TheChinese forms an important part of the American history. Theircontribution to the construction of railway in America including 690mile rail line by the Central Pacific which crossed throughCalifornia, Nevada and Utah was immense (Norris 2013). The Chinesehad migrated to the United States during the California Gold Rush. Asstated by Holland, “The push factor was an increase in politicaland economic instability in southern China due to the TaipingRebellion, the Opium Wars, and the inability of the Chinesegovernment to maintain peace and order.” (150). The Gold Rush gavethousands of Chinese an opportunity to seek a better life in theUnited States. Although they engaged in mining as well as othercasual jobs, working in the railroad construction remains asignificant phenomenon for Chinese-American history. Chinese Americanlaborers struggled and suffered in America.
PartII: Chinese Immigration to the U.S
TheChinese coming to the United States were motivated by theopportunities that the United States provided by the time. “Thefirst immigrants from China arrived in British North America in the1780s and the United States in the 18`20s. They were mostly men, andtheir numbers were relatively small. In the 1850s, however, muchlarger numbers began to arrive in the United States and Canada fromChina” (Holland 150). In 1948, gold was discovered in California inplenty, in what would later become the California Gold Rush. Rumorsreached the Chinese from ship crew members who transverse the pacificthat gold was abundant in California and one could collect pieces ofgold from the street. This attracted thousands of Chinese men intoCalifornia and other neighboring states. Secondly, the Chinese werefacing difficult times at the same period from drought, typhoons,hunger and general poverty. In addition, the Chinese and UnitedStates governments had opened trade relations that would allowbusiness between the two countries. When the Chinese first came tothe United States, they were focused on working in the mines andmanual jobs. The number of Chinese in the U.S was very low before theinflux of 1852 where over 20,000 Chinese immigrants entered the U.Sthrough San Francisco’s Golden Gate (Changfu 2008). Most of theseimmigrants were comfortable in Chinatowns as they got safety and jobopportunities in these towns. Changfu argues that, “In the West ofthe United States, which was extremely short of labor at the time,they were undoubtedly a valuable asset. (Changfu 2008) The Chinesepursued all forms of work from agriculture, mining, lumbering amongother sectors. The most significant areas where the Chinese hadinfluence during the times are the mining and the rail wayconstruction (Olson and Heather 2011). This is also supported byHolland who argues that “The construction of railroads in the 1860swas an even larger attraction than the California Gold Rush.” (150)
PartIII: Treatment of the Chinese Immigrants at the Mines
Generally,Chinese immigrants during the 19thCentury were regarded with unfathomable suspicion by Euro-Americans.Zhu states that, “Chinese immigrants encountered more collectiveviolence than did any other ethnic minority, with the exception ofAmerican Indians.” (2006). Their merchandize was considered funny,their food unsavory, their neighborhoods insecure and their womenimmoral (Patel 2014). As such, the existence of Chinese in the U.Swas not an easy task. More often than not, they faced prejudice, andsome were even killed through violence. Working in the mines was noteasy. The Chinese immigrants formed an important part of the U.Slabor force. Regardless, they were foreign curiosities who becametargets of racism and violence (Patel 2014).
Atthe mines, competition was stiff and the aggressiveness of theChinese in foreign land attracted more risks (Hsu2000).The natives usually mistreated the Chinese and robbed them theirmines. White miners would simply chase away Chinese from a mine thatseemed productive, physically assaulting them and taking their mines,among other humiliations (Soennichsen 2). The government also setvery high taxes for foreign miners which proved unprofitable forChinese miners (Soennichsen 5). This led the Chinese to involuntarilyabandon mining to perform domestic chores for the white natives whopaid well and they were treated with dignity, probably for reducingcompetition at the mines.
PartIV: The Construction of the Railway
In1865, the government had contracted the construction of the railwayline that would connect the country from both ends. Central PacificRailroad and the Union Pacific Railroad were the companies contractedfor the job. The railway was to start from both ends with the UnionPacific starting from the eastern part at the Missouri River, whilethe Union Pacific would start from the western end (Brown 2012). Therailroad was to meet at Promontory Summit in Utah, hence the twocompanies had to compete finish their part in time (Norris 2013). TheCentral Pacific was to cross through states of California, Nevada andUtah. Most of this route passed through rugged terrain which requiredmagnificent bridges and tunnels. According to Norris, this challengewas overcome by hiring Chinese laborers. The Chinese constituted over90 percent of railroad workers in the 1960’s (Patel 2014). However,the Americans did not believe the Chinese could afford working in therailway mainly due to their physique an idea that was supported byforeman James Strobridge of Central Pacific. However, SuperintendentCharley Crooker did not support this view. "Damn It, man!"he shouted. "The Chinese built the Great Wall of China, didn`tthey! Certainly they can be useful in building a railroad, don`t youthink?" (Foster 2010)
Onthe other hand, Union Pacific constructed the railroad throughNebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming connecting Utah states totaling to1,086 miles (Norris 2013). Most of this route cut across flat plainsthat had minimal engineering limitations. Construction workersconsisted of a diverse collection of Confederate and Union veterans,immigrants from Germany, Ireland as well as the freed slaves.Majority of workers comprised of Irish migrants who had fled theircountry during the potato famine of the 1840’s and early 1850’s(Soennichsen 7). There were several projects including the railwayconstruction in Panama where foreigners were recruited to providelabor. The Chinese had been earmarked as the best laborers and allcapitalists wanted them to work for them.
Thework of Chinese during the construction of the railway was manual.They engaged in cutting trees, grading with shovel and wheelbarrows,blasting rocks, digging cuts and fills and other menial jobs. Theirwork was also very dangerous, which resulted to most of their deathssuch as drilling holes in rocks, inserting black powder and ignitingthe fuses. Despite their small size, they did an incredible job. TheChinese were very efficient workers as one of the owners of CentralPacific once claimed “The Chinese are the best workers in theworld! They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amountto anything and are very clean in their habit.” (Foster 2010). Thewhites performed jobs that needed construction skills such as masonryand building trestles or more muscle jobs like laying track on theties (Soennichsen 10). The acknowledgement of the Chinesecontribution to the mining and railway construction is evident of thework the Chinese did. In a monument erected in Navada Virginia Cityreads “The Chinese pioneers made great contributions. They openedmines and constructed railroads. They will go down in the annals ofhistory.” (Changfu 2008). Ultimately, the participation of theChinese in the railway construction was significant to the existenceof the Chinese in America. “Railroads brought change, including theneed for new fuels and service industries that the Chinese dominatedin the late nineteenth century” (Gardner 2006).
Duringthe construction of the railway, Chinese laborers made greatsacrifices, undergoing unimaginable challenges and dangers. As arguedby Changfu (2008) “They had to overcome unimaginable difficultiesand dangers and made tremendous sacrifices. It is no exaggeration tosay that under each sleeper on the Central Southern Pacific Railroada Chinese laborer is buried. This transportation line of iron andsteel which passes through high mountain ridges is still there,itself a mute monument to the meritorious and immortal service ofthose Chinese laborers.”
Archaeologicalevidence shows that, the Chinese who worked at the railway enduredunimaginable hardships. First they were suffering from malnutrition,were denied health care and did very difficult jobs. Cohen (2002)notes that, the Chinese were pushed to the limits by difficultiesduring the rail construction, with some of them inflicting body harmon themselves and others ending up committing suicide. He arguesthat, …“In a short period of time 125 Chinese coolies were saidto have hanged themselves from trees and over 300 others were founddead, victims of various other types of self-inflicted death.”(Cohen 2002). Roediger & Esch (2014) shares this view. This canbe attributed to the fact that, the railway companies were onlyinterested in maximizing profits and did not bother on the lives ofthe Chinese laborers (Borgart 2013). “We can assume, then, that bythe time the Chinese arrived in Panama they had been subjected tophysical and psychological stress associated with the mode ofrecruitment and with the ocean voyage itself.” (Cohen 2002).Suicide was inherent to the Chinese culture as a way of protest asnoted by Cohen “The occurrence of this phenomenon in differentareas may serve to support the proposition that even without materialon the specific areas of origin for the groups, suicide was aculturally patterned mode of protest or of turning aggressioninward.” (Cohen 2002).
Therewas segregation in the payment system. Chinese were poorly paid ($1 aday or $30 to $35 a month) as compared to their counterpart Irishworkers. As stated by Holland, “The railways paid Chinese laborersonly one-fifth of what they paid white workers for the same work.”(151). Besides, they were expected to buy their own food with thewages they received, while the Irish were provided with food (Singola2011). However, Gardener (2003) explains that, “Although the Asianlaborers dressed poorly and lived in simple dwellings to save moneyso they could return as soon as possible to their homes and familiesin China, they usually ate well.” The Chinese were grouped intogangs of about 50 to55 and were headed by a white of Irish origin(Singola 2011). Other immigrants including Irish, British and Germanimmigrants could freely settle in the United States after engaging inprojects, but the Chinese became the center of concern as theirpresence caused discontent (Hillstrom & Laurie 2005). Thisportrays the way the Chinese were unwanted regardless of theircontribution in the construction of railway and other projects.
PartV: Chinese Culture
Chineseare largely communal people. Unlike Americans and Europeans who areindividualistic, Chinese embrace collectiveness. They stay in groups,work together as a team, eat together and work towards achieving acollective goal. As such, the Chinese became very effective in theconstruction of “Transcontinental Railway” (Patel 2014). TheChinese also had strong bonds with their families even thoughseparated by geographical distance. During the construction of therailway, they set aside about two thirds of their wages to remit homefor their suffering families. This does not mean that they did nothave money to spend. As cited by Patel (2014), a combination of thissense of duty and sacrifice led to Chinese being the most effectiveand the most sought after workers. The Chinese did not take breakslike other workers and had incredible team spirit that workedwonders. They were very effective to an extent that, after thecompletion of the rail project, most American investors took them inother projects. They were highly preferred since they could do anywork, better than natives or other immigrants at a lower wage. Theyengaged in social activities including gambling and other gameswithin themselves every day after work.
TheChinese diet was diverse and rich. As they worked in groups, theChinese also ate together which they considered an inherent part oftheir lifestyle. As described in Gardner (2003), during theconstruction of the railway, “They marched up in self-formed gangsof twelve to twenty men with their own supplies and cooks for eachmess”. Rice and dried cattle fish formed most of their food. At theend of the 19thcentury, the Chinese consumed eggs, chickens, shellfish, oyster, porkand sea bass as well as vegetables. Basically, the Chinese who movedto the United States at the times carried with them their culturefrom food to clothing, (Gardener 2003) even though they were not ableto fully practice their traditions as a result anti-Chinese policiesthat were established to frustrate them. Ultimately, food, family andendurance were central to Chinese conscious.
PartVI: Discriminative Legislation
Thefast growing communities of Chinatowns and the adventurous nature andcultural distinctiveness of the Chinese did not go well with thenatives. As stated by Zhu, “Unfortunately, the adventurouscharacteristic and cultural distinctiveness of Chinese frontiersmendid not bring them proportional political privilege and socialstatus. Instead, they often became a target of labor agitation andracial violence.” (2006).
Despitethe contribution that the Chinese made in the building of the UnitedStates, particularly the railway, the government passed tough laws tomake their lives miserable. Holland states that, “When thetranscontinental railroads were completed, the demand for cheapChinese labor dropped precipitously. Chinese laborers began tocompete with white workers, and public opinion in California and theother western states shifted strongly against the presence of theChinese.” (Holland 151). In 1870’s the congress successfullyprohibited any Chinese from acquiring citizenship (Ehrenreich 2014).Later, legislations prohibiting the wives of Chinese from enteringthe country were enacted. Due to the perception of Americans towardsChinese women, the law stated that no ‘undesirables’ would beallowed into the country. By this they meant Chinese women who wereconsidered prostitutes. Further, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Actwas passed which banned any Chinese from entering the land. The actwas repealed in 1943. As stated by Holland, “The Chinese ExclusionRepeal Act was a foreign policy necessity: China was a military allyof the United States in the war against Japan from 1941 to 1945, andthe discriminatory treatment of Chinese nationals by U.S. lawembarrassed the alliance.”(153)
AntiChinese legislation continued throughout the country. In Gold Hilldistrict California, an 1859 ordinance prohibited a Chinese fromowning a mine. Five years later, the same district introduced anordinance which prohibited a Chinese from living within 400 feet of awhite person. In Pendleton, Chinese were banned from being in thestreets after sunset. Other legislations such as the 1877 VirginiaCity, Nevada which banned the use of fireworks were a disruption tothe Chinese cultural and religious practice (Soennichsen 17).
Chinesecontinued to face segregation that led to violence including arsonattacks. In 1876 for example, Los Angeles had segregated Chinatownwith the first race riots comprising of a mob of about 500 peoplelynched 18 Chinese (Ehrenreich 2014). When Chinese were killed, therewas no prosecution that took place. In 1887 for example, 25 Chinesewere killed by whites in Washington but no arrests were made. Inanother instance in Hells Canyon 31 Chinese miners were killed byOregon cowboys although three of the cowboys were arrested, noprosecution proceeded (Soennichsen 14). Mistreatment of Chinesecontinued even in death. As many archeologists have discovered,Chinese were buried on top of each other and even recently in 1922,their cemetery was destroyed to create room for rail station(Ehrenreich 2014). The Chinese were also required to pay a given feefor the privilege of living in some of the U.S territories such asAlberta (Gardener 2006). Similar treatment against the Chinese waspracticed in Canada during the same period. Here, the Chinese wererequired to pay a $50 tax in an act passed in 1885 which ensured thatthe Chinese remained poor, diseased population and criminals, unlikethe rest of immigrants (LaDow 2013).
ChineseAmerican laborers struggled and suffered in America. Therecontribution to the construction of the transcontinental railway wasparamount and they have been given credit for it. However, they werepoorly mistreated through being meagerly paid, harshly treated,constitutionally oppressed among and were even killed by the natives.The Chinese protested against the prejudices they faced by committingsuicide and peaceful protests. As noted by Zhu (2006), “The Chineseskillfully employed civil disobedience to challenge discriminatorystatutes, from local opium ordinances to federal immigration laws”Today, the Chinese continue to make an impact in the U.S social andeconomic divide. According to Ong et al. (2006) the Chinesecommunity continues to cause ripples in California and the U.S as awhole.
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