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,
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 It was the first piece of racist immigration law the USA ever enacted, and shockingly it was not repealed until 1943 when China became a US Ally in WWII, but even then only 105 Chinese per year were allowed in.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.