Read CHAPTER IX - THE ORIENTAL of Our Foreigners, free online book, by Samuel P. Orth, on

America, midway between Europe and Asia, was destined to be the meeting-ground of Occident and Orient. It was in the exciting days of ’49 that gold became the lodestone to draw to California men from the oriental lands across the Pacific. The Chinese for the moment overcame their religious aversion to leaving their native haunts and, lured by the promise of fabulous wages, made their way to the “gold hills.” Of the three hundred thousand who came to America during the three decades of free entry, the large majority were peasants from the rural districts in the vicinity of Canton. They were thrifty, independent, sturdy, honest young men who sought the great adventure unaccompanied by wife or family. Chinese tradition forbade the respectable woman to leave her home, even with her husband; and China was so isolated from the world, so encrusted in her own traditions that out of her uncounted millions even the paltry thousands of peasants and workmen who filtered through the port of Canton into the great world were bound by ancient precedent as firmly as if they had remained at home. They invariably planned to return to the Celestial Empire and it was their supreme wish that, if they died abroad, their bodies be buried in the land of their ancestors.

The Chinaman thus came to America as a workman adventurer, not as a prospective citizen. He preserved his queue, his pajamas, his chopsticks, and his joss in the crude and often brutal surroundings of the mining camp. He maintained that gentle, yielding, unassertive character which succumbs quietly to pressure at one point, only to reappear silently and unobtrusively in another place. In the wild rough and tumble of the camp, where the outlaw and the bully found congenial refuge, the celestial did not belie his name. He was indeed of another world, and his capacity for patience, his native dignity without suspicion of hauteur, baffled the loud self-assertion of the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon.

During the first years of the gold rush, the Chinaman was welcome in California because he was necessary. He could do so many things that the miner disdained or found no time to do. He could cook and wash, and he could serve. He was a rare gardener and a patient day laborer. He could learn a new trade quickly. In the city he became a useful domestic servant at a time when there were very few women. In all his tasks he was neat and had a genius for noiselessly minding his own business.

As the number of miners increased, race prejudice asserted itself. “California for Americans” came to be a slogan that reflected their feelings against Mexicans, Spanish-Americans, and Chinese in the mines. Race riots, often instigated by men who had themselves but recently immigrated to America, were not infrequent. In these disorders the Chinese were no match for the aggressors and in consequence were forced out of many good mining claims.

The labor of the cheap and faithful Chinese appealed to the business instincts of the railroad contractors who were constructing the Pacific railways and they imported large numbers. In 1866 a line of steamships was established to run regularly between Hong Kong and San Francisco. In 1869 the first transcontinental railway was completed and American laborers from the East began to flock to California, where they immediately found themselves in competition with the Mongolian standard of living. Race rivalry soon flared up and the anti-Chinese sentiment increased as the railroads neared completion and threw more and more of the oriental laborers into the general labor market. Chinese were hustled out of towns. Here and there violence was done. For example, in the Los Angeles riots of October 24, 1871, fifteen Chinamen were hanged and six were shot by the mob.

This prejudice, based primarily upon the Chinaman’s willingness to work long hours for little pay and to live in quarters and upon fare which an Anglo-Saxon would find impossible, was greatly increased by his strange garb, language, and customs. The Chinaman remained in every essential a foreigner. In his various societies he maintained to some degree the patriarchal government of his native village. He shunned American courts, avoided the Christian religion, rarely learned much of the English language, and displayed no desire to become naturalized. Instead of sympathy in the country of his sojourn he met discrimination, jealousy, and suspicion. For many years his testimony was not permitted in the courts. His contact with only the rough frontier life failed to reveal to him the gentle amenities of the white man’s faith, and everywhere the upper hand seemed turned against him. So he kept to himself, and this isolation fed the rumors that were constantly poisoning public opinion. Chinatown in the public mind became a synonym for a nightmare of filth, gambling, opium-smoking, and prostitution.

Alarm was spreading among Americans concerning the organizations of the Chinese in the United States. Of these, the Six Companies were the most famous. Mary Roberts Coolidge, after long and careful research, characterized these societies as “the substitute for village and patriarchal association, and although purely voluntary and benevolent in their purpose, they became, because of American ignorance and prejudice, the supposed instruments of tyranny over their countrymen." They each had a club house, where members were registered and where lodgings and other accommodations were provided. The largest in 1877 had a membership of seventy-five thousand; the smallest, forty-three thousand. The Chinese also maintained trade guilds similar in purpose to the American trade union. Private or secret societies also flourished among them, some for good purposes, others for illicit purposes. Of the latter the Highbinders or Hatchet Men became the most notorious, for they facilitated the importation of Chinese prostitutes. Many of these secret societies thrived on blackmail, and the popular antagonism to the Six Companies was due to the outrages committed by these criminal associations.

When the American labor unions accumulated partisan power, the Chinese became a political issue. This was the greatest evil that could befall them, for now racial persecution received official sanction and passed out of the hands of mere ruffians into the custody of powerful political agitators. Under the lurid leadership of Dennis Kearney, the Workingman’s party was organized for the purpose of influencing legislation and “ridding the country of Chinese cheap labor.” Their goal was “Four dollars a day and roast beef”; and their battle cry, “The Chinese must go.” Under the excitement of sand-lot meetings, the Chinese were driven under cover. In the riots of July, 1877, in San Francisco, twenty-five Chinese laundries were burned. “For months afterward,” says Mary Roberts Coolidge, “no Chinaman was safe from personal outrage even on the main thoroughfares, and the perpetrators of the abuses were almost never interfered with so long as they did not molest white men’s property."

This anti-Chinese epidemic soon spread to other Western States. Legislatures and city councils vied with each other in passing laws and ordinances to satisfy the demands of the labor vote. All manner of ingenious devices were incorporated into tax laws in an endeavor to drive the Chinese out of certain occupations and to exclude them from the State. License and occupation taxes multiplied. The Chinaman was denied the privilege of citizenship, was excluded from the public schools, and was not allowed to give testimony in proceedings relating to white persons. Manifold ordinances were passed intended to harass and humiliate him: for instance, a San Francisco ordinance required the hair of all prisoners to be cut within three inches of the scalp. Most extreme and unreasonable discriminations against hand laundries were framed. The new California constitution of 1879 endowed the legislature and the cities with large powers in regulating the conditions under which Chinese would be tolerated. In 1880 a state law declared that all corporations operating under a state charter should be prohibited from employing Chinese under penalty of forfeiting their charter. Chinese were also excluded from employment in all public works. Nearly all these laws and ordinances, however, were ultimately declared to be unconstitutional on account of their discriminatory character or because they were illegal regulations of commerce.

The States having failed to exclude the Chinese, the only hope left was in the action of the Federal Government. The earliest treaties and trade conventions with China (1844 and 1858) had been silent upon the rights and privileges of Chinese residing or trading in the United States. In 1868, Anson Burlingame, who had served for six years as American Minister to China, but who had now entered the employ of the Chinese Imperial Government, arrived at the head of a Chinese mission sent for the purpose of negotiating a new treaty which should insure reciprocal rights to the Chinese. The journey from San Francisco to Washington was a sort of triumphal progress and everywhere the Chinese mission was received with acclaim. The treaty drawn by Secretary Seward was ratified on July 28, 1868, and was hailed even on the Pacific coast as the beginning of more fortunate relations between the two countries. The treaty acknowledged the “inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively, from the one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade or as permanent residents.” It stated positively that “citizens of the United States visiting or residing in China shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and exemptions in respect to travel and residence as may be enjoyed by the citizens of the most favored nation. And, reciprocally, Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and exemptions in respect to travel or residence.” The right to naturalization was by express statement not conferred by the treaty upon the subjects of either nation dwelling in the territory of the other. But it was not in any way prohibited.

The applause which greeted this international agreement had hardly subsided before the anti-Chinese agitators discovered that the treaty was in their way and they thereupon demanded its modification or abrogation. They now raised the cry that the Chinese were a threat to the morals and health of the country, that the majority of Chinese immigrants were either coolies under contract, criminals, diseased persons, or prostitutes. As a result, in 1879 a representative from Nevada, one of the States particularly interested, introduced in Congress a bill limiting to fifteen the Chinese passengers that any ship might bring to the United States on a single voyage, and requiring the captains of such vessels to register at the port of entry a list of their Chinese passengers. The Senate added an amendment requesting the President to notify the Chinese Government that the section of the Burlingame treaty insuring reciprocal interchange of citizens was abrogated. After a very brief debate the measure that so flagrantly defied an international treaty passed both houses. It was promptly vetoed, however, by President Hayes on the ground that it violated a treaty which a friendly nation had carefully observed. If the Pacific cities had cause of complaint, the President preferred to remedy the situation by the “proper course of diplomatic negotiations."

The President accordingly appointed a commission, under the chairmanship of James B. Angell, president of the University of Michigan, to negotiate a new treaty. The commission proceeded to China and completed its task in November, 1880. The new treaty provided that, “whenever, in the opinion of the Government of the United States, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States, or their residence therein, affects or threatens to affect the interests of that country, or to endanger the good order of the said country or of any locality within the territory thereof, the Government of China agrees that the Government of the United States may regulate, limit, or suspend such coming or residence, but may not absolutely prohibit it.” Other Chinese subjects who had come to the United States, “as travelers, merchants, or for curiosity,” and laborers already in the United States, were to “be allowed to go and come of their own free will,” with all of the “rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions which are accorded to the citizens of the most favored nation.” The United States furthermore undertook to protect the Chinese in the United States against “ill treatment” and to “devise means for their protection.”

Two years after the ratification of this treaty, a bill was introduced to prohibit the immigration of Chinese labor for twenty years. Both the great political parties had included the subject in their platforms in 1880. The Democrats had espoused exclusion and were committed to “No more Chinese immigration”; the Republicans had preferred restriction by “just, humane, and reasonable laws.” The bill passed, but President Arthur vetoed it on the ground that prohibiting immigration for so long a period transcended the provisions of the treaty. A bill which was then passed shortening the period of the restriction to ten years received the President’s signature, and on August 5, 1882, America shut the door in the face of Chinese labor.

The law, however, was very loosely drawn and administrative confusion arose at once. Chinese laborers leaving the United States were required to obtain a certificate from the collector of customs at the port of departure entitling them to reentry. Other Chinese merchants, travelers, or visitors who desired to come to the United States were required to have a certificate from their Government declaring that they were entitled to enter under the provisions of the treaty. As time went on, identification became a joke, trading in certificates a regular pursuit, and smuggling Chinese across the Canadian border a profitable business. Moreover, in the light of the law, who was a “merchant” and who a “visitor”? In 1884 Congress attempted to remedy these defects of phraseology and administration by carefully framed definitions and stringent measures. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of exclusion as incident to American sovereignty.

Meanwhile in the West the popular feeling against the Chinese refused to subside. At Rock Springs, Wyoming, twenty-eight Chinese were killed and fifteen were injured by a mob which also destroyed Chinese property amounting to $148,000. At Tacoma and Seattle, also, violence descended upon the Mongolian. In San Francisco a special grand jury which investigated the operation of the exclusion laws and a committee of the Board of Supervisors which investigated the condition of Chinatown both made reports that were violently anti-Chinese. A state anti-Chinese convention soon thereafter declared that the situation “had become well-nigh intolerable.” So widespread and venomous was the agitation against Chinese that President Cleveland was impelled to send to Congress two special messages on the question, detailing the facts and requesting Congress to pay the Chinese claims for indemnity which Wyoming refused to honor. The remonstrances of the Chinese Government led to the drafting of a new treaty in 1888. But while China was deliberating over this treaty, Congress summarily shut off any hope for immediate agreement by passing the Scott Act prohibiting the return of any Chinese laborer after the passage of the act, stopping the issue of any more certificates of identification, and declaring void all certificates previously issued. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this brutal political measure was passed with an eye to the Pacific electoral vote in the pending election. In the next presidential year the climax of harshness was reached in the Geary law, which required, within an unreasonably short time, the registration of all Chinese in the United States. The Chinese, under legal advice, refused to register until the Federal Supreme Court had declared the law constitutional. Subsequently the time for registration was extended.

The anti-Chinese fanaticism had now reached its highest point. While the Government maintained its policy of exclusion, it modified the drastic details of the law. In 1894 a new treaty provided for the exclusion of laborers for ten years, excepting registered laborers who had either parent, wife, or child in the United States, or who possessed property or debts to the amount of one thousand dollars. It required all resident Chinese laborers to register, and the Chinese Government was similarly entitled to require the registration of all American laborers resident in China. The treaty made optional the clause requiring merchants, travelers, and other classes privileged to come to the United States, to secure a certificate from their Government vised by the American representative at the port of departure.

In 1898 General Otis extended the exclusion acts to the Philippines by military order, owing to the fact that the country was in a state of war, and Congress extended them to the Hawaiian Islands. In 1904 China refused to continue the treaty of 1894, and Congress substantially reenacted the existing laws “in so far as not inconsistent with treaty obligations.” Thus the legal status quo has been maintained, and the Chinese population in America is gradually decreasing. No new laborers are permitted to come and those now here go home as old age overtakes them. But the public has come to recognize that diplomatic circumlocution cannot conceal the crude and harsh treatment which the Chinaman has received; that the earlier laws were based upon reports that greatly exaggerated the evils and were silent upon the virtues of the Oriental; and that a policy which had its conception in frontier fears and in race prejudice was sustained by politicians and perpetuated by demagogues.

Rather suddenly the whole drama of discrimination was re-opened by the arrival of a considerable number of Japanese laborers in America. In 1900, there were some twenty-four thousand in the United States and a decade later this number had increased threefold. About one-half of them lived in California, and the rest were to be found throughout the West, especially in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon. They were nearly all unmarried young men of the peasant class. Unlike the Chinese, they manifested a readiness to conform to American customs and an eagerness to learn the language and to adopt American dress. The racial gulf, however, is not bridged by a similarity in externals. The Japanese possess all the deep and subtle contrasts of mentality and ideality which differentiate the Orient from the Occident. A few are not averse to adopting Christianity; many more are free-thinkers; but the bulk remain loyal to Buddhism. They have reproduced here the compact trade guilds of Japan. The persistent aggressiveness of the Japanese, their cunning, their aptitude in taking advantage of critical circumstances in making bargains, have by contrast partially restored to popular favor the patient, reliable Chinaman.

At first the Japanese were welcomed as unskilled laborers. They found employment on the railroads, in lumber mills and salmon canneries, in mines and on farms, and in domestic service. But they soon showed a keen propensity for owning or leasing land. The Immigration Commission found that in 1909 they owned over sixteen thousand acres in California and leased over one hundred and thirty-seven thousand. Nearly all of this land they had acquired in the preceding five years. In Colorado they controlled over twenty thousand acres, and in Idaho and Washington over seven thousand acres each. This acreage represents small holdings devoted to intensive agriculture, especially to the raising of sugar beets, vegetables, and small fruits.

The hostility which began to manifest itself against the Japanese especially in California brought that State into sharp contact with the Federal Government. In 1906 the San Francisco authorities excluded the Japanese from the public schools. This act was immediately and vigorously protested by the Japanese Government. After due investigation, the matter was finally adjusted at a conference held in Washington between President Roosevelt and a delegation from California. This incident served to re-awaken the ghost of Mongolian domination on the Pacific coast, for it occurred during the notorious regime of Mayor Schmitz. Labor politics were rampant. Isolated instances of violence against Japanese occurred, and hoodlums, without fear of police interference, attacked a number of Japanese restaurants. Political candidates were pledged to an anti-Japanese policy.

In 1907 the two governments reached an agreement whereby the details of issuing passports to Japanese laborers who desired to return to the United States was virtually left in the hands of the Japanese Government, which was opposed to the emigration of its laboring population. As a consequence of this agreement, passports are granted only to laborers who had previously been residents of the United States or to parents, wives, and children of Japanese laborers resident in America. Under authority of the immigration law of 1907, the President issued an order (March 14, 1907) denying admission to “Japanese and Korean laborers, skilled or unskilled, who have received passports to go to Mexico, Canada, Hawaii and come therefrom” to the United States.

Anti-Japanese feeling was crystallized into the alien land bill of California in 1913. So serious was the international situation that President Wilson sent Mr. Bryan, then Secretary of State, across the continent to confer with the California legislature and to determine upon some action that would at the same time meet the needs of the State and “leave untouched the international obligations of the United States.” The law subsequently passed was thought by the Californians to appease both of these demands. But the Japanese Government made no less than five vigorous formal protests and filled a lengthy brief which characterized the law as unfair and intentionally discriminating and in violation of the treaty of Commerce and Navigation entered into in 1911. While anti-Japanese demonstrations were taking place in Washington, there was a corresponding outbreak of anti-American feeling in the streets of Tokyo. On February 2, 1914, during the debate on a new immigration bill, an amendment was proposed in the House of Representatives, at the instigation of members from the Pacific coast, excluding all Asiatics, except such as had their entry right established by treaty. But this drastic proposal was defeated by a decisive vote.

The oriental question in America is further complicated by the fact that since 1905 some five thousand East Indians have come to the United States. Of these the majority are Hindoos, the remainder being chiefly Afghans. How these people who have lived under British rule will adapt themselves to American life and institutions remains to be seen.