Updated: Nov 1, 2022
America is willing to sweep away the unspoken past of how America came to be in exchange for free labor and uncredited work; forgotten history and a bottled-up past have paved the way for modern stereotypes and aggression towards those of particular Asian heritage.
Setting the Stage
America is painted to be perfection; even today, immigrants come here hoping to see paved golden roads and skyscrapers that can touch the dreams that float in the sky. America’s supposed wealth has sparked anticipation and excitement in the hearts of billions around the world from when settlers discovered the New World to the modern world today. Very few stop to wonder how America’s wealth came to be; very few bother to learn. The school curriculum of America is limited and short-sighted, accommodating only to the history that wasn’t covered with time. So, are America’s roads truly paved with gold?
Why Did the Chinese Immigrate?
The hopeful immigrants of China hoped that the words of the men from America were true. They hoped that the stories they’d heard about America were true. Their words, dripping with gold, painted pictures of a better, brighter future, and joy sparked in the hearts of the Chinese. The promise of gold and riches flooded their minds and washed away the villainous side of America. Thousands rushed to pack their bags, and thousands more headed to America. Most workers came from Southern China, many from Guangdong (a province). During the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), the number of immigrants from China spiked. Soon after, more immigrants followed in their footsteps, being hired by small firms and labor contractors that supplied workers to large businesses situated in America. Fed lies and filled with hope, the America they arrived at fell short of expectations.
Expectations Vs. Reality
Hostile and unfriendly towards immigrants, America was no paradise. At the time, America was building itself up to become an international power and was working on the transcontinental railroad, which would become a significant factor in America’s success. Stereotypes rose when hostile Americans felt that immigrants were too weak for the dangerous, strenuous job of building railroads east of California. Yet, no white workers wanted to work on the railroad themselves. Chinese workers were inferior to white workers. The term 'coolies' was coined to describe an 'unskilled' laborer from China, India, or other Asian countries. However, since gold was plentiful and America’s economy was booming while labor was in short supply, despite the anti-Chinese sentiments, America needed to grow, and in order to expand America’s economy, wealth, and power, the railroad needed to be built. Central Pacific Railroad director Charles Crocker suggested hiring Chinese workers when a job ad for railroad workers fell short, and few white laborers took interest because of how hard the work was. Discarding a minority as inferior but willing to work them to death is common in America’s history.
Below the white folks, but good enough to be laborers that helped to create America.
However, Crocker’s plans did have a few bumps in the road as anti-Asian sentiments rose in America’s crowd. Many felt as though the immigrants were thieves. Stealing wealth and jobs from ‘true’ Americans, even though white workers refused to work on the railroad due to how dangerous and grueling it was. Many local governments stepped in and passed laws to restrict immigration. Another issue arose when the white workers demanded hours and numbers that were far too much for the railroad company to sustain. The white workers wanted to be treated well, and the railroad company wanted to reduce their expenses. The railroads needed a cheaper solution they could turn to, one could manipulate and abuse.
Although Crocker’s colleagues objected at first to the idea of using Chinese immigrants due to prejudice; eventually, they relented. In January 1864, Central Pacific began the Chinese Railroad Worker Project with a crew of twenty-one Chinese workers.
In the following year, in 1865, the company decided that the Chinese were strong enough and sufficient enough to build the railroads. Hiring fifty Chinese workers, and then fifty more... and then fifty more, the process continued until roughly 15,000 Chinese workers were helping to build the transcontinental railroad. Labor demands increased, and since white workers were reluctant to do back-breaking, hazardous work, the number of ‘employed’ Chinese workers rose. Everything seemed to go smoothly for America. With practically free laborers and a rising economy, everything was perfect.
Safe Working Conditions...for the White Men
But only for those who were part of the dominant culture and were not considered "others." The treatment of the immigrants, who worked like enslaved people, was cruel and inhumane. Many signed contracts would last for years on end, and the majority of the immigrants were promised false words. The railroad company promised fair wages and livable conditions, but the workers were given few breaks, if any at all, even through the harshest of winters and the cruelest summers. Back-breaking work, little to no rest, rough living environments, and little food led many immigrants to die before reaching the end of their contracts. The railroad company continued to reign victorious over the workers.
The Chinese workers had to find their own food, while white workers were handed their food with ribbons. Dangerous work conditions threatened their lives daily: accidental explosions, snow, and rock avalanches killed hundreds of workers. The white workers were given accommodation in train cars and paid far more (using the excuse that the immigrants were inferior to justify the pay difference). In contrast, the Chinese workers lived in flimsy tents and were exposed to the weather. They continued to give the immigrants the most undesirable jobs, justifying it with racism and prejudice. As America prospered along with the railroad company, the immigrants suffered. With no laws in place to protect them, nothing was done.
Even today, the immigrants’ contributions are minimized, whether in schools or by many historians; the subject is rarely discussed. Chinese workers made up most of the working force between the 700 miles of train tracks between California and Utah. During the 19th century, more than millions of Chinese folks left their country, hired in 1864, because of a labor shortage when white workers refused to do the dangerous work. The immigrants completed and connected the Union Pacific and Central Pacific across the Sierra Nevada in 1869.
And even then, the workers were still seen as ‘foreigners.’
Becoming the Scapegoat
And very few white folks cared until the mess landed on their doorsteps. In the 1870s, when America’s economy began to struggle, only then did Americans care. Many American residents felt that immigrants were robbing their jobs; and didn’t deserve to be working on the railroads. Davis Kearny, an Irish immigrant, poured oil into the flames. Kearny arrived in San Francisco as a successful merchant and built a foundation for himself. In response to the high unemployment rate and a nationwide railroad strike, he founded an organization that opposed immigrants: The Workingman’s Party of California. It objected to the low wages that Chinese immigrants worked for and shamed the immigrants for being willing to work such jobs. Blaming only the immigrants and not the companies that were exploiting the immigrants, all hatred was targeted towards the ill-treated workers. However, the fact that many of the immigrants had actually advocated for themselves remained unknown to the public.
The immigrants were educated and organized (although most people saw them as unintelligent animals) and understood that their treatment was utterly unfair. Over three thousand Chinese workers went on strike to demand equal wages compared to white workers and better living conditions. However, being in the middle of nowhere, the railroad company stopped them from getting food. They stopped all merchants from going in and out. And as other factors began to set in, the strike ultimately failed as the workers had no choice. It was either to starve or to work, a cruel ultimatum.
Even worse, the Workingman’s Party of California’s anti-Chinese views were rooted in racist foundations, as the newcomers’ customs were strange, foreign, and therefore unacceptable. Members of the organization spoke out against the Chinese and have contributed to modern-day stereotypes, blaming the Chinese for issues far out of their control. As Kearney himself said, "These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things."
The Escalation of the Anti-Chinese Movement
Many Chinese immigrants encountered physical violence from vigilantes, mobs, and organized labor. Around this time, anti-Asian violence rose in popularity. In 1871, seventeen Chinese men and boys were massacred and brutally murdered in LA. As the party grew in popularity due to the hatred against the Chinese that had long been festering in America, eventually, they became a powerful political force that affected the entirety of the United States. Exerting pressure on Congress and the president of the time, Chester A. Arthur, to act, the first significant restriction act on America’s free immigration was created. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States for twenty years and denied citizenship to those already there. If an immigrant were to leave, they would need to procure a passport if they ever wished to return, and even then, the immigrants needed an apparent reason why they wanted to return to America. White Americans ignored the fact that the railroad most likely would’ve failed without the immigrants there to build it.
Because the company could pay them so little and treat them like enslaved people, they could earn millions off of the cheap labor. Worries that the railroad company would fail were completely dispelled as it continued to prosper from the toil of the immigrant workers.
Standing Up for What is Right
A rare few did fight for the right of the Chinese to immigrate. Julia Sand sent the president twenty-three letters urging him to veto the Chinese Exclusion Act (which Congress had passed) because she believed it went against the morals of the United States. She argued and stood for the founding fathers’ original beliefs. Arthur did what she asked him to, vetoing the bill and explaining that although he did acknowledge that the Chinese were 'stealing’ jobs, twenty years was far too long. A whole generation. And America was built upon foundations that needed to be protected.
Arthur had taken a necessary stand, but it did little to appease the people of the United States. As anti-Chinese hate continued to rise, Congress had to act. In the end, the bill passed, with the restriction period cut to ten years (but it included the majority of the original bill). Arthur’s stand did little to protect the immigrants. Arthur signed it, and for the next sixty-one years, until 1943, when the bill was repealed, almost all Chinese immigration ceased. America’s very first significant immigration restriction; sixty-one years of restricted immigration.
Even today, few people know how dark America’s history is. Thousands of Chinese immigrants have died to build a railroad, and they remain forgotten despite contributing so much to America. Their names, their faces, and their identities will never be recovered because of how cruel America was to the faceless workers. Thousands left families behind in search of a better life. To do better, we must first educate ourselves. America turned a blind eye centuries ago, but we don’t have to in the modern world. Immigrants built up the railroad and should be given the deserved credit. Only then can their work not be in vain.
About the Author:
Amy is an ambitious 15 year old from Westchester with immense curiosity. While she enjoys spending time with her friends, she also looooves to read and learn about obscure facts. It is no suprise that many of her written works focus on AAPI history!
Greenberger, Scott S. ““Cheap Slaves”: Trump, Immigration and the Ugly History of the Chinese Exclusion Act.” Washington Post, 3 Aug. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/03/cheap-slaves-trump-immigration-and-the-ugly-history-of-the-chinese-exclusion-act/.
Kennedy, Lesley. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How Some 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen.” HISTORY, 10 May 2019, www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants.
Nadja Sayej. ““Forgotten by Society” – How Chinese Migrants Built the Transcontinental Railroad.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 18 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jul/18/forgotten-by-society-how-chinese-migrants-built-the-transcontinental-railroad.