Chinese Immigrant Legal History in U.S.

In the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes about Chinese in America, and Chinese immigrants shifted from one of mild curiosity to one of contempt. The numbers of Chinese arriving to the U.S. West Coast in response to the Gold Rush of 1848 served as the trigger in the change of attitude.
American visual culture successfully propelled anti-Chinese sentiment and anchored a new definition of Chinese in the minds of Americans, framing the Chinese in terms such as hordes,  heathens,  coolies (indentured or slave laborers),  barbarians, disease spreaders,  sexual deviants, drug users, ignorant, effeminized (males) and other negative stereotypes. These images began to permeate news, casual reading materials, cards, advertising, art, and theater, particularly on the West Coat.  These images succeeded beyond measure, firmly implanting Sinophobic attitudes among Caucasian Americans toward the Chinese. These new attitudes set the stage for further control of the Chinese via legislative acts.  Thus began a series of local  and ultimately national laws written and enacted, one after the other, restricting Chinese movement, rights, freedom to visit their homeland, work freely or make a living in the manner accorded other immigrants to the U.S.
As Peter Kvidera has pointed out Chinese immigrants were “more directly affected by legal restrictions than any other in the history of U.S. immigration.” Collectively, the laws aimed to make life in America so restrictive, so expensive, as to drive the Chinese population in America  out of the western United States, and ultimately, to exclude them  henceforth, from arriving in the U.S. Chinese Americans became the first race of visitors or immigrants to ever  be excluded in U.S. history.  The following is a list of some, not all, laws passed (primarily) against the Chinese.  The following sources contributed to this listDriven Out by Jean Pfaelzer, Collecting Objects/Excluding People by Lenore Metrick-Chen, Peter Kvidera, Resonant Presence: Legal Narratives and Literary Space in the Poetry of Early Chinese Immigrants  and a very thorough timeline in Coming Man by P. Choy, L. Dong, and Marlon Hom. Laws written ostensibly to protect the Chinese are shown in red and with an asterisk (*).

See also Resources on left side bar

Click here>> for U.S. Chinese population figures

1808 – U.S. outlaws the importation of new slaves (Pfaelzer 25)

1815 – Chinese were present in California, then a northern province of Mexico (Choy, et. al)

1835 – Earliest known Chinese living in New York City (Tchen)

1844* – The Wng-Hea Treaty of Peace, Amity, and Commerce between U.S. and China (Choy, et. al)

1848 – Gold is discovered in California

1849 – September lawmakers make it illegal for minorities to testify against whites

1850 – September 9. California becomes the 31st state

1850 – “California state court disallowed Chinese at witnesses in court cases for or against a white person” (Choy, et al)

1850  – Foreign Miner’s Tax (targeted Latinos).

1851 – U.S. Treaties giving native  people approximately 75 percent of California as reservations. There were 18 treaties in all.

1851– Approximately 14,000 Chinese arrive in California (Lenore-Chen)

1851-1853* – District/county organizations were established by the Chinese to fight anti-Chinese legislation – the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) Also known as the Chinese Six Companies in California (Choy, et al)

1852  – Foreign Miner’s Tax (targeted the Chinese). Each Chinese miner was to pay a monthly fee of $3.  “prompted by fears that the Chinese would overrun the mining industry and take jobs away from American workers.” (Kvidera 514) See  also 1853

1852 – The Columbia District Mining Regulation prohibited Asians from mining (Metrick-Chen)

1852 – Chinese contract workers arrive in Hawaii

1852 – The Bond Act required that all Chinese post a $500 bond upon arriving in the U.S.

1852 – U.S. Senate rejects all 18 extant treaties (Pfaelzer)

1853  – Foreign Miner’s Tax raised to $4 per month (see also 1855)

1854 – “U.S. Court of Appeal also ruled in People v. Hall that Chinese could not be a witness for or against a white person in U.S. courts” (Choy, et al)

1855 – Forty thousand Chinese workers are registered with the Chinese Six Companies, a support affiliation for Chinese in America

1855 – Foreign Miner’s Tax raised to $6 per month (with $2 increase every year)

1855 – The California state legislature enacts a string of laws designed to attach fees inhibiting citizenship

1858 – Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) revision of the Wang-Hea Treaty. AKA Sino-American Treaty (Choy, et al)

1860 – Fishing Tax hindered Chinese access to fishing

1860 – California School Law – banned “Mongolians and Negroes from public school (in 1871 African Americans were allowed if whites did not object) (Pfaelzer 75)

1862 – U.S. Supreme Court  – Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor

1862 – California enacts a monthly head tax of $2.50 (overturned)

1862 – California enacts monthly tax of $2.50  on all Chinese 18 and older “who did not mine or produce rice, sugar, tea, or coffee” (Pfaelzer 31)

1862 – California Commutation Tax Act required that shipowners transporting Chinese to the U.S. pay $500 per Chinese, unless they paid a $5 fee to enter.

1863-64 – Approximately 10,000 Chinese men are recruited to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Railroad completed one year ahead of schedule.

1868*Burlingame Treaty. The treaty “promised the Chinese civil rights equal to any other foreign resident” (Metrick-Chen).

1868 – Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Any person born in the U.S. was granted the full rights of citizenship. This right did not extend to the Chinese until an 1898 decision.

1870 – Beginning of widespread economic recession.

1870 – California passes The Act to Prevent Kidnapping and Importing of Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese Females for Criminal Purposes prevented females and especially Chinese females from entering the United States without a difficult to come by certificate. Chinese women were assumed to be prostitutes (Choy, et al).

1870 – San Francisco Cubic Air Ordinance. Each adult had to have 500 cu. ft. of living space (Pfaelzer 74).

1870 – Sidewalk Ordinance  – banned Chinese from using long shoulder poles to carry goods (Pfaelzer).

1870 – The Act to Prevent Importing of Chinese Criminals and Prevent Establishment of Coolie Labor. Chinese men seeking to come to the U.S. had to prove good character and that they were coming to the U.S. of their own free will, to the relative satisfaction of the Commissioner of Immigration. An additional and serious deterrent: officers and agents of any sea-faring vessels used to transport people were subject to a fine ($1000 to $5000) if the Chinese did not prove good character or voluntary travel to the Commissioner of Immigration.

1873 – “Slaughter-house cases” effectively abrogate the Burlingame Treaty (Pfaelzer).

1873 – San Francisco adopts the Queue Ordinance  – allowed prison personnel to shave the heads of Chinese prisoners (Pfaelzer 75).

1873 – Anti-laundry laws begin.Article (website) on anti-laundry laws in San Francisco.

1875 – U.S. passes the Page Law. Disallowing any Asian felons, contract workers, and women for the purposes of prostitution from entering the company.  This stopped a majority of any Asian woman from gaining entry into the U.S.

1877 – The Workingmen’s Party of California, consisting of while male laborers, rally behind the slogan, “The Chinese Must Go.” The group lobbied West Coast lawmakers and politicians to support anti-Chinese causes.  The group also influenced national politicians desiring West Coast votes

1879 – California adopted a second Constitution, wherein “Chinese are declared “undesirable” race to be excluded from California” (Choy, et al).

1880 – Angell Treaty. President Rutherford B. Hayes sends delegation to Peking to re-negotiate the Burlingame Treaty – the new treaty permitted restrictions of Chinese into the U.S., in reaction to growing pressure from California.

1880 – California enacts the “Anti-Miscegenation” Civil Code outlawing interracial sexuality or marriage (Pfaelzer).

1880 – California legislature imposes excessive tax on the Chinese Six Companies.

1880-1881 – Santa Cruz, California writes an ordinance whereby “no person shall carry baskets or bags attached to poles carried upon back or shoulders on public sidewalks” (qtd.,Pfaelzer).

1880 – Order No. 1569, “which stated that it would be illegal for any person to operate a laundry in a wood building in the city and county of San Francisco without permission from the Supervisors, the provisions regarding Chinese owned laundries was removed because of concern that it would be unconstitutional. Violation of Order No. 1569 would be a misdemeanor and a fine of $1000, imprisonment for a maximum of six months, or both” (Fan) website source.

1882 – U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act passes, banning entry of Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers to the United States for 10 years. The Act also prevented the Chinese to become U.S. citizens through the naturalization process extended to other immigrants.  Existing Chinese merchants, teachers, students, tourists and government officials were exempt. (Choy, et al).

1888 – The Scott Act prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers who had left for China temporarily and who wanted to return to America. Due to this act, 20,000 Chinese were denied re-entry when their re-entry permits were invalidated (Choy, et al).

1892 – The Geary Act extended the 1882 U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years. Chinese were required to register with the U.S. Government in order to obtain identity papers. Police could arrest and deport those without the certificate (Choy, et al).

1894 – The Gresham-Yang Treaty  extended Chinese exclusion.

Click here for a visual timeline (external site) of anti-Chinese legislation

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Thomas Nast's cartoons of Chinese Americans

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