May is recognized in the US as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (also known as Asian/Asian-American History Month). Asians have a long history in the Americas, starting with the first Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the United States in the mid-1800s (or, going even earlier, research has argued that Chinese explorer Zheng He could have arrived in America in 1421 before Columbus). But there has also been 19th-century Asian immigration to Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Cuba as well.
Thus, the experience of Asians in the Americas during the Victorian Era was diverse and complex; below are four glimpses into Asian (and American) history.
Tale #1: Journey to Golden Mountain & Building the Railroads: The Chinese & the Western Frontiers
During the 1800s, economic, political, and social changes all contributed to Chinese immigration to the Americas. China’s population increased from 16 to 28 million between 1787 and 1850, but the country also suffered from massive food shortages that resulted in widespread famine. Farmland was becoming increasingly scarce at the same time. The southern region of Guangdong also faced many natural disasters that resulted in bad harvests that wasn’t helpful to stopping the famine. One estimate shows that between 1852 and 1908, the Pearl River Delta in the province of Guandong had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 plagues and 5 famines. In addition, civil unrest in southern China from the loss of the Opium War in 1842 lead to forced openings if five international trading ports lead to a decrease of trade in China’s southern ports and high unemployment for workers in the region.
Thus, waves of immigration of Chinese workers–mostly men–left the Guangdong and Fujian regions of China in order to find work in the United States. News of the California Gold Rush led droves to leave their homeland in order to seek the “Golden Mountain.” Many became prospectors with the thousands of Americans who came to California in 1848, but, like many of those thousands, were unsuccessful in finding gold. Because of discrimination, many of these workers had limited options for work and so were only able to get jobs doing laundry, cooking and cleaning that was seen as “woman’s work” (thus, the Chinese laundry stereotype is born). They also got low-wage jobs in industrial factories, and many were employed as railroad workers for the Central Pacific Railway. As railway workers, they often were given the most difficult and dangerous tasks, such as planting dynamite explosives. Workers also suffered from lack of resources and poor shelter; many died of exhaustion and disease.
In the 1870s due to increased competition between Chinese labor and incoming white immigrant labor, anti-Chinese sentiment grew. By then, other immigrants and European Americans began to compete for the jobs traditionally reserved for the Chinese. Anti-Chinese riots in California and increased political pressure to exclude Chinese immigrants from the US lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. As a result, Chinese immigration was virtually suspended for almost 100 years, only to be repealed in 1943.
Chinese immigrants also settled in Canada, where they faced a similar pattern of discrimination. Many came in light of the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858 in British Columbia, but also found work on public projects and as railway workers building the Canada Pacific Rail. There, they also suffered from poor treatment and increased discrimination from white Canadian settlers. In 1885, the government enacted a “head tax” upon Chinese immigrants; the fee started at $50 dollars and between 1885 and 1923, this fee was increased to $500. With fears of the “yellow peril”, Canadians pushed for the exclusion of the Chinese entirely, which culminated in the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. This Act was not repealed until 1947.
Tale #2 Opening to the West: The Japanese Immigrant Experience
Japanese immigrants started traveling to the United States after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. At the time of rapid industrialization and urban development, many farmers were left unemployed. In addition, foreign competition lead to a fall in wages and word about the prosperous U.S. economy lead many Japanese to consider leaving their homeland for the West. Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 men and women left Japan for the U.S. and US-controlled territories. The two most popular destinations were Hawaii and America’s Pacific coast. Many of these immigrants arrived to replace the Chinese immigrant workers that US legislation had excluded. The Japanese government was also heavily involved in selecting Japanese to go abroad, selecting young men with good connections to go and many of these travelers received financial support from sponsors for their journeys.
Life in the United States was not more privileged compared with the Chinese, however. Many Japanese laborers, along with Chinese, Filipino, Spanish immigrant and African-Americans, were employed by large sugar cane corporations in Hawaii as plantation workers. Life on these plantations was filled with arduous work for little pay, poor company housing and medical facilities. Many Japanese laborers were signed up to 3 to 5 year contracts, and once ended, many fled to the mainland. In addition, the American plantation owners often set the different ethnic labor forces against each other as a means of control. Each group was paid on a different wage scale, which lead to inter-ethnic prejudice and conflict between groups. Riots broke out frequently. However, all of the labor groups eventually organized major strikes against their owners in 1900, 1906, and 1909, and in 1920, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, and others formed the Hawaii Laborers’ Association, the islands’ first multiethnic labor union. The Japanese in Hawaii became one of the largest minority groups, however, and Japanese culture had permeated itself in Hawaiian life in ways that are still evident today. On the US mainland, Japanese immigration during the 1800s was slow but steady. By 1900, the population in the US had increased to 25,000. Many formed communities throughout the Pacific West coast.
The Japanese also settled on the Canadian frontier to open businesses out west that catered to both the British Columbian settlers and the newly incoming immigrant populations from China and Japan. Manzo Nagano was the first officially recorded Japanese immigrant in Canada in 1877. He was a sailor who stowed away on a British vessel without knowing its destination and landed in New Westminister, British Columbia. But like the Chinese, the Japanese also faced Canadian discrimination, such as the law by British Columbia denying franchise to all of Asian ethnicity in 1895 and Anti-Asian Vancouver Riots in 1907.
Tale #3 From “Manilamen” to Pensionados: Filipinos in the US
Filipinos are acknowledged as the oldest continuous Asian community in the United States. They first arrived with the Spanish as domestic servants and slaves in the late 1700s when the Spanish settled in the Louisiana Territory. The Filipinos were called “Manilamen” by the locals and later formed a fishing community called Saint Malo (named after the leader of a group of runaway slaves); eventually, they intermarried with the native and African-American population and thrived there. The Saint Malo settlement existed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but wasn’t known to the general American public until an article was written about them in 1883 in Harper’s Weekly. Saint Malo was unfortunately destroyed in the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915.
Filipinos later were involved in American foreign policy affairs when the Philippines were annexed as a US Territory as a the result of the Philippine-American war. The war began in February of 1899, when Private William Grayson shot a Filipino soldier at the bridge of San Juan, Manila, and triggered a three-year long war of attrition as US forces fought to establish a colonialist government. Historians later established the fact that the war was created to convince the American public to accept the annexation of the Philippines (which the US had acquired in a treaty from Spain two days before the war began) and subdue the native population, lead by Emilio Aguinaldo, from establishing their own independence once freed from Spanish rule. Once the war ended in 1902, over 600,000 Filipinos died.
In 1903, the US also passed the Pensionado Act, in which the Filipino elite were selected to study in the United States. This was offered as a perk to the Filipino middle and upper classes, along with the opportunity to serve in the colonialist government.
Tale #4: South of the Border: Latin American Asians
Asian immigration, mostly Chinese, was initially driven by the coolie trade brought by the Portugese in the 19th century. For instance in Peru, Chinese laborers were taken from Macao to Peru to work on their sugar cane plantations; these laborers were replacements for the former black and indigenous slave populations. One hundred thousand Chinese contract laborers worked on the sugar plantations from 1849 to 1874 in coastal guano mines and especially for the coastal plantations where they became a major labor force until the end of the century. Chinese-Peruvians also worked as domestic servants and railway workers to build the tracks through the Andes mountains. The Spanish also brought contracted Chinese coolie labor to Cuba starting in 1847. After completing 8-year contracts, the Chinese immigrants generally settled permanently in Cuba, where their descendants have since intermarried with local Cubans.
Chinese immigration into Mexico began as a reaction to increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in California. Both former California miners, laborers and newly immigrated populations in China traveled to Mexicali, which is now the capital of Baja California Norte. Many Mexicali immigrants arrived as hired labor by the Colorado River Land Company’s project to build an extensive irrigation system in the fertile Valle de Mexicali. The workers remained in Mexicali afterwords, creating an area known as Chinesca. Other notable marks left behind by the Chinese-Mexican immigrants is a park outside of Baja California’s Crucero La Trinidad named El Chinero; this park memorializes the 160 Chinese laborers who died while crossing the San Felipe Desert in search of work in the valley.
Immigrant worker communities like these contributed greatly to the founding of many Chinatowns throughout Latin America.
Asian History in North America
Chinese American History Museum in Los Angelos
Asian Nation – General Asian American studies resource site run by Dr. C.N. Le, Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst
The Chinese Experience in 19th Century America – Educator’s resource site, filled with books, websites, lesson plans, and more
Chinese and Western Expansion – Essay & Resource site
Chinese-Canadian Geneology: Documents and Records: Railway construction
Important Events in the History of the Chinese in Canada – a Timeline created by multiculturalcanada.ca
5 Generations Exhibit about Japanese Immigrant Experience in Canada, created by the Multicultural History Society of Ontario.
Japanese-Canadian Immigrant Timeline – Courtesy of Explorasian website
A Century of Challenge and Change: The Filipino-American Story – Educator’s Curriculum website sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum
Asian History in Latin America
Asians in South America– Article on EveryCulture.com
Sweet and Sour Times on the Border – Article on Mexicali’s Mexican-Chinese population
Multiculturalism in Latin American Studies: Locating the “Asian” immigrant; or Where are the Chinos and Turcos? Article Published in Latin American Studies Review by Evelyn Hu-DeHart
The Coolie Trade: The Traffic of Chinese Laborers to Latin America by Professor Arnold J. Meagher
The phenomenon of indentured labor spread throughout the western world in the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century appearing in such far-flung places as Mauritius, South Africa, Australia, Malaya, the Fiji Islands, and Latin America. With the abolition of the African slave trade, the demands of Europe’s expanding industrialism activated an intercontinental search for laborers. Natives of the subcontinent of India, Pacific Islanders, and Chinese were the principal victims of a system of indentured labor, i.e. contract labor under penal sanction, which in practice differed little from the system of slavery it replaced. Latin American plantation owners and exploiters of guano and nitrate fields, unsuccessful elsewhere, turned toward the teeming population of China for their manpower needs.
Between 1847 and 1874, vessels of 20 western nations transported over a quarter of a million involuntary male Chinese to the Caribbean and tropical South America. This book presents a comprehensive study of this migration, which was larger in scope and much more documented than the contemporary migration of Chinese to California. Chinese migration to Latin America was initiated and sustained not by the spontaneous action of free agents, but rather by the persuasion, deceit, and coercion of emigration recruiters in the employ of western entrepreneurs. The voyage to the Americas in former slave ships was a prolonged battle for survival with the elements, disease, ruthless crews, and scheming fellow passengers that took the lives of approximately one emigrant in every eight. In Latin America, Chinese laborers, like the Negro slaves they replaced, were sold to the highest bidder, exploited, oppressed, and kept in varying degrees of dehumanizing bondage. The impact of this new slave trade on China overshadowed whatever significance the migration had in the New World. Problems arising from the illegal recruitment of laborers on China s southern coast not only forced the Chinese Government to break with centuries of tradition and officially sanction emigration, but aroused China to take an active interest in her subjects abroad, which helped to draw China out of isolationism, and promoted diplomatic contact with a new area of the globe-the South American continent.
This work relies heavily upon the correspondence of consuls and diplomats on the China coast and in Latin America contained in the archives of the British Public Record Office and in the British Parliamentary Papers; the China coast newspapers of the nineteenth century, both English and Portuguese, including the official weekly publications of the Hong Kong and Macau governments; and the official correspondence between Macau and Lisbon contained in Lisbon’s Arquivo Historico Ultramarino. Highly-recommended to the researcher and student of history as well as to Chinese entrepreneurs and diplomats seeking economic opportunities and raw materials throughout Latin America. The Coolie Trade may be a very useful resource in understanding the economic, cultural, and political impact of Chinese indentured labor on both China and Latin America.