If not to count the ancestors of the Amerindians who presumably crossed the Bering Strait in prehistoric times, the Chinese were the first Asians immigrants to enter the United States. The first documentation of the Chinese in the U.S. begins in the 18th century, however, there have been claims stating that they were in the area now known as America at an even earlier date. Large-scale immigration began in the mid 1800's due to the California Gold Rush. Despite the flood of Chinese immigrants during that time, their population began to fall drastically. Because of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the highly imbalanced male to female ratio, and the thousands of immigrants returning back to China, the Chinese population in the U.S. fell to a lowly 62,000 people in 1920. Nonetheless, the Chinese make up the largest Asian population in the United States today.
In actuality, the first Chinese immigrants were well and widely received by the Americans. However, the first Chinese immigrants were wealthy, successful merchants, along with skilled artisans, fishermen, and hotel and restaurant owners. For the first few years they were greatly receipted by the public, government officials, and especially by employers, for they were renowned for their hard work and dependability.
However, after a much larger group of coolies, unskilled laborers usually working for very little pay, migrated to the U.S. in the mid 1800's, American attitudes became negative and hostile. By the year 1851, there were 25,000 Chinese working in California, mostly centered in and out of the "Gold Rush" area and around San Francisco. During that time, more than half the Chinese in the U.S. lived in that region. These Chinese clustered into groups, working hard and living frugally. As the populations of these groups increased, they formed large cities of ethnic enclaves called "Chinatowns" all over the country. The first and most important of the Chinatowns, without a doubt, belonged to San Francisco. One of the most remarkable qualities of San Francisco's Chinatown is its geographic stability. It has endured half a century of earthquakes, fires, and urban renewal, yet has remained in the same neighborhood with the same rich culture. Chinatowns have traditionally been the places where Chinese Americans lived, worked, shopped, and socialized. Although these cities were often overcrowded slum areas in the 1800's, the Chinatowns turned from crime and drug ridden places to quiet, colorful tourist attractions in the mid 1900's.
The way of living among the Chinese was quite dissimilar from the patterns displayed among the masses of rowdy American gold-seekers surrounding them. Approximately 1/3 of the of the men attracted by California gold were Southern whites. Along with desires of wealth, many Southerns brought along hostile racial attitudes from the antebellum South. In the years that followed, those virulent temperaments were felt through laws and attitudes, and Blacks as well as Chinese suffered throughout the mid-century. Miners in the area often used violence to drive the Chinese out of various mines. While impatient gold-seekers would abandon prospective rivers, the Chinese would remain, painstakingly panning through the dust to find bits of gold.
The Chinese did not only mine for gold, but took on jobs such as cooks, peddlers, and storekeepers. In the first decade after the discovery of gold, many had taken jobs nobody else wanted or that were considered too dirty. However, in 1870, hasty exploitation of gold mines and a lack of well-paying jobs for non-Asians spurred sentiment that the "rice-eaters" were to blame. By 1880, a fifth were engaged mining, another fifth in agriculture, a seventh in manufacturing, an added seventh were domestic servants, and a tenth were laundry workers. Approximately 30,000 Chinese worked outside of California in such trades as mining, common labor, and service trades. During the 1860's, 10,000 Chinese were said to be involved in the building of the western leg of the Central Pacific Railroad. The average railroad payroll for the Chinese was $35 per month. The cost of food was approximately $15 to $18 per month, plus the railroad provided shelter for workers. Therefore, a fugal man could net about $20 every month. Despite the nice pay, the work was backbreaking and highly dangerous. Over a thousand Chinese had their bones shipped back to China to be buried. Also, although nine-tenths of the railroad workers were Chinese, the famous photographs taken at Promontory Point where the golden stake was driven in connecting the east and west by railway, included no Chinese workers.
As time passed, the resentment against the Chinese increased from those who could not compete with them. Acts of violence against the Chinese continued for decades, mostly from white urban and agricultural workers. In 1862 alone, eighty-eight Chinese were reported murdered. Though large landowners that hired Chinese, railroads and other large white-owned businesses, and Chinese workers themselves pushed against a growing anti-Chinese legislation, the forces opposing the Chinese prevailed, issuing laws that excluded or harassed them from industry after industry. Mob violence steadily increased against the Chinese until even employers were at risk. Eventually, laws such the Naturalization Act of 1870 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted immigration of Chinese immigrants into the U.S.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 restricted all immigration into the U.S. to only "white persons and persons of African descent," meaning that all Chinese were placed in a different category, a category that placed them as ineligible for citizenship from that time till 1943. Also, this law was the first significant bar on free immigration in American history, making the Chinese the only culture to be prohibited to freely migrate to the United States for a time. Even before the act of 1870, Congress had passed a law forbidding American vessels to transport Chinese immigrants to the U.S. The reason behind the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was to prevent an excess of cheap labor. However, the act froze the population of the Chinese community leaving its already unproportional sex ratio highly imbalanced. In 1860, the sex ratio of males to females was already 19:1. In 1890, the ratio widened to 27:1. For more than half a century, the Chinese lived in, essentially, a bachelor society where the old men always outnumbered the young. In order to sustain their population after the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was an immeasurable amount of illegal immigration. Plus, the Chinese had created an intricate system of immigration fraud known as "paper sons."
Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Chinese population in the United States continued to increase. Although, after the population reached its peak in 1890 with 107,488 people, the Chinese population began its steady decline. These descending numbers reflected not only the severing effect of the legislation on the inflow of Chinese immigrants, but of the many returning back to China due to the highly imbalanced sex ratio and to bring back monetary support for their families. In fact, many of the Chinese immigrants who migrated to the United States had no intention of permanent residency in the country. These sojourners preferred to retain as much of their culture as possible.
As decades passed, the situation between the Chinese and the Americas improved. Such events as the Chinatowns turning from crime and drug ridden places to quiet, colorful tourist attractions, well-behaved and school conscientious Chinese children being welcomed by public school teachers, and China becoming allies with the U.S. during World War II, all paved the way for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As immigration from China resumed, mostly female immigrants came, many, wives of Chinese men in the U.S. Many couples were reunited after decades apart.
"I work on four-mou land [less than one acre, a larger than average holding] year in and year out, from dawn to dusk, but after taxes and providing for your own needs, I make $20 a year. You make that much in one day. No matter how much it cost to get there, or how hard the work is, America is still better than this."-A Chinese farmer