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The Chinese were the first Asian immigrants to enter the United States. The first documentation of the Chinese in the United States begins in the 18th century. These first immigrants were well and widely received by the Americans. However, they were wealthy, successful merchants, along with skilled artisans, fishermen, and hotel and restaurant owners.
Large-scale immigration began in the mid-1800s due to the California Gold Rush. After a much larger group of coolies (unskilled laborers who usually worked for very little pay) migrated to the United States in this time frame, American attitudes became more negative and hostile. By 1851, there were 25,000 Chinese working in California, mostly centered in and out of the "Gold Rush" area and around San Francisco. More than half the Chinese population in the United States lived in that region.
These Chinese clustered into groups, working hard and living frugally. As the populations of these groups increased, they formed large cities of ethnic enclaves called "Chinatowns." The first and most important of the Chinatowns belonged to San Francisco. If researching Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1850s, this would be a place to begin the search.
Occupations can also direct a search for Chinese immigrants. The Chinese did not only mine for gold, but took on jobs such as cooks, peddlers, and storekeepers. In the first decade after the discovery of gold, many had taken jobs nobody else wanted. By 1880, one fifth of the Chinese immigrants were engaged in mining, another fifth in agriculture, a seventh in manufacturing, another seventh were domestic servants, and a tenth were laundry workers.
An estimated 30,000 Chinese worked outside of California in such trades as mining, common labor, and service trades. During the 1860s, 10,000 Chinese were involved in the building of the western leg of the Central Pacific Railroad. The work was backbreaking and highly dangerous. Over a thousand Chinese had their bones shipped back to China to be buried. See the article "China Burial Traditions" in this outline.
As time passed, the resentment against the Chinese increased from those who could not compete with them in the workforce. Acts of violence against the Chinese continued for decades, mostly from white urban and agricultural workers. . Mob violence steadily increased against the Chinese until even employers were at risk. Eventually, laws such as the Naturalization Act of 1870 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted immigration of Chinese immigrants into the United States.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 restricted all immigration into the United States to only "white persons and persons of African descent," meaning all Chinese were placed in a different category that made them ineligible for citizenship from that time until 1943. The law was the first significant bar on free immigration in American history. It made the Chinese the only culture to be prohibited to freely migrate this country during that time.
Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Chinese population in the United States continued to increase. After the Chinese population reached its peak in 1890 with 107,488 people, their population began a steady decline. These descending numbers reflect not only the severing effect of the legislation on the influx of Chinese immigrants, but of the many returning back to China due to the disparity in the male-to-female ratio (which was 27 to 1 in 1890) and their desire to take back monetary support for their families in China. In actuality, many of the Chinese immigrants who migrated to the United States initially had no intention of permanent residency in this country.
As decades passed, the situation of the Chinese in America improved. Such events as the Chinatowns being able to turn from crime and drug ridden slums to quiet, colorful tourist attractions; well-behaved and conscientious Chinese school children begin welcomed by public school teachers; and China becoming allies with the United States during World War II, all paved the way for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As immigration from China resumed, mostly female immigrants came, many who were wives of Chinese men already in America. Many couples were reunited after decades apart.
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