Justice  /  Book Review

America Was Eager for Chinese Immigrants. What Happened?

In the gold-rush era, ceremonial greetings swiftly gave way to bigotry and violence.

At first, the reception for the Chinese in America was generally positive. In the summer of 1850, city leaders in San Francisco held a ceremony to welcome them. A small group of Chinese immigrants assembled in Portsmouth Square and were presented with Chinese books, Bibles, and religious tracts. The Reverend Albert Williams, of the First Presbyterian Church, who was among the speakers, later wrote that they were united in conveying “the pleasure shared in common by the citizens of San Francisco, at their presence,” and in the hope that more of their brethren would join them in America, where they would enjoy “welcome and protection.” In January, 1852, in an annual message to the state legislature, John McDougal, California’s second governor, called for more Chinese to come. McDougal, a Democrat, had advocated at California’s constitutional convention for excluding from the state certain classes of Black people. But he believed the Chinese could be a source of cheap labor for white Americans. He suggested that the Chinese, “one of the most worthy classes of our new adopted citizens,” could help with the gruelling work of draining swamplands to make them arable. Many California businessmen envisaged a golden age of trade between China and the United States and embraced Chinese immigration as part of that interchange.

As the numbers of Chinese climbed, however, curiosity gave way to hostility in the mining districts. In the spring of 1852, a gathering of miners in the town of Columbia, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, approved resolutions that denounced the flooding of the state with “degraded Asiatics” and barred Chinese from mining in the area. Around the same time, along the banks of the north fork of the American River, several dozen white miners reportedly drove off two hundred Chinese miners, and then, accompanied by a band playing music, headed to another camp to do the same to four hundred more.

Ngai explains that McDougal’s successor as governor, John Bigler, a Democrat facing a difficult reëlection campaign, recognized a political opportunity in the growing anti-Chinese sentiment. In April, 1852, he called on the state legislature to limit Chinese immigration. His speech was filled with racial overtones, alluding to a coming inundation from China and misleadingly depicting Chinese immigrants as coolie laborers, bound by oppressive contracts. Bigler’s tarring of the Chinese as a “coolie race” would prove to be a resilient epithet, becoming a convenient political instrument whenever white Americans on the West Coast needed a racial scapegoat, Ngai writes. The label likened the Chinese to enslaved Black people and, therefore, cast them as a threat to free white labor. Bigler explicitly differentiated the Chinese from white European immigrants, arguing that the Chinese had come to America not to receive the “blessings of a free government” but only to “acquire a certain amount of the precious metals” and then return home. He also doubted that the “yellow or tawny races of the Asiatics” could become citizens under the country’s naturalization laws even if they wanted to. Anti-coolieism, Ngai writes, became a kind of shape-shifting, racist cause.