"Memorial of the Chinese Six Companies to U.S. Grant, President of the United States"
Written in 1876
Reprinted in The Power of Words: Documents in American History, vol. II: 35-37, 1996
In the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization began to spread across the United States at a rapid rate, and factories began searching for large quantities of new workers to help meet the production demands. In the 1840s businesses started recruiting workers from European countries, and by the end of the decade immigrants began to form a significant part of the industrial workforce. Life in the United States was difficult for these newcomers, and they were often the victims of discrimination by their employers. They were paid the lowest wages and were forced to work in jobs that Americans did not want. After a few generations in the country, however, most immigrants from Europe found acceptance in American society. This was not the situation with the Chinese, who began arriving in small numbers on the West Coast around the same time as Europeans were arriving on the East Coast. The Chinese workers were essential in the building of railroads and roads and they supplied the necessary workforces for many U.S. industries. Despite this, some of the worst anti-immigrant discrimination was directed at them, and this situation did not improve for many decades.
Before the 1860s there were about forty-one thousand Chinese people in the United States, most of whom had moved to California during the gold rush of 1848 and remained in the state. (After gold was discovered in California in 1848 there was a rapid migration to the state. California's population grew from about 14,000 in 1848 to almost 100,000 by 1850.) Discrimination against the Chinese began shortly after their arrival based mainly on prejudices and fears that the Chinese might take work away from European immigrants. In 1852 the California legislature passed the Foreign Miner's Tax, a tax on the earnings of Chinese and Mexican prospectors, making it impossible for them to compete financially with the white miners. The state also imposed an alien poll tax—a tax of a fixed amount, in this case $2.50 per month—on each Chinese adult working in the country. Additionally, the Chinese were often allowed to seek gold only in mines that had already been abandoned by white prospectors. Because of the actions taken against them by the state government, most Chinese miners during the gold rush were forced to work as cooks and launderers.
Anti-Asian sentiment led the state of California to rule in 1854 that no person of Chinese descent could testify in court. Chinese immigrants were robbed, beaten, and even killed and their attackers were not punished because neither the victims nor any other Chinese witnesses could give evidence against them. After the gold rush, most Chinese workers headed for the Chinatowns of California cities, where they hoped they would be safer surrounded by their fellow countrymen.
In 1862 a new employment opportunity arose when the federal government helped finance the construction of a transcontinental railroad (one that spanned the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean). Two railroad companies were chosen for the job. The Union Pacific was to lay tracks westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific was to begin laying tracks in Sacramento, California, and work eastward. At some point in between, the two companies, and their sets of tracks, would meet. A problem occurred, however, when after two years the Central Pacific had only laid fifty miles of tracks in northern California, mainly because it could not find or keep laborers. The work that lay ahead, such as cutting tracks through the steep Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California, was dangerous and difficult, and many refused the job or were not skilled enough to do it. Finally, the company decided to try using Chinese laborers. Although some managers were unsure about the idea, once they had seen the Chinese immigrants at work Central Pacific quickly hired 12,500 Chinese employees. Chinese laborers leveled ground, laid track, and blasted the tunnels through which the railroad would run. Chinese construction crews became known for their reliable and cheap labor, their lack of complaints, and repeatedly risking their lives to get the job done. By 1867 the Chinese represented 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce. In just two years' time, the Chinese workers laid track through canyons and over land that many had thought was impassable.
On July 28, 1868, the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty. The treaty called for the free emigration (the process of leaving one's country to live elsewhere) of the citizens of both countries. It also acknowledged rights of freedom of worship and gave the Chinese "all privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of the United States." The United States entered the treaty because Chinese laborers were necessary to the building of the transcontinental railroad and it wished to encourage more workers to move to the country to help finish the job. Less than a year after the Burlingame Treaty's signing, on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, workers of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met and the nation's first transcontinental railroad was completed. After this success, the nation's debt to the Chinese workers and the promises of the Burlingame Treaty were quickly forgotten.
After the railroad was finished, Chinese workers took up factory, handicraft, and retail work in cities such as San Francisco. In 1870 the majority of all Chinese immigrants in the United States still lived in California. Ninety-five percent of those who arrived in the state in the late nineteenth century were young males. So few of the immigrants were females because the Chinese believed that respectable women did not leave their parents' or in-laws' homes. The Chinatowns established bachelor societies in which men lived, socialized, and worked. Most were waiting either to go back to China or to raise enough money to bring their families to the United States.
Chinese immigrants tended to rely on family, or clan, associations for community support. When the young men of China arrived in the United States, they immediately began to form associations in the new country by grouping themselves by their family names. For example, there was a Yee association for all Yees, a Moy association for all Moys, and so forth. Members gave these associations the loyalty one would give to extended family. Fellow members were seen as cousins, whether or not there was any blood relation. In San Francisco each of the family associations belonged to one of six larger district associations. At the head of all six associations was the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also known as the Chinese Six Companies.
San Francisco was the center of Chinese society. The city's district associations provided aid and advice to the immigrants. Typically, upon arrival in San Francisco newcomers were met by members of their district, people from their region in China who spoke the same dialect (a variety of a language spoken in a particular region). They were housed at district headquarters and worked where their kinsmen had employment contracts or connections. The district associations provided loans and protection to the recent arrivals and helped them with legal problems. The associations also loaned the money to travel to the United States to potential immigrants in China. When an immigrant arrived in the United States, he had to pay the association back from his first earnings, and so the Six Companies often put the new arrivals to work in labor gangs. The Six Companies thus gained great power over many Chinese immigrants, who were not allowed to look for their own jobs and had to follow the companies' rules and regulations.
To white Californians, the Chinese immigrants appeared to be little more than slaves who often arrived already in debt to the merchants of the Six Companies. The non-Asian settlers were also suspicious of them because they were members of a racial minority and they practiced religions unfamiliar to Europeans. The Chinese also looked different from other immigrants. All Chinese males at that time were required by Chinese law and tradition to wear their hair in a long braid called a queue. For many young Chinese men, the queue was important because without it they could never go home to be reunited with their families. Their clothes, too, differed greatly from those of Westerners, and they ate very different foods, including rice, fish, and vegetables. Because many of the Chinese workers planned to return home eventually to their families, they did not try to adopt American ways.
In 1873 the U.S. economy experienced a decline. Businesses and banks failed and jobs became hard to find. The anti-Asian movement in California grew in response to these troubles. Non-Asian workers began to speak out against what they referred to as the Yellow Peril, claiming that the Chinese workers were taking jobs away from Americans. Many newspapers, eager to make money from the sensational stories, joined in the outcry against the Asians who, they declared, had invaded the nation. Middle-class Californians, disturbed by tales of drug abuse and prostitution in the Chinese community, supported the protesters. Many Californians refused to buy or use Chinese goods and services. Gangs stormed Chinatowns, destroying homes and property and physically attacking the residents. Employers were pressured to fire their Chinese workers, and, now that they no longer needed armies of unskilled laborers, even the railroads did not defend the immigrants.
Things to remember while reading "Memorial of the Chinese Six Companies to U.S. Grant, President of the United States":
- The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies, was established in San Francisco during the 1850s and quickly became the most powerful organization among the Chinese in the United States. It was formed when the Ning Yuen, Hop Wo, Kong Chow, Yeung Wo, Sam Yup, and Yan Wo district associations created a mutual board of directors to represent the Chinese people of San Francisco and elsewhere in the nation.
- The Chinese Six board of directors consisted of wealthy merchants. They attempted to avoid discrimination by hiring a non-Asian attorney to serve as the group's spokes-person outside of Chinatown. The Chinese Six Companies addressed local, state, and federal governments regarding issues of immigration and harassment.
- Chinese immigrants had good reason to feel unsafe in their new country. In one of many instances of anti-Asian violence, a riot broke out in Los Angeles in 1871. A mob of about five hundred people attacked the city's Chinatown, burning houses and dragging Chinese people from their homes. Some were beaten; others were hanged or burned to death. Nineteen Chinese men died in the riot and countless others were injured.
- In the 1870s Irish immigrant and labor leader Denis Kearney (1847–1907) became the head of the Workingman's Party. Kearney, who campaigned under the slogan "The Chinese Must Go!" was a powerful force in the anti-Asian movement. He and his followers were responsible for the hanging of Chinese people and the burning and bombing of their businesses and homes. In the most well-known instance, the San Francisco Riot of 1876, Kearney encouraged a mob of several hundred unemployed workers to roam the streets in search of Chinese workers to attack. People were hurt and terrorized, and homes and businesses were destroyed. The governor of California finally called out the National Guard and several warships to stop the rioting.
- In 1876 the anti-Chinese movement succeeded in forcing a congressional investigation into Chinese immigration. The investigation was conducted in San Francisco and thousands of people were interviewed. Some San Franciscans told the committee that Chinese workers had made a valuable contribution to the transcontinental railroad and to agriculture. But several public officials attacked the Chinese immigrants for practicing unfamiliar religions, eating strange foods, and not having their wives in the country with them, all of which they considered uncivilized behavior. Angry labor leaders said that the Chinese accepted lower wages, which put white men out of work. The memorial to U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77) was a response to these charges prepared by the Chinese Six Companies, which represented the Chinese people.
- At the time the memorial was written, no immigrants had ever been blocked from entering the United States.
"Memorial of the Chinese Six Companies to U.S. Grant, President of the United States"
To His Excellency U.S. Grant, President of the United States of America
Sir: In the absence of any Consular representative, we, the undersigned, in the name and in behalf of the Chinese people now in America, would most respectfully present for your consideration the following statements regarding the subject of Chinese emigration to this country:
We understand that it has always been the settled policy of your honorable Government to welcome emigration to your shores from all countries, without let or hindrance. The Chinese are not the only people who have crossed the ocean to seek a residence in this land….
American steamers, subsidized by your honorable Government, have visited the ports of China, and invited our people to come to this country to find employment and improve their condition. Our people have been coming to this country for the last twenty-five years, but up to the present time there are only 150,000 Chinese in all these United States, 60,000 of whom are in California, and 30,000 in the city of San Francisco.
Our people in this country, for the most part, have been peacable, law-abiding, and industrious. They performed the largest part of the unskilled labor in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, and also of all other railroads on this coast. They have found useful and remunerative employment in all the manufacturing establishments of this coast, in agricultural pursuits, and in family service. While benefiting themselves with the honest reward of their daily toil, they have given satisfaction to their employers and have left all the results of their industry to enrich the State. They have not displaced white laborers from these positions, but have simply multiplied the industrial enterprises of the country.
The Chinese have neither attempted nor desired to interfere with the established order of things in this country, either of politics or religion. They have opened no whiskey saloons for the purpose of dealing out poison and degrading their fellow-men. They have promptly paid their duties, their taxes, their rents, and their debts….
At the present time an intense excitement and bitter hostility against the Chinese in this land, and against further Chinese emigration, has been created in the minds of the people, led on by His Honor the Mayor of San Francisco and his associates in office, and approved by His Excellency the Governor, and other great men of the State. These great men gathered some 20,000 of the people of this city together on the evening of April 5, and adopted an address and resolutions against Chinese emigration….
It is charged against us that not one virtuous Chinawoman has been brought to this country, and that here we have no wives nor children. The fact is, that already a few hundred Chinese families have been brought here. These are all chaste, pure, keepers-at-home, not known on the public street. There are also among us a few hundred, perhaps a thousand, Chinese children born in America. The reason why so few of our families are brought to this country is because it is contrary to the custom and against the inclination of virtuous Chinese women to go so far from home, and because the frequent outbursts of popular indignation against our people have not encouraged us to bring our families with us against their will….
It is charged against us that we have purchased no real estate. The general tone of public sentiment has not been such as to encourage us to invest in real estate, and yet our people have purchased and now own over $800,000 worth of real estate in San Francisco alone.
It is charged against us that we eat rice, fish, and vegetables. It is true that our diet is slightly different from the people of this honorable country; our tastes in these matters are not exactly alike, and cannot be forced. But is that a sin on our part of sufficient gravity to be brought before the President and Congress of the United States?
It is charged that the Chinese are no benefit to this country. Are the railroads built by Chinese labor no benefit to the country? Are the manufacturing establishments, largely worked by Chinese, no benefit to this country? Do not the results of the daily toil of a hundred thousand men increase the riches of this country? Is it no benefit to this country that the Chinese annually pay over $2,000,000 duties at the Custom house of San Francisco? Is not the $200,000 annual poll-tax paid by the Chinese any benefit? And are not the hundreds of thousands of dollars [in] taxes on personal property, and the foreign miners' tax, annually paid to the revenues of this country, any benefit?…
It is charged that all Chinese laboring men are slaves. This is not true in a single instance. Chinamen labor for bread. They pursue all kinds of industries for a livelihood. Is it so then that every man laboring for his livelihood is a slave? If these men are slaves, then all men laboring for wages are slaves.
It is charged that the Chinese commerce brings no benefit to American bankers and importers. But the fact is that an immense trade is carried on between China and the United States by American merchants, and all the carrying business of both countries, whether by steamers, sailing vessels or railroads, is done by Americans. No China ships are engaged in the carrying traffic between the two countries. Is it a sin to be charged against us that the Chinese merchants are able to conduct their mercantile business on their own capital? And is not the exchange of millions of dollars annually by the Chinese with the banks of this city any benefit to the banks?
We respectfully ask a careful consideration of all the foregoing statements. The Chinese are not the only people, nor do they bring the only evils that now afflict this country.
What happened next …
Anti-Chinese violence and discrimination continued. Mobs attacked Chinese immigrants in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Wyoming, killing and injuring many.
Americans on the East Coast viewed the controversy as a West Coast problem since few Chinese had settled in the East. In 1870, however, when seventy-five Chinese workers were hired at a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, labor groups throughout the East predicted the arrival of large numbers of Chinese workers and hostilities increased.
When California adopted its state constitution in 1879, one-third of the document's authors were members of Kearney's Workingman's Party. Not surprisingly, the constitution was strongly anti-Chinese. According to the law, Chinese workers could not be hired in any public jobs, and cities and towns had the power to relocate Chinese people outside the town limits. The constitution declared the Chinese "to be dangerous to the well-being of the state," calling on the legislature to "discourage their immigration by all means within its power."
In the mid-nineteenth century, politicians from the West introduced many acts to Congress in an effort to keep Chinese immigrants from entering the country. These acts had been repeatedly vetoed (rejected) by the president, but in 1882 the Westerners and others who feared Chinese immigration succeeded in getting the Chinese Exclusion Act passed. The act, which banned Chinese laborers from entering the country, was the first major restriction on immigration to the United States, and it was the first time anyone had been denied entry to the country because of race. The Exclusion Act was extended for ten more years after its initial ten-year term, and in 1904 it was extended indefinitely. Since under the act it was not possible for Chinese men to bring their families to the United States or to go back to China to marry, the population of Chinese in the country dropped significantly.
By the late 1930s Japan had become a strong military power and sought to expand its empire by invading China in 1937. When the United States entered World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), China and the United States became allies in their fight against the Japanese. Chinese immigrants joined the U.S. military and fought alongside American soldiers. In 1943, in an effort to encourage further friendly relations between the two countries, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed. Immigration from China was still limited, but the Chinese were no longer subjected to the kinds of discrimination as they had been in the past.
Did you know …
- The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that only "free white persons" could become citizens. This was widened to include African Americans under the Fourteenth Amendment in 1870, but Asians were still excluded. Thus, unlike most other immigrants in the nineteenth century, the Chinese were not eligible for U.S. citizenship. This law remained in place until 1952.
- Between 1820 and 1880, three million Irish and three million German immigrants entered the United States. In 1900 there were only an estimated ninety thousand people of Chinese descent in the country.
Consider the following …
- Why do you think labor organizations, charitable groups, and federal or state laws failed to help the Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century?
- • What tone does the memorial to the president set? What do you think the Chinese Six Companies intended this document to accomplish?
For More Information
Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
The Chinese Six Companies. "Memorial of the Chinese Six Companies to U.S. Grant, President of the United States." In The Power of Words: Documents in American History. Edited by T. H. Breen. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.
McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories, 1828–1988. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.
Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
"The Chinese Experience: Eyewitness Accounts." A Bill Moyers Special: Becoming American, the Chinese Experience: PBS. http://www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/ce_witness.html (accessed on July 6, 2005).
"A History of Chinese Americans in California." National Park Service. http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/5views/5views3.h... (accessed on July 6, 2005).