Chinese Exclusion

Chinese Exclusion

Chinese Exclusion


The Gold Rush in the West brought over a lot of Chinese immigrants to America. Unaccustomed to the American lifestyle and values, Chinese immigrants were often seen as evil and dirty by Americans who felt threatened by these foreign peoples. Chinese immigrants quickly became the scapegoats for issues such as the opioid addiction and unemployment in the mining and railroad industry due to their cheap labor. Because of this they were often discriminated against. The themes in the historiography on Chinese exclusion reflect this and discusses the ways in which they overcame their adversities.

The most prevalent themes within the historiographies have been those of nativism, discrimination, and identity. Nativism is the political policy of promoting the interests of native inhabitants, and is usually seen as anti-immigrant. In the context of Chinese exclusion, Nativism refers to the white Americans. Nearing the turn of the century, white American were concerned that their interests weren’t valued and protected over those of the Chinese immigrants. During this time, the Chinese were the main labor competition to white laborers, who worked for cheaper. This led to anti-Chinese sentiments which fueled discriminatory acts. These acts, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were enough for Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans to challenge their oppression. In doing so they were able to establish their own identity in America. The literature on Chinese exclusion makes it clear how through overcoming their hardships through the legal court system and mass disobedience, Chinese immigrants were able to challenge discrimination and form their own identity in the United States.

By the end of the Gold Rush California had become a giant company town owned by white men who were looking to make their fortune from gold. The state itself did not require land surveys for mining projects, did not interfere with mining claim transfers, or limit mining on tribal lands. Because of this, mining companies could practically “build or wash away trails or roads, dig up farms and fields, or even tunnel under a town’s streets, buildings, and houses.”[1] When white miners began losing their jobs, prices and rents decreased, investors and lenders withdrew capital, and stores and mills closed down.[2] Chinese miners were blamed since they were hired by these industries as cheap labor. History professor Kevin Wong claims that the Chinese were accused of promoting a new system of slavery or “coolieism,” by “degrading” American labor by working for wages that would not be enough to support an American family.[3]

In Andrew Gyory’s Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, Gyory claims that instead of dealing with these social and economic issues, politicians sought out a “safe” solution to worker’s demands for the end of imported labor. Politicians claimed that the nation as a whole would be better off without immigrant labor and used race as an excuse to push for the legislation that would later exclude Chinese immigrants from the country for being “immoral and unclean, biologically inferior, and perhaps more important, unassimilable.”[4]

In an article in the North American Review in 1901 titled “Why the Chinese Should be Excluded,” by James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco at the time, explained that the Chinese exclusion legislation should be continued, because “for all purposes of citizenship their usefulness ends with their day’s work; and whatever they are paid, they are paid too much because they make no contribution by service or citizenship or family life to the permanent interest of the country.” [5] This quote shows that part of the anti-Chinese sentiment that arose during this time came from the what Americans perceived to be the inability of the immigrants to assimilate and conform to American culture and ways of life.

Similarly, Jean Pfaelzer in Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans assert that it was racial and economic issues that “provided a platform for the Chinese roundups.”[6] In her book, Pfaelzer discusses the violence and ethnic cleansing happening in California and the Pacific Northwest beginning in 1848 against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, and how they fought back.

While Pfaelzer focuses mainly on the effects of coolie labor on anti-Chinese sentiments, Diana L. Ahmad in The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West focuses on opium as the main component that fueled these feelings. Her book examines how America’s war on drugs incited the racism that eventually led to the demand of Chinese immigrant removal from American society. Although American farmers had been growing opium poppies for medicinal uses since the mid eighteenth century, Americans feared the effects opium would have on the economy as well as domestic life. As stated in The Opium Debate, by the 1880s opium smoking as a habit had spread to the East Coast and affected people of similar classes on the West Coast, and journalists noted that “there was equal agreement that people addicted to a drug that sapped their strength, their money, and their dignity could not contribute to the advancement of the nation.”[7] Doctors and politicians studied the drug and wrote extensively on the behavioral and physical effects on the body and thus, the effects it would have on the nation.

In addition to this, Chinese immigrants were often accused of carrying diseases and seen as dirty. In “Why the Chinese Should be Excluded,” Phelan states, “They may in small numbers benefit individual employers, but they breed the germs of a national disease, which spreads as they spread, grow as they grow.”[8] Because of this they were often equated with the mentally retarded, insane persons, and convicted criminals.

This association further pushed anti-Chinese sentiments among Americans. [9] The side effects of opium smoking and the idea that the Chinese were diseased and biologically inferior became central in fighting for its exclusion in the United States, and consequently, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants as well.

Although violence and discrimination towards Chinese had been happening well before the 19th century, the first Chinese exclusion law was not passed until 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed by President Chester A. Arthur, and was the first significant law restricting immigration of any kind. In In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America Charles J. McClain uses English and Chinese documents to record how the Chinese worked towards restitution. His work evaluates Chinese efforts in fighting discrimination in housing, employment, and education. McClain claims that the efforts from the Chinese community helped challenge judicial issues including legal definition of non-discrimination and equality. Similarly, Martin B. Gold’s Forbidden Citizens: Chinese Exclusion and the U.S Congress: A Legislative History, covers the legislative history of the Chinese exclusion laws and includes extensive quotes from congress members starting in 1870 with the debate over neutralization rights.

In Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943, she discusses the United States as a “gatekeeping nation” and explores the policies of Asian exclusion in the country that transformed lives, immigration patterns, families, and Asian identity. She claims that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 changed the course of US immigration history, and compares Chinese exclusion to present day immigration control policies and race relations. Lee uses immigration records, oral histories, interviews, and letters as her sources.

In a collection of essays, Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era by Kevin Scott Wong, the author focuses on the forming of ethnic identity among Chinese Americans and their efforts in claiming their spot in American society. The book is divided into two parts. The first part reveals the struggle of immigrant Chinese attempts at Americanization. Part two is about the intergenerational gap between Chinese immigrants and their American born children, and discusses the formation of their identity within American society and culture. For the first nine decades of Chinese immigration, Chinese Americans made up a small minority because few Chinese women immigrated to the United States. According to Wong this was because it was Chinese tradition for daughters and daughters-in-law to stay home and care for their parents or in-laws rather than accompanying their men abroad.[10]

At the same time, it wasn’t safe for Chinese women to live in the West due to anti-Chinese sentiments. Since there were few women, few Chinese children were born and raised in America. Wong explains clearly how through the intergenerational gap Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans establish their identities within America. Unlike the Chinese immigrants, their children the Chinese Americans come in constant close contact with, for example, American school teachers and students who introduce/ expose them to different American values.[11] Because of this, American children born to Chinese parents often adapted to both Chinese and American values, creating a mixed identity reflecting Chinese values from their ancestral homeland, and the American values they are exposed too living in the United States. This, however, causes problems within the family and intergenerational gap who are trying to preserve their traditions and values while still trying to assimilate to American life at the same time. Through this struggle, immigrant parents become more Americanized as they “acquiesce to their offspring’s demands and modify their expectations.”[12]

Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans worked hard to fight for themselves and form an identity during a time in America of anti-immigrant sentiments. They fought discrimination and established their identity by challenging racism and exclusion through the legal court system, acts of civil disobedience, and by establishing and sometimes even re-establishing communities. The historiography on Chinese Exclusion reveal how through acts of discrimination and nativism by white Americans, Chinese immigrants were compelled to secure their position in society and identity in America.

[1] Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, (New York: Random House, 2007) Pg 43.

[2] Pfaelzer, 43.

[3] Kevin Scott Wong, Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), Pg 5.

[4] Wong, 5.

[5] Wong, 7.

[6] Pfaelzer, 44

[7] Diana L. Ahmad, The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West, (Reno: University of Nevada, 2007), Pg 35.

[8] Wong, 7.

[9] Wong, 7.

[10] Wong, 127.

[11] Wong, 128.

[12] Wong, 129.



 Ahmad, Diana L. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century

American West. Reno: University of Nevada, 2007.


Gold, Martin B. Forbidden Citizens: Chinese Exclusion and the U.S. Congress: A Legislative

History, Alexandria, Virginia: TheCapitol.Net, 2012.


Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press, 1998.


Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.


McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in

Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994.


Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. New York:

Random House, 2007.


Wong, Kevin Scott. Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.