China to California – an arduous journey


I was staying in San Francisco for a few days visiting my daughter and baby grandson, and for me the journey there was not arduous at all. Just hopped on a jetplane in Beijing and 11 hours later arrived in SF. How different it was for the Chinese immigrants to America back in  the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century.

There were roughly three waves of Chinese immigration to America; the first was during the Californian Gold Rush which lasted from approximately 1849 – 1860,

when hundreds of Chinese men (hardly any women) arrived in California to seek their fortunes -as did people from Europe and other parts of the US.

During the 1860s the Transcontinental Railroad was being built and thousands of Chinese were used as labourers for the Central Pacific Railroad, working in terrible conditions for meagre pay. At the same time anti-Chinese sentiment was growing, fuelled by resentment of their taking low-paid jobs on the railroad and as agricultural labourers.
The Anti-Coolie Act 1862 was passed as a result.

Then in 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed – this outlawed Chinese immigration into the US  and refused citizenship to many of those Chinese already settled in America. It was the first piece of racist immigration law the USA  ever enacted, and shockingly it was not repealed until 1943 when China became a US Ally in WWII, but even then only 105 Chinese per year were allowed in.

Never-the-less, Chinese people kept trying to come to America,  either to escape from the grinding poverty of their lives back in China , or because of the violent political upheavals and rebellions against the ruling Qing dynasty during which thousands of Chinese died – or because they already had a family member in the US.   When they arrived (and of course they were coming by sea) they were incarcerated on Angel Island in  San Francisco Bay.  Some were kept incarcerated there for as long as three years before eventually being sent back to China.

Americans are rightly proud of that national icon The Statue of Liberty who welcomes all with the words:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

Angel Island was the western US equivalent of Ellis Island in New York harbour where the impoverished and down-trodden immigrants from Europe were processed when they arrived, what cruel irony is in those words when on the other side of the land, at Angel Island, the huddled masses were not welcomed in to build new lives in the country.

Those who were imprisoned on Angel Island  (there were separate camps for men and women and conditions were not pleasant) could see San Francisco shining out across the water but they could not get there.

Many of the Chinese carved poems yearning for freedom, into the walls of the camp, and these can still be seen if you visit the island.

All modern nations take time to develop mature human rights policies, and that was as true for the USA then as it is for other countries whose human rights are criticised today.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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4 Responses to China to California – an arduous journey

  1. Edwin Wang says:

    Thanks for writing this excellent piece! It is worthy to note the two major cities of the Bay Area – San Francisco and Oakland – have Chinese Americans as the mayor today.

    It’s pretty remarkable – I believe it is a first in US history that a Chinese Amercian is elected mayor of any major American city, let alone two in a row. However both were elected for some quirky reasons.

    Jean Quan has been mayor of Oakland since January 2011 while Edwin Lee was inaugurated in January 2012 as mayor of San Francisco. Jean was elected even though she did not win the majority vote (due to some quirk election law in Oakland.) Edwin Lee was not even supposed to be in the race because he was the acting mayor and promised not to enter the race when the term is up.

    Nonetheless history was made in both cities. I wish them well in such trying time for California.

    • herschelian says:

      Ni hao! Thank you for your encouraging comment, and also for telling me about the two Chinese-American mayors in SF and Oakland, really interesting – I told my daughter and son-in-law who are living in SF at the moment and they couldn’t believe I knew more about the city than they did 😉

      • Edwin Wang says:

        Nin hao! Thank you for writing this excellent blog. I enjoy reading each and everyone of your articles even though I may not make a comment/feedback.

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