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Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



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A History of Chinese Americans in California:
THE 1850s

Lifestyles Of Early Immigrants

Most Chinese immigrants entered California through the port of San Francisco. They developed a Chinese American community there, and made an effort to participate in the political and cultural life of the city. In 1850, they attended a religious meeting and received copies of Christian religious writings, marched in a funeral procession for President Zachary Taylor, and participated in festivities celebrating California's admission into the Union. In 1852, several prominent Chinese Americans took part in the Fourth of July Parade in San Francisco. [8]

Chinese Americans in San Francisco also sought to preserve some of their own cultural traditions. In 1851, they celebrated the lunar new year in the traditional way. [9] In 1852, the first performance of Cantonese opera was held in the American Theatre on Sansome Street, and several months later, the first Chinese theatre building was completed. [10] Two Chinese-language newspapers began publishing in 1854 and 1855. [11]

The Kong Chow Association is generally believed to have been the first organization established among Chinese in the United States. Early Cantonese who arrived in San Francisco in 1849 were apparently from the Sun Wui and Hawk Shan districts (which make up the Kong Chow Association). [12] The exact date when the Kong Chow Temple was first built is unknown, but documentary evidence suggests that it was in existence as early as 1853. [13]

Rivaling the Kong Chow Association as the first organization established among Chinese in the United States was the Chew Yick Association. On December 10, 1849, 300 members of the latter organization elected Norman As-sing, a prominent San Francisco merchant, as their leader. As-sing claimed to be an American citizen, naturalized in Charleston, South Carolina and converted to Christianity. He had a greater knowledge of American customs and language than most other early Chinese Americans. At his Macao and Woosung Restaurant on the corner of Kearny and Commercial streets, about a block from Portsmouth Plaza, he gave banquets at which he entertained local politicians and policemen. He often represented the Chinese American community on formal occasions, and served as an interpreter. [14]

Tong K. Achick was among a group of Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco in 1851 who had learned English and some American customs at mission schools in China. He was instrumental in founding the Yeong Wo Association for immigrants from his native district of Heung Shan. Later, he and Norman As-sing became rivals for leadership of the Chinese American community in San Francisco. [15]

Not all of the early Chinese pioneers landed in San Francisco. One location along the coast of California where early Chinese landed and where their descendants have remained is the city of Mendocino, which was a port for the California lumber industry. The only historic building remaining from this early Chinese American community is the Mo Dai Miu, or Temple of Kuan Kung. [16]


Taoism was the religion of most of the early Chinese immigrants, and Kuan Kung was the most popular deity. Kuan Yu (later called Kuan Kung) was an actual person who had lived in China during the Three Kingdoms Period (third century, A.D.). He has sometimes been referred to as the god of war, but this designation is misleading. He was a military leader renowned for his courage, loyalty, and adherence to lofty ideals. He was even known to have sacrificed his personal success when it would have required him to compromise his principles. These qualities are the reasons he was venerated after his death, and became so popular among the early Cantonese who came to this country. [17]

The Taoist temple was a source of strength for early Chinese American pioneers. Worship was usually done individually, rather than in congregations. Respect for deities and departed relatives was shown by offerings of incense, accompanied by food and drink on special occasions. Paper offerings (in the form of money, clothing, etc.) were burned, since burning was viewed as a means of transmitting objects from the visible to the invisible world.

Prayers were offered silently in the heart before the altar. Questions were asked of various deities, usually by writing the question on a piece of paper and then burning it on the altar. An answer was obtained by consulting the prayer sticks (sometimes called fortune sticks), which had to be interpreted by the priest or deacon of the temple. Evidence suggests that most frontier Taoist temples were supervised by deacons rather than ordained priests. [18]

The Taoist temple was also a social center and a focal point for early Chinese American communities. The first and fifteenth days of the lunar month were days of worship, when people often met at the temple. Each spring, a "bomb day" festival was held in most temples. [19] The highlight of the festival was the shooting off of a rocket (or "bomb") containing lucky rings. The temple also provided some social services, such as lodging for travelers.

Legal Status Of Early Immigrants

The United States Constitution in the 1850s reserved the right of naturalization for White immigrants to this country. [20] It recognized only two skin colors, White and Black. Since early Chinese immigrants were neither Black nor White, some were allowed to become naturalized citizens, but most were not. Without citizenship, they could not vote or hold government office, and had no voice in determining their future in this country. They were designated as "aliens ineligible for citizenship," and as such were unable to own land or file mining claims. [21]

Chinese American miners reworked old claims at times and in places where they were prevented by law or racial violence from filing their own claims. Especially after it was ruled that Chinese could not testify in court against Whites, [22] the only reasonable course of action was to try to avoid open confrontation. or direct competition with Whites.

In later years public-spirited Chinese Americans who accumulated money in excess of their needs often sent money back to China to build schools and hospitals. [23] They retained their Chinese citizenship, since they were not allowed to become citizens of the United States. They could not vote, hold public office, or be employed by the State. Their future here was uncertain, even though they paid taxes and contributed to the economy of the country.


Exactly when the Chinese began to fish off the coast of California is unknown, but oral tradition states that fishing began before gold was discovered. There were early communities in Monterey, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo counties, whose inhabitants fished for squid, abalone, and various kinds of fish. As early as 1854, there was a fishing village on Rincon Point in San Francisco. [24]

Chinese began fishing for shrimp in California probably around the mid-1860s. Numerous villages or "shrimp camps" were established on the shores of both San Francisco and San Pablo bays. China Camp in Marin County was one of the largest and longest-lived of these camps. Shrimp fishing was a long-established industry in China. Many immigrant Chinese arrived with knowledge of fishing and preservation techniques necessary to develop a shrimping enterprise in California. [25]

In the early days, when there was little demand for fresh shrimp in the United States, most of the shrimp catch was dried and sent back to China. Later, as the demand for fresh shrimp grew in California, Chinese American shrimp fishermen came under increasing pressure from other fishing groups. Discriminatory legislation was passed that required the purchase of special licenses, forbade traditional Chinese fishing techniques, limited the fishing season, prohibited export of dried shrimp, and restricted the size of the catch. [26] As the population of China Camp dwindled, only the Quan family persisted and adapted to new regulations and changing technology. Today, Frank Quan is the last Chinese American shrimp fisherman there.

Chinese Americans also worked in fish canneries which processed the fish that other fishermen caught. For example, most of the employees at the salmon cannery in Del Norte County, established by the Occident and Orient Commercial Company in 1857, were Chinese immigrants. [27]


As soon as news of the discovery of gold in California reached China, there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of Chinese immigrants to the west coast of the United States. Most of the immigrants came from Kuangtung Province in Southern China. That section of China had previously had contact with the West through the port of Canton. The reasons many Chinese emigrated were the series of wars, rebellions, civil disorders, floods, famines, and droughts that wracked China, and made earning a livelihood difficult in their native land. [28] A particular humiliation was the defeat of China by the British in the Opium War of 1840, after the Chinese sought to cut off the British importation of opium into China. [29]

To be better prepared for whatever difficulties might lie ahead, the Chinese often emigrated in self-help groups from the same village, often with the same surname. Because few of them knew the language and customs of California, they formed larger self-help groups consisting of people with the same surname or from the same region. Most had to borrow money for their passage to California, and were required to repay this debt from their earnings here. Those who could not borrow from their families borrowed from agencies under the credit-ticket system. [30] Attempts to bring Chinese workers to the United States as contract laborers were stymied by the absence of any means to enforce the contracts. [31]

The term "coolie" refers to contract laborers whose contract specified conditions approximating servitude, slavery, or peonage. Use of this term with regard to early Chinese immigrants to this country is incorrect. Widespread use of the term "coolie" to persuade American voters that all Chinese immigrants were slaves, and that their immigration to the United States ought to be prohibited, has given the term racist connotations.

Technology Brought From China

The presence of the ailanthus tree (the so-called "Tree of Heaven") throughout California has long been a puzzle. The tree is native to China, but not to the United States; yet it grows profusely in those regions where early Chinese immigrants lived. All sorts of fanciful explanations are given — that the Chinese accidently brought the seeds to this country in the cuffs of their trousers (their trousers did not have cuffs), or that the Chinese brought the seeds to this country because they were homesick. The real reason Chinese immigrants brought ailanthus seeds to this country is that the trees are thought to contain an herbal remedy beneficial for arthritis. [32] The Chinese "wedding plant" was also brought to this country as an herbal remedy, but is less easily recognized.

Herbal medicine fulfilled an important health need in the nineteenth century for both Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Western medicine had not yet developed wonder drugs, anaesthetics, vaccinations, or sophisticated surgical techniques. Patent medicines were widely used, and their contents were not regulated by any agency of the government. Drastic measures, such as bleeding, were sometimes resorted to. On the other hand, Chinese herbal remedies had one to two thousand years of use be hind them. In fact, some so-called "wonder drugs" are actually synthesized forms of various herbs. Even today, some medically trained Chinese Americans prefer some herbs to their synthesized forms because the natural herbs have no side effects. [33]

One of the ancient building techniques brought from China was construction using rammed earth. While adobe and rammed earth are of ten associated with Spanish and Mexican cultures, rammed earth was a construction technique in use in China as early as 1500 B.C. This technique involves packing mud between wooden forms and hammering it until it becomes as hard as stone. It is an inexpensive building technique, but it is vulnerable to rains and dampness. When it is used in South China, where the weather is often damp, buildings are faced with stone for added protection. [34]


After gold was discovered in California, Chinese immigrants joined the ranks of gold seekers from all over the world. But when they arrived in the gold fields, they were greeted by racial discrimination.

In 1850, the California Legislature passed a law taxing all foreign miners 20 dollars a month. Although stated in general terms, it was enforced chiefly against Mexicans and Chinese. [35]

In May 1852, at Foster and Atchinson's Bar in Yuba County, a meeting was held and a resolution was passed denying Chinese the right to hold claims and requiring all Chinese to leave. [36] This was followed by a mass meeting in the Columbia Mining District in the southern mines, where a resolution was passed to exclude "Asiatics and South Sea Islanders" from mining activities. [37] In 1855, an anti-Chinese convention was held in Shasta County to expel the Chinese from mining claims. [38] Shortly afterward, the California Legislature passed an act to discourage immigration to the state by persons who could not become citizens and who were, for the most part, Chinese. [39]

One of the earliest acts of racial violence against Chinese immigrants took place in 1856, when white miners from outlying camps marched down to Yreka's Chinese American community, destroyed property, and beat up Chinese Americans. [40]

Despite hostility and discrimination, Chinese continued to immigrate to California to avail themselves of whatever opportunities awaited them here. When they were prevented from mining gold in the mining districts, they became merchants, laborers, or laundrymen, or sought employment elsewhere.


Chinese immigrants built many of the flumes and roads in the mining districts. In Mariposa County in the 1850s, the Big Gap Flume was constructed by Chinese workers of the Golden Rock Water Company to cross Conrad Gulch and carry water in a gravity flow system to gold mining areas. This wooden flume, suspended by trestle works, was part of a 36-mile ditch supplying water for miners in Garrotte, Big Oak Flat, Moccasin Creek, and other nearby areas. [41]

Throughout California, there are stone walls that are said to have been built by Chinese American workers in the nineteenth century. They are usually made from uncut field stones, without the use of mortar. The stones were obtained by clearing the surrounding land for pasture or farming. The best-documented stone walls built by Chinese American workers are on the Quick Ranch in Mariposa County. They are built over rolling hills, rather than on level land. The fact that they are still standing today is evidence of the skill of the workers. [42]

In 1852, at the same time anti-Chinese meetings were being held in the gold mining districts, Governor John McDougal, in his annual message to the California Legislature, gave the first official endorsement to employment of Chinese immigrants in projects to reclaim swamps and flooded lands. [43] Only a few Chinese immigrants worked on reclamation projects in the 1850s, but most of the workers who drained swamps and built levees in the 1860s and 1870s were Chinese Americans.

Many early roads in California were built by Chinese immigrants. Del Norte County, Chinese Americans built trails and roads eastward through dense forests and rugged mountains to the communities of Low Divide, Altaville, and Gasquet, and to the state of Oregon. [44] In Lake County, Chinese Americans built the Bartlett Toll Road through the hills east of Clear Lake. [45]


Chinese immigrants also provided essential labor for development of the wine industry in California. They built and worked for small wineries like the John Swett Winery in Contra Costa County. [46] They were employed by Colonel Agostin Haraszthy in his Buena Vista Vineyards in Sonoma County, the first modern commercial vineyard in California, and later worked at the Beringer Brothers Winery in Napa County in 1876. [47] Chinese Americans also worked in vineyards in Southern California, and even constructed the buildings of the Brookside Winery in San Bernardino County from bricks they themselves made. [48]


Since most of the early Chinese immigrants were from farming areas in Kuangtung Province in China, it was natural for them to become involved in agriculture in this country. Few of them were able to become in dependent farmers because most were not citizens and were prevented from owning land by local laws and restrictive covenants. Many had truck gardens in which they raised vegetables and fruit they sold door to door. Others were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, who leased land and paid the landlord part of their crop. Most were migrant farm laborers.

Chinese American farm labor was essential to the development of various crops which required special skill and care. Early Chinese immigrants were the only ones who could grow celery, and were the main labor force for the Earl Fruit Company in Orange County. [49] Development of the citrus industry in Riverside County was dependent on Chinese American workers. [50] Chinese American farmers grew strawberries, peanuts, rice, and other fruits and vegetables. [51] Chinese American migrant farm workers harvested wheat, other grains, hops, apples, grapes, and pears and processed them for shipping.

One of the occupations in which Chinese Americans faced little competition was seaweed farming. This appears to involve the simple but laborious task of gathering edible seaweed from the rocks where it grows, drying it in the sun, and packing it for shipment. Actually, if more than one crop is desired, rocks must be prepared for the succeeding crop by burning off inedible seaweed. Otherwise, inedible seaweed will take over, and will prevent edible seaweed from growing back. Many of these seaweed farms were located along the coast of San Luis Obispo County. [52]

Vegetable gardens were often located on land no one else wanted. One Chinese American farmer raised vegetables on an isolated island called Way-Aft-Whyle in Clear Lake, Lake County, in the 1880s. [53] All supplies had to be obtained from stores in a distant town, then transported by boat to the island. The vegetables raised had to be taken to shore, then carried all the way to town to be sold. Since the island is barely above water level, it could easily be inundated in storms.

Immigration Station at Angel Island
Immigration Station at Angel Island, Marin County [circa 1910]

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