Chinese immigration to the United States was a result of European and American imperialism in Asia on the one hand, and a response to global trade networks and labor demands on the other.
Although Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 decades before the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Act was a turning point in U.S. relations with Asian immigrants and their descendants. The Act was significant for several reasons. First, by outlawing the immigration of laborers while (in theory) allowing the entry of merchants, students, teachers, diplomats, and travelers, the Act established a precedent for the establishment of discriminatory race and class based immigration laws in the United States. Second, the Act was an example of government-mandated racism. Finally, the Act in conjunction with the 1878 ruling In re Ah Yup effectively denied naturalization rights to immigrant Chinese and served as the foundation for the racialization of Asian immigrants, including the Japanese as inassimilable “aliens.”
Chinese immigration to the United States was a result of European and American imperialism in Asia on the one hand, and a response to global trade networks and labor demands on the other. Due to increasing political instability and diminishing economic opportunities in China, Chinese laborers began to arrive in large numbers in the United States as both voluntary and coerced laborers during the mid 19th century, mainly to work on the trans-pacific railroad, to dig for gold in California, and to work on sugar plantations in the south. American employers sought cheap labor, and following the Civil War, there was an additional incentive to replace African slaves on plantations.
Despite the willingness of entrepreneurs to hire Chinese laborers, anti-Chinese sentiment grew in reaction to the prevalence of beliefs that the immigrant workers were a dual threat to white labor and the purity of the white race. In regard to the latter, scientific racism premised the popularly held belief in a hierarchy of races, one that positioned Chinese and other non-whites at the bottom as culturally inferior. These beliefs were underwritten by negative stereotypes created by European and American traders and travelers and were sensationalized by the mass-media. Similar arguments articulated by the same coalition of white labor unions, politicians, and the popular press would later serve as the underpinning of the anti-Japanese movements during the first half of the 20th century.
Anti-Chinese vitriol spurred the passage of a number of discriminatory laws and taxes that targeted the Chinese immigrants on the basis of race. As a result Chinese immigrants were barred from naturalization, denied the right to vote, and were unable to testify in most court cases; these laws limited their legal and political protection, leaving them vulnerable to violent attacks and overt racism.
Passing the Chinese Exclusion Act
The lack of political representation and voice, combined with growing anti-Chinese sentiment, served as a precondition for the passage of the Page Law in 1875. This law outlawed the importation of Chinese and Japanese contract laborers, popularly known as “coolies,” prostitutes, and felons. The label “coolie” was a racial slur that stereotyped Chinese and other Asian workers as bound laborers, little better than slaves. This law paved the way for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester A. Arthur with the approval of Congress. This law forbade the entry of all Chinese laborers for ten years. Exceptions were given to merchants, students, teachers, and diplomats with appropriate documentation.Historian Moon-Ho Jung argues that this law set the precedent for U.S. immigration policy from the 19th century onward. In addition, he notes that the racialization of all Chinese laborers as “coolies” through the Act enabled anti-Chinese activists to lobby for the law under the pretense of preventing slavery from reoccurring on U.S. soil, thus promoting the image of the U.S. as a bastion of freedom and democracy.
The Chinese Exclusion Act had a ripple effect on the United States’ legal history. It was followed by the Geary Act of 1892 which extended the provisions of the Exclusion Act for another ten years. In 1902 the ban against the immigration of Chinese laborers was made permanent. In addition, Congress sought to curtail the ability of Chinese laborers to return to the U.S. after traveling abroad. Prerequisites for return to the U.S. included owning property worth at least $1,000 or having a wife in the U.S. Both prerequisites reflected the class-based discrimination inherent within the Chinese Exclusion Act; only a relatively wealthy Chinese immigrant would meet the requirements for return. By the end of 1888 the Scott Act made it impossible for Chinese travelers to return to the United States.
The Exclusion Act, in conjunction with the efforts of Chinese immigrants to resist poor treatment and pay by white employers, resulted in a dearth of cheap labor in the continental United States and after the annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in Hawai’i as well.
Japan was targeted, in particular, by sugar plantation owners in Hawai’i as the next best potential source of labor. Unfortunately, as increasing numbers of Japanese arrived in the U.S., anti-Chinese sentiment was rearticulated as anti-Japanese racism by many of the same forces responsible for early anti-Chinese agitations. (See Anti-Japanese movement.) However, due to the rising international prestige of Japan and in recognition of its growing military power, U.S. officials were hesitant to discriminate openly against Japanese immigrants. Therefore, immigration policies aimed at the Japanese such as the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act did not specifically or exclusively single out Japan. In addition, officials who were quick to castigate the Chinese as racially inferior and inassimilable often stopped short of accosting the Japanese with the same accusations. Instead, the Japanese were racialized primarily as the latter, as too culturally different to become full-fledged members of American society. This racialization proved to have innumerable consequences during World War II. Issei and Nisei alike were depicted by the mass media as foreign and monolithic, thus rationalizing the incarceration of all individuals of Japanese ancestry as an act of “military necessity.”
The denial of civil rights for Japanese Americans during World War II occurred simultaneously with the expansion of immigration rights for the Chinese. In 1943 the Magnuson Act was passed, nullifying the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and paving the way for Chinese immigration to the U.S., at the rate of 105 individuals per year. This Act was not only a response to Japan’s wartime efforts to portray the U.S. as a racist and imperialist threat to Asia, but also an attempt to appease China, as one of the United States’ allies.
- Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 92.
- For more information see Stuart Creighton Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882 (California: University of California Press, 1969).
- Chan, Asian Americans, 25.
- Chan, Asian Americans, 48-9.
- “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882),” Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, accessed May 31, 2012, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html.
- Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation, (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 13.
- “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).”
- Chan, Asian Americans, 54.
- Chan, Asian Americans, 55.
- Ibid., 55.
- Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), 40.
- Kevin Johnson, “The History of Racial Exclusion in the U.S. Immigration Laws,” accessed May 31, 2012, http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/immigr09.htm.
- Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
- Johnson, Kevin. “The History of Racial Exclusion in the U.S. Immigration Laws.” http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/immigr09.htm.
- Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
- Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- Miller, Stuart Creighton. The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
- Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Okihiro, Gary. Margins and Mainstreams: Asian in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
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