Chinese Migration / Anti-Chinese Immigration Movement

Chinese immigrants played an important role in the westward expansion of the United States, particularly in the building of the transcontinental railroad in the second half of the 19th century. Despite the fact that the Chinese filled an important labor need and proved to be extremely hard workers, white laborers resented their presence, and anti-Chinese riots took place in many western cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Giving in to heavy political pressure, the federal government intervened by implementing the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), and the U.S. Supreme Court supported the government's stance in subsequent rulings.

Chinese and white miners

Influx of Chinese

The California gold rush of the mid-19th century led to a tremendous influx of people into California, and many of them were from China. California quickly became legendary as "Gum San" (Gold Mountain) in China, and by 1852, 25,000 Chinese had made it to Gold Mountain, although very few of them struck it rich. Some decided to return to China, but many remained in California and found employment as miners . They quickly earned reputations as hard laborers who were willing to toil long hours for low pay. White miners resented the presence of these foreigners and did their best to drive them away. In 1852, the California legislature passed the Foreign Miner's Tax in an attempt to limit the amount of Chinese and Mexican miners in the young state.

Chinese Communities

The Chinese were forced to live in segregated communities, where they created a vibrant culture centered in San Francisco's Chinatown district. During that time, several family and district organizations, known collectively as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, were founded to improve organization within the local Chinese communities. Many workers frustrated by the Foreign Miner's Tax became merchants in Chinatown or turned to domestic work like cooking, gardening, or housekeeping to make a living. Discrimination against the Chinese continued throughout the 1850s and included such measures as denying them legal rights and excluding them from attending public schools. Still, the Chinese community thrived in San Francisco and built a Chinese theater and temple to make Chinese immigrants feel more at home. In addition, more and more Chinese were crossing the Pacific to America as the Taiping Rebellion in China claimed millions of lives.
San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco Chinatown

Working on the Railroad
Chinese workers working on the transcontinental railroad
Chinese workers working on the transcontinental railroad

During the early 1860s, tax collectors and antagonistic white miners made life miserable for Chinese miners, and many were forced to look for other jobs. A massive project that would require thousands of hardened laborers was getting under way—the building of the transcontinental railroad . By 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad had begun work on the western portion of the transcontinental railroad but was suffering from a labor shortage. The pay for working on the railroad was low, and white workers were deserting the railroad in droves for more lucrative opportunities in mining, particularly after new silver strikes were unearthed in nearby Nevada. The railroad companies decided it was time to hire "coolies," a derogatory name for Chinese laborers.

Chinese Exclusion Act

On the national level, the Greenback Party was lobbying for restrictions on Chinese immigration, and Congress responded to the pressures from the growing anti-Asian movement by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which halted further immigration of Chinese into the United States for 10 years. Despite the ban, violence against Chinese Americans continued in the 1880s. On September 2, 1885, a mob of white miners invaded the Chinese section of Rock Springs and opened fire on the Chinese population of about 600 people. By the time the violence ended, 28 Chinese were dead. The following February in Seattle, violence erupted when an anti-Chinese group tried to deport most of the city's Chinese community by forcefully loading them onto a steamship. Anti-Chinese violence was reported in several other western states during the 1880s, including Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.

As discrimination and violence continued against the Chinese in America, some Chinese attempted to use the U.S. legal system to fight back. One of the most famous instances was a legislative battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court as the case of
Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). The issue was a San Francisco ordinance designed to regulate laundries that had been strictly enforced against Chinese launderers but not white launderers. Although the landmark Supreme Court ruling noted that the Fourteenth Amendment protected all persons in the United States and not simply citizens, in reality, the Court's ruling did nothing to protect Chinese Americans from continued widespread prejudice and discrimination.


"Chinese Americans." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 3 Apr. 2010. <>

"nativism." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 3 Apr. 2010. <>.