Photograph, "A Corner on the Hillside"

The Chinese Exclusion Act

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Phone: (410) 260-6400
Internet: mdsa.net
e-mail: archives@mdsa.net

Overview

During the middle of the nineteenth century, two years after the California Gold rush was sparked by James Marshall's discovery of gold, and in response to oppressive conditions in China stemming from the Opium War (1839-1842), a tiny trickle of Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the port city of San Francisco, California.  From the beginning, even with small numbers of Chinese in California mining camps and cities, institutionalized discrimination was enacted through a series of Foreign Miner's Tax Laws - the first of which was passed in 1850.  These tax laws extracted the exorbitant fee of twenty dollars per month on any foreigner (read: Chinese) engaging in mining.  These unfair and oppressive conditions only worsened as more Chinese fled the poverty of their native land and bloody events such as the T'aip'ing Rebellion (1851-1864) - many of them hoping to find brighter futures on American soil.

Many white Americans held negative stereotypes of the Chinese people, partly due to deep-set notions of white superiority, but also due to the arrogant and incorrect belief that Chinese immigrants - many of whom would work for much smaller wages than white Americans were used to - were stealing "American" jobs.   This was particularly the case with the railroad, an industry that steadily worked its way from the foundries of the East into the frontier West.  Working conditions laying railroad track were often inhumane, with long, hot hours in the full glare of the sun, and pay was abysmal.  Many Chinese immigrants died working on the railroads, whether from malnutrition, dehydration, or the violent explosions caused by blast equipment.  Despite this harsh environment, the immigrants were able to carve a place for themselves in society, founding a thriving, bustling community in what would become Chinatown, San Francisco, and governing their own affairs through the creation of the Six Chinese Companies - or Tongs (founded in the 1860s).  With their willingness to acquiesce to harder working conditions than white Americans, by 1865 ninety percent of railroad workers were of Chinese descent, and because they formed tight-knit communities, they were even able to win several key victories to earn better wages.

The success of Chinese immigrants in assimilating to an "American" lifestyle infuriated many white Americans.  In large part, this was the case because although the Chinese thrived in the American economy, they largely kept their own social customs, traditions, and behaviors.  For instance, in several of the photographs included in this document packet, one can see the presence of traditional Chinese dress, and open-air style markets.  In fact, Chinatown was a nearly self-sufficient community, with its inhabitants providing their own services and operating independently of (mostly) white San Francisco.  However, many white Americans - whose belief in their own apparent physical and cultural superiority to other ethnic groups is evident in Western imperialism and the treatment of black Americans under Jim Crow law - believed that Chinese were the most "offensive" because, unlike black Americans, the Chinese rejected the Christian religion.  While some Americans such as Otis Gibson took a kinder (but also patronizing and condescending) view towards Chinese immigrants, others, such as Frank M. Pixley believed that the immigrants had no souls, and were damned by their very nature.  Within this framework, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was born.

The Chinese Exclusion Act involved a ten year period of limitation on Chinese immigrants to 105 per year, and was strengthened in 1884 with additional provisions that limited the ability of any person of Chinese descent - regardless of their country of birth - to freely leave and enter the United States.  The law also gave evidence of white Americans' economic concerns because it specifically targeted Chinese laborers, blocking them from entering American ports.  When the law was due to expire in 1892, it was revived for another ten years under what was known as the Geary Act, which barred Chinese from testifying in court, and also required all Chinese to carry resident passports, with the harsh penalty of deportation enacted if they were found without them - at any time.  The Geary Act was renewed in 1902 with no terminal date attached.

For the next 41 years, Chinese-Americans held status as second-class citizens in the United States, although they served with valor and distinction in the first World War and were almost single-handedly responsible for the development of the railroad in California and the West.  Much like black Americans during this time, Chinese-Americans were seriously limited in terms of the civil rights they possessed, and subject to the violent whims of white supremacists (especially white, working-class Americans).  Nevertheless, Chinese immigrants continued to seek refuge in the port of San Francisco, and Angel Island in San Francisco Bay became "the Ellis Island of the West" in 1906.  Asian immigrants continued to be discriminated against in the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924, and although in subsequent years some of the regulations would loosen - such as allowing World War servicemen to receive naturalization papers and allowing their wives to become citizens - the Chinese Exclusion Act/Geary Act was not repealed until the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.

Standard 2A: The student understands the sources and experiences of new immigrants.

5-12: Assess the challenges, opportunities, and contributions of different immigrant groups. [Examine historical perspectives]

Standard 2B: The student understands "scientific racism", race relations, and the struggle for equal rights.

5-12: Explain the rising racial conflict in different regions, including the anti-Chinese movement in the West and the rise of lynching in the South. [Explain historical continuity and change]

9-12: Analyze the role of new laws and the federal judiciary in instituting racial inequality and in disenfranchising various racial groups. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:  Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  May 6, 1882
    NOTES: The official record of the United States Congress' 1882 decision to limit Chinese immigration.  The Chinese Exclusion Act expired in 1892, whereupon it was renewed in the Geary Act in the same year.  The Our Documents website offers both original and transcribed versions of the document's text.
    SOURCE:  Our Documents
    REPOSITORY:  National Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: Columbia.--"Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men."
    ARTIST: Thomas Nast
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: February 18, 1871 in Harper's Weekly
    SOURCE: HarpWeek

  3. DESCRIPTION: Justice for the Chinese
    ARTIST: Thomas Nast
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: March 27, 1886 in Harper's Weekly
    SOURCE:
    HarpWeek

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Pamphlet, "Chinaman or white man, which?' Reply to Father Buchard"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  San Francisco, Published at the request of the "San Francisco Methodist Preachers' Meeting, c. 1873 (San Francisco : Alta Printing House)
    NOTES: A sermon given by Rev. Otis Gibson, voicing the rare opinion of a white American in favor of Chinese immigration during the nineteenth century.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Pamphlet, "An Address from the Workingmen of San Francisco to Their Brothers Throughout the Pacific Coast"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [ca. 1888]
    NOTES: An anti-Chinese labor publication created by the Workingman's Party in San Francisco.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  6. DESCRIPTION:  Photo book, "Chinese Photographed by D.D. Beatty at Downieville"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [ca. 1890s]
    NOTES: A book of notes an photographs of various Chinese immigrants, possibly taken by an immigration officer. 
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  7. DESCRIPTION:  Play, "The Chinese Must Go.' A farce in four acts"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft & Co., Printers, c. 1879
    NOTES: An anti-Chinese play produced in nineteenth-century San Francisco.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

  8. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, "Day of Good Lady Festival"
    PHOTOGRAPHER: Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1895-1906
    NOTES: This photograph shows the contrast in western-style and traditional Chinese dress among immigrants in Chinatown, San Francisco.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  9. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, "A Corner on the Hillside"
    PHOTOGRAPHER: Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1895-1906
    NOTES: This photograph portrays an immigrant family on a busy, impoverished street of Chinatown, San Francisco. 
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  10. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, "The Grocery Store"
    PHOTOGRAPHER: Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1895-1906
    NOTES: The bustle of a busy Chinese market is captured in this photograph.  Like immigrant communities across the nation, the residents of Chinatown provided their own services to circumvent the oppression and discrimination faced in white society.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  11. DESCRIPTION:  Sketchbook, "Lights and shadows in Chinatown"
    ARTIST: William Bode
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  San Francisco, Press of H.S. Crocker Company c. 1896
    NOTES: This sketchbook by artist William Bode captures several Chinese scenes and vignettes - appearing mysterious and exotic to Western preconceptions.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

  12. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, "North Pacific Coast R.R. at Corte Madera, Cal. 1898"
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1898
    NOTES: A photograph of Chinese railroad workers; the Chinese where seen by many white Americans as "stealing" their jobs in railroad work and mining.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  13. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, "The Heathen Chinee Prospecting"
    PHOTOGRAPHER: Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1852
    NOTES: A photograph of a Chinese miner; the Chinese where seen by many white Americans as "stealing" their jobs in railroad work and mining.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  California Historical Society

  14. DESCRIPTION:  Sheet music, "The heathen chinee: words by Brett Harte; music by F.B."
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Boston : O.Ditson & Co., c. 1870
    NOTES: Published in Boston, this song and poem represents the degrading racial stereotypes that many white Americans held towards Chinese immigrants.  
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY:  The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

For additional materials: see American Memory's The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 Collection

Additional Media Resources

PBS - The West - Documents on Anti-Chinese Immigration Policy

Digital History

Separate Lives, Broken Dreams

Angel Island Poetry

Chinese-American Contribution to Transcontinental Railroad

Additional Instructional Resources 

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

The Learning Page: Collections Connections; The Chinese in California, 1850-1925

Secondary Resources

Brienes, Marvin. China Camp and the San Francisco Bay Shrimp Fishery. [Sacramento?]: Interpretive Planning Section, Office of Interpretive Services, California Dept. of Parks and Recreation, [1983].

Carosso, Vincent P. The California Wine Industry, 1830-1895, a Study of the Formative Years. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Chen, Yong. Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, c2000.

Chinn, Thomas W., ed. A History of the Chinese in California. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969.

Chiu, Ping. Chinese Labor in California, 1850-1880, an Economic Study. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Dept. of History, University of Wisconsin, 1963.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c1998.

Hansen, Gladys, and William Heintz. The Chinese in California. San Francisco: Richard Abel & Company, Inc., 1970.

Hsu, Madeline Yuan-yin. Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882-1943. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Ma, L. Eve Armentrout. Hometown Chinatown: The History of Oakland's Chinese. New York: Garland, 2000.

Nash, Robert A. The Chinese Shrimp Fishery in California. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1973.

Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

See, Lisa. On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1995.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1999.

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Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Angel Island State Park
Angel Island
Tiburon, CA 94920
(415) 435-3522

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Kevin Allor.

An Archives of Maryland Online Publication
© Copyright, Maryland State Archives, April 20, 2005