Justice  /  Retrieval

The Forgotten History of the Campaign to Purge Chinese from America

The surge in violence against Asian-Americans is a reminder that America’s present reality reflects its exclusionary past.

Gum Shan. Gold Mountain. That was what the people in Guangdong Province called the faraway land where the native population had red hair and blue eyes, and it was rumored that gold nuggets could be plucked from the ground. According to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle, a merchant visiting from Canton, the provincial capital—likely soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter Creek, in 1848—wrote to a friend back home about the riches that he had found in the mountains of California. The friend told others and set off across the Pacific Ocean himself. Whether from the merchant’s letter, or from ships arriving in Hong Kong, news of California’s gold rush swept through southern China. Men began scraping together funds, often using their family’s land as collateral for loans, and crowding aboard vessels that took as long as three months to reach America. They eventually arrived in the thousands. Some came in search of gold; others were attracted by the lucrative wages that they could earn working for the railroad companies laying down tracks to join the Eastern and Western halves of the United States; still others worked in factories making cigars, slippers, and woollens, or found other opportunities in the American West. They were mostly peasants, often travelling in large groups from the same village. They wore the traditional male hair style of the Qing dynasty, shaved pate in the front and a braid down to the waist in the back. They were escaping a homeland beset by violent rebellions and economic privation. They came seeking the vast, open spaces of the American frontier—where, they believed, freedom and opportunity awaited.

As the Chinese presence grew, however, it began to stir the anxieties of white Americans. Violence, often shocking in its brutality, followed. America, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was engaged in an epic struggle over race. The Civil War, by the latest estimates, left three-quarters of a million dead. In the turbulent years of Reconstruction that followed, at least two thousand Black people were lynched. Largely forgotten in this defining period of American history, however, is the virulent racism that Chinese immigrants endured on the other side of the country. According to “The Chinese Must Go” (2018), a detailed examination by Beth Lew-Williams, a professor of history at Princeton, in the mid eighteen-eighties, during probably the peak of vigilantism, at least a hundred and sixty-eight communities forced their Chinese residents to leave. In one particularly horrific episode, in 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, in the Wyoming Territory, massacred at least twenty-eight Chinese miners and drove out several hundred others.

Today, there are more than twenty-two million people of Asian descent in the United States, and Asians are projected to be the largest immigrant group in the nation by 2055. Asian-Americans have been stereotyped as the model minority, yet no other ethnic or racial group experiences greater income inequality––or perhaps feels more invisible. Then came the Presidency of Donald Trump, his racist sneers about “kung flu” and the “China virus,” and the wave of anti-Asian attacks that has swept the country.