush in 1849 that substantial numbers of Chinese began coming to America. Like Ireland, China was undergoing turmoil thanks to the British and the Opium Wars.

War and famine in the Guangdong province of Southern China made people especially desperate to get away. 2.4 million Chinese from 1840-1900 immigrated to every corner of the earth, from Indonesia and Australia to Peru and Cuba. Only a small population, 300,000, ended up in the United States, but those 300,000 immigrants would have a major impact in shaping the destiny of this country.
Kevin enjoys eating dim sum for the first time.

Though bad times at home caused both Europeans and Chinese to seek a new life in the US, Chinese migration differed from European migration in several ways. Confucian ideals kept women from leaving China. Women were supposed to care for their parents and in-laws. The men who left for America were seeking to make a quick buck and return home, unlike the European settlers who intended to stay permanently. This caused a serious gender imbalance among the Chinese community in America. Men outnumbered women by an average of 18 to 1! As the first large non-white group of immigrants, the Chinese would encounter obstacles not faced by its white European counterparts.

Before the gold rush in California, only 54 Chinese resided in California. By 1876, news of the " Gold Mountain" had been reported throughout China, and 116,000 Chinese now lived in California. Initially, the Chinese were welcomed with open arms and praised for their hard work, intelligence, cleanliness, and uncomplaining manner. The governor of California called them "one of the most worthy of our newly adopted citizens." But it didn't take long before the tide would turn. After the easy gold began to run out, Chinese miners began to be the victims of terrible discrimination.

With the decline of gold mining, the Chinese turned to other means of making a living. A few went to the South. The abolition of slavery after the Civil War meant the South needed new forms of cheap labor, so the Chinese were recruited to fill in for freed black slaves. Central Pacific Railroad heavily relied upon Chinese workers to build the historic transcontinental railroad that allowed products to be shipped across the country. The Chinese were applauded for working for less wages than whites. But in 1865, 5000 workers, tired of their backbreaking efforts for meager pay, went on strike, calling for an eight-hour workday and a raise. Management's response was to cut off their food supply.

I love Chinese bakeries! The desserts are much less fattening and have less sugar than American bakeries.
Not only did the Chinese help to transform the nature of American commerce by building the railroad in the 1860s, they transformed the California landscape by importing their agricultural technology to US soil. The Chinese built many of the aqueducts and irrigation systems that enabled California to go from wheat production to fruit production. California has one of the richest economies in the world, much of it due to agriculture. The Bing cherry is named after the Chinese farmer who introduced it, Ah Bing.

The Chinese also played a role in the industrialization of America. They worked in shoe, clothing and tobacco factories. Many formed their own businesses. The Chinese Laundromat was an American phenomenon that happened because it was an industry relatively easy for the Chinese to enter.

But with success brought fear and resentment. Anti-coolie Clubs and anti-Chinese political parties sprung up, targeting the Chinese as a menace to white workers. The Chinese, with their different ways of religion, food, culture and language, were now thought to be incapable of "assimilating" into American society. They were scorned as "coolies," a term meaning "bitter labor."

I always remember the fishy smell of Chinatown markets from when my mom used to take me when I was young.
A recession in 1870 further inflamed hatred of the Chinese who were being blamed for the economic conditions of whites. Chinatowns were attacked and burned down. In Los Angeles, 15 Chinese people were hanged. Politicians looking to cover their butts joined in the anti-Chinese chorus. Whereas once upon a time, the Chinese had been applauded for their industrious nature, they were now viewed as the scum of the earth. As another California governor said, "If as a nation, we have the right to keep out infectious diseases…we surely have the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without plenteously sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution and death."

Some Chinese felt it was ironic to be labeled savages since they came from a sophisticated culture that was thousands of years old in comparison to the relatively primitive young state of American culture. A letter sent by one Chinese organization asked of President Grant in 1876, "Are the railroads built by the Chinese no benefit to the country? Are the manufacturing establishments, largely worked by Chinese, no benefit to this country? Do not the results of the daily toil of a hundred thousand men increase the riches of this country?"

According to the US government, the answer was a big fat NO to all of the above. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislation ever passed that restricted who could come to America on the basis of race and nationality. It suspended Chinese immigration for the next 60 years and stated that no Chinese immigrant could become an American citizen. During this time, Chinese immigrants were forbidden from intermarrying or attending schools with whites. A California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese people, in addition to Negroes, mulattos and Indians, could not testify as witnesses against any white people, even if they saw a white person murder another. The reasoning was because the Chinese were "a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point." Chinese women were also targeted. Congress passed an act limiting even wives and family members from joining their husbands in America because of the belief that all Chinese women were immoral prostitutes (Chinese prostitutes did exist, but so did a lot of white prostitutes in the American West).
Some of stuff I grew up loving: oolong tea, rice crackers and miso soup (ok, the last two happen to be Japanese).

Learning about all the disgusting ways the Chinese were treated was a real eye-opener for me. I guess I took for granted my rights as an American, forgetting about the hardships of the people who came before my family did. Though Chinese Americans may still be thought of as "permanent foreigners," as I stroll through Chinatown in New York City, I can see all the ways America has been changed by the presence of these steely immigrants. Imagine not being able to order sweet and sour chicken or egg rolls from your local Chinese restaurant or cracking open a fortune cookie (which, by the way, was invented in California in the early 1900s). Wen Ho Lee may have showed how far we have to go before Chinese Americans are viewed as "real Americans," but one look at any California grapevine or railroad car hauling coal is all I need to see to remind me that yes, I do belong here as much as anyone.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Monopoly's meanest players
Daphne - Philanthropy's dirty little secret
Teddy - A legal kind of train robbery
Making A Difference - Immigration's top 5 myths