Chinese Americans: Railroads to Fiber Optics – by Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So


Asian Americans comprise about 5.6% of the United States.  Among them, the Chinese Americans, with 3.79 million—constitute the largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S. Most of them arrived at this country in three separate immigration waves, each characterized by its own set of reasons for migration.

The first wave took place during the Gold Rush in California as part of the 1800s immigration wave.  The Chinese immigrants were primarily laborers from Southeast China. Some came voluntarily with the intention of returning to their home village with wealth and prestige; others were kidnapped and bought as Asian slaves. This article will follow the story of Chinese Americans and the challenges they still face.

The second wave was made up mostly of elites, professionals, and wealthy businessmen who fled China after it fell to the communist regime in 1949. They initially settled in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and later came to the U.S. to seek higher education for themselves or a better life for their children.

The third wave was a mix of migrants from various social economic backgrounds that came in the last four decades after Congress passed the Immigration Act in 1965 that increased the immigration quota for Asian countries. Like Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans include both citizen descendants of immigrants that arrived several generations ago as well as recent immigrants that may have arrived yesterday. The 1820 US Census records that there were eight Chinese in the country.

During the ten years after gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill near the Sacramento River, over one hundred thousand Chinese migrated to San Francisco. By 1859, approximately one-eighth of the city’s population was Chinese, a majority of them engaged in placer mining. Despite their dissimilar physical features—short statue, olive skin color and slant eyes and peculiar customs of men wearing queue and women binding feet, many local residents found the Chinese to be clean, quiet, industrious and peaceable.

While many white gold prospectors benefited from the gold rush, some were jealous of the Chinese who were struck by luck and prosperity. Soon, the anti-Chinese sentiment grew so strong that riots broke out regularly, with many local residents claiming ‘the gold in America should be reserved for Americans.” Sadly, the discriminatory treatment of Chinese during the gold rush era by the state of California continued beyond the century mark and the state line.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 defined nonwhites as ineligible for citizenship; the Chinese were prohibited from naturalization. In 1852, early in the Gold Rush period, the California state legislature passed the communicator tax and the foreign miner’s tax to deter the Chinese from entering the country and operating gold mines. The following year, a California court ruled that Chinese could be prohibited from testifying in courts as was the case with other non-white groups.

Other prohibitions soon followed: working for California city offices, marrying Whites, and enrolling their children in public schools. In 1913 the Chinese were banned from purchasing land in California (the Alien Land Law) as did Arizona (1917), Louisiana, and the State of Washington (1921). Discrimination against the Chinese was so common that a new popular term was coined: ‘Chinaman’s chance.’

After the Chinese were driven out of the gold mines, many did not return to China because, not having accumulated wealth, returning home empty handed would bring shame to their kin.  According to the Chinese, when one leaves one’s village to seek fortune in a foreign land, one is expected to return with the promised wealth. Otherwise, he is viewed as a failure and thus brings shame to his family and ancestors. When the Chinese laborers could not fulfill their promise, their only option was to stay in the U.S. and seek other means to make a living.

The booming economy of California of the 1850s and 1860s afforded many luxuries to local families, such as hiring household help or even shipping their laundry to the east coast, Hawaii, or Hong Kong to be cleaned at a lower cost, despite the four-month wait of overseas service. This created an opportunity for some Chinese to start local businesses to ‘wash and iron clothes’—a flourishing industry that the Chinese dominated for decades. Others opened restaurants or curio shops.

Those who did not have enough capital to start a business worked as domestics for Whites or track layers for the Central Pacific Union to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Initially hired as strike breakers, the Chinese soon became a cheap pool of reliable and industrious labor for the president of Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, who later became the founder of Stanford University. Fully aware of their subordinated position on the basis of race, the Chinese, not speaking English, had no other options but to subject themselves to exploitation. They worked longer hours yet got paid less than the White workers. Many of them were whipped like slaves. Others died while planting explosives along the cliffs or blasting granite inside the caves.

Many of us learned from our history textbooks that the Irish immigrants built the Transcontinental Railroad; but few of us are aware that the early Chinese immigrants contributed a great portion of labor in this historic endeavor, especially the portion of the Transcontinental Railroad to the west of the rugged Sierra Nevada. In fact, the famous ceremonial picture taken in May 1869, at Pomontory Point, Utah, where the two railways met did not include the Chinese! This is a typical example of ‘Asian Americans missing in history’ noted eloquently in Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, Chinese laborers once again found themselves unemployed. Unable to land traditional jobs in California because of their race, some resolved to farming, fishing, and even salmon-canning. Others were contracted as strike breakers to work in the factories of Massachusetts, New Jersey or New York.

There were others who went south to replace the slave laborers emancipated since 1865. By the end of 1870s, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Chinese laborers began to work in the cotton fields in Mississippi and Arkansas, and the sugarcane plantations or shrimp farms in Louisiana. Unfortunately, anti-Chinese sentiment erupted wherever they went and discrimination de jure followed them like a shadow. As San Francisco underwent economic growth and became one of the major manufacturing cities in the nation, the Chinese in the city also benefited. For example, in 1866 Chinese owned half of the city’s cigar factories. By 1870, 11 of the 12 slipper factories were owned by Chinese.

Many achieved affluence, but others were less fortunate, especially those that did not speak English. They lived in over-crowded apartments in China Town where all sorts of illegal undertakings such as gambling, drug dealings, and prostitution took place. During the next two decades, anti-Chinese movements continued to spread and discriminatory city ordinances were passed, making it difficult for the Chinese to seek employment or run a business. In 1860, a four-dollar-a-month fishing license fee was imposed on the Chinese. An 1870 ‘side walk ordinance’ forbade anyone carrying a pole over the shoulder with baskets hanging at both ends, which is a Chinese traditional way of transporting goods. Another city ordinance imposed a fine of fifteen dollars a quarter when one delivered laundry on foot. Racial tension finally exploded into the infamous Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles in 1871.

Many businesses that hired Chinese workers were boycotted or burnt while their owners received death threats. In 1879, a law was passed, making the hiring of Chinese or Mongolian a misdemeanor. The following year fishing licenses were withheld completely from all aliens, including all Chinese—that were ineligible for naturalization. In the face of the extreme hostility, many Chinese left California. The most detrimental blow to the Chinese community was the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the US Congress in 1882. It prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers. Although initially set for 10 year, it was later extended for another 10 years.

In the next 60 years, the population of Chinese in this country had dwindled drastically. It was not until 1949 when China fell to the communist regime that triggered the second major wave of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. The Watershed of de jure Discrimination: The Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law that restricted immigrants to the U.S., was the manifestation of a fear of what came to be known as the yellow peril. Yellow peril initially refers to the perceived threat of the economic invasion of Chinese laborers in the U.S. during the late nineteenth century; later it was used to refer to the military invasion by Japan of Asia and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Besides forbidding the entry of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for ten years, the Act also made Chinese residents ineligible for U.S. citizenship. It further required that they obtained a certificate of residence before traveling abroad. If they returned without such a certificate, they would be denied re-entry. In 1888 the Scott Act was passed. It nullified all re-entry permits issued to the Chinese and left stranded about 20,000 Chinese traveling overseas. Such was the situation that Wong Kim Ark faced in 1895.

A Chinese-born in San Francisco, Wong was denied entry upon his return from China, even though he had a re-entry permit. Wong filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his American citizenship should be based on the judicial principle of jus soli (‘law of the soil’) and not of jus sanguinis (‘law of blood’).  In U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring ‘all persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.’

Wong’s case set a precedent that the 14th Amendment applied to all people born in the U.S., regardless of color. Although the Exclusion Act only applied to laborers, it drastically reduced the number of Chinese migrants who were mostly contract laborers recruited from the province of Guandong. Only 8,031 Chinese migrants entered the country the next year and the number was dropped to 10 in 1893.

The new migrants were virtually from the privileged class: diplomats, professionals, merchants, or scholars. Their social status distinguished them from the poor working class of previous groups that had arrived earlier. In addition, they did not speak Cantonese like their predecessors. Instead, they spoke Mandarin or other Chinese dialects since they came from parts of China other than the province of Guandong. Because of their affluent background, the newly arrived immigrants brought with them an attitude of superiority that the settled migrants did not appreciate. As a result, a subtle division emerged between the two groups who finally came together raising funds to support their homeland when Japan attacked China in 1941.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins

In the decades following the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, more anti-Chinese legislation was passed at the local, state, and federal levels. For example, in 1885 a city ordinance in the City of San Francisco required all laundry owners in wooden buildings passed the fire and health inspection before they were issued a license to operate business. Violations led to fines and prison sentences. At that time, the city had 320 laundries, of which 310 were constructed of wood and 240 were owned and operated by Chinese. Yick Wo, a Chinese laundryman, was denied a license to operate his business, despite the fact that his building passed the inspections of the board of fire wardens as well as the health officer.

This prompted the Chinese Laundry Guild to file a class action suit, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, against the city and county of San Francisco, alleging discriminatory treatment because more than half of the Chinese laundrymen were arrested while the eighty plus laundries owned by non-Chinese did not received similar scrutiny. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Yick Wo and concluded that the enforcement of the ordinance was indeed discriminatory: ”a denial of the equal protection of the laws” and hence violated the 14th Amendment. Yick Wo v. Hopkins became a landmark case that set a legal precedent for all residents, whether U.S. citizen or aliens, to receive equal protection under the law.

Despite this victory, the Chinese faced many setbacks. In 1892 Congress passed the Geary Act requiring all Chinese that lived in the U.S. to carry a certificate of residence. If found without such certificate, they could be deported or imprisoned and be sentenced to a year of hard labor. The Act also denied bail to Chinese and prohibited them from appearing as witnesses in court. The Alien Land Laws: In California in 1913, the California legislature passed an Alien Land Law prohibiting any ‘aliens ineligible for citizenship’ (although the law did not mention Chinese, they were the one group that was ineligible for citizenship at that time) from purchasing land. It also gave the state the right to take possession of any land found to be in violation of the law.

Seven years later, the Alien Land Law of 1920 imposed further restrictions. It prohibited aliens that were ineligible for citizenship from holding land guardianship for their children who were citizens, even if their children were owners of the land. It also gave the right to the state to seize any land property if it was purchased with money from an Asian alien. Similar legislation was passed in other states in the next four decades, but was eventually appealed after World War II. As of today Florida is the only state in the country that has not repealed this law. It remains in the state’s constitution.

The immense hostility that the Chinese faced also confronted other Asian ethnic groups. For example, to prevent Japanese workers from entering the U.S., President Theodore Roosevelt signed the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ in 1907 with the Japanese Government by which Japanese government agreed not to issue passports to any workers who were traveling to the U.S. Ten years later, Congress created the ‘Barred Zone’ prohibiting immigration from the entire Continental Asia and part of Middle East.

Finally, with the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, all Asians, with the exception of Filipinos, were excluded from immigrating to the United States, becoming citizens, and purchasing land. The Period of Anti-Miscegenation: While the anti-Chinese movements epitomized a rising sentiment of a fear of the yellow peril, popular media and court rooms alike continued to characterize the Chinese as ‘uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception,’ and ‘possessed [of] the same vices as the Africans.’

In 1901, the 1850 Miscegenation Law was amended to criminalize marriages between whites and Asians, including Chinese. The anti-miscegenation laws in California made worse an already grave situation of many Chinese families. First of all, within the Chinese community, men already outnumbered women for a considerable number of years. Historically, a majority of Chinese men came for the hard labor—either to dig gold or to build railroads, with an intention to return to China. Some of them were bachelors; others were married men that had left their families in China. For those who wanted to bring their wives to the U.S., the Page Law of 1857, that banned the entry of felons and Asian women without any skills and any male chaperones, also made it extremely difficult for a single woman to enter the country.

Chinese women became a rarity in the United States. For example, ten years before the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the ratio of Chinese males to Chinese females was 14:1. It rose to 20:1 in 1882. In addition, only 150 Chinese women entered the U.S. between 1906 and 1924. Finally, the Immigration Act of 1924, intended to end the Japanese mail-ordered bride practice, prohibited the entry of any foreign-born Asian women. As a result of the discriminatory legislation, Chinese men were left with no other choice but to seek outside of their ethnic group to start a family.

Secondly, many Chinese men and women often preferred not to marry within their own group despite their parents desires to have a Chinese son-or daughter-in-law. On the one hand, many Chinese men, especially immigrants, viewed U.S.-born Chinese women as being too westernized to make a good traditional Chinese wife. Yet, they were bound by the Page Law and could not bring a wife from China. On the other hand, a U.S.-born Chinese woman often did not want to marry a foreign-born Chinese man for fear of losing her U.S. citizenship because of the Expatriation Act of 1907, and later the Cable Act of 1922, that required all women, including all U.S.-born Chinese women—to adopt their husband’s nationality upon marriage.

Consequently, interracial marriages were more common among Chinese than other ethnic groups, resulting in 20% interracial marriages. Comparatively, Japanese had 6.3% while blacks had 1.1%. Despite the higher ratio of interracial marriage among the Chinese, many of the interracially married couples had to endure public ridicule, while others were disowned by their parents. In addition, their children were often ostracized and suffered identity crises.

A Period of Mixed Blessings

The popularity of Chinese Americans in the US during and after the war was unfortunately short-lived, hastened primarily by the onset of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union after WWII and the abrupt cessation of US relations with China brought on by the victory of Communist regime in 1949. Once again, the Chinese Americans found themselves facing hostility as the country went through a frenzy state of ‘second red scare’ that later came to be known as McCarthyism.

The military service of Chinese Americans in World War II was readily forgotten and their loyalty to the country sometimes dismissed. Many left-wing organizations led by Chinese Americans came under surveillance by the FBI, and had their phone lines tapped, mails opened, and finance scrutinized. The relationship between the US and China deteriorated further in 1950 when the US intervened the Korean conflict. As US troops advanced to North Korea from South Korea, China warned the US government that its troops should not cross the 38th parallel where the border of North and South Korea met before the invasion. The conflict intensified when US troops approached the Yalu River that borders Korea and China and prompted China to send 250,000 troops to attack US soldiers. This immediately led to a US embargo of Chinese goods as well as the prohibition of importing US currency to China.

Soon, all US remittances to China were banned. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the hostility between the two nations did not. Rather, it soon escalated when the Everett Drumwright, a US Consul in Hong Kong, released a Foreign Service Report that accused the Chinese in America comprised primarily of illegal entrants, and that a network of Chinese spies had infiltrated in the US. As the country was under the influence of MCarthyism, the report further deepened the public mistrust of Chinese. Anyone who remotely looked Chinese was a suspected communist, and even World War II veterans of Chinese heritage were followed by the FBI.

At one point, some forty Chinese American associations had their financial and membership records subpoenaed and ordered to produce them with a 24-hour notice. Fortunately, a federal judge later dismissed the subpoena, calling it a ‘mass inquisition.’ In 1953, the US government implemented the Confession Program seeking to identify any Chinese that entered the country as ‘paper sons’ and to reveal their ‘true status.’ Although quite a few were deported to China, the majority of some 30,000 Chinese that confessed was able to remain in the country.

As public hostility rose, many Chinese were physically attacked and their properties vandalized. Businesses in Chinatowns dwindled, signaling the slow exit of their residents. Consequently, the number of Chinatowns in the country dropped from 28 in 1940 to 16 in 1955. Despite their mistreatment in the fifties, Chinese Americans saw signs of relief from several policy changes. For example, after a California law mandated racial desegregation in the public schools, the Chinese Americans were able to send their children to public schools.

At another point the Supreme Court ruled the real estate covenants that barred minorities from acquiring properties in certain areas unconstitutional. After the ruling, the Chinese were able to purchase homes or land anywhere in the country. Another example was the GI Bills that paid for college tuition for all veterans, including those of Chinese heritage. As a result, many were able to pursue a college degree and eventually became professionals such as engineers, accountants, or medical doctors. The most significant change was the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965 that allowed American citizens of other heritages, again including that of Asian, to petition for their family members, disregarding the quota system. As a result, the number of Asian immigrants increased dramatically, both in absolute and relative terms. According to the US Census, Asians accounted for only 6% of total immigrants between 1951 and 1960, whereas between 1981 and 1989, they accounted for 42%. Despite the increase, many of today’s Chinese Americans unfortunately continue to face similar challenges that their predecessors confronted some 150 years ago.


Recent immigrants are mostly medical, engineering, or technology professionals, whereas their eighteenth-century predecessors were laborers.’  At the same time, many of the native-born Chinese Americans chose to pursue careers that required little interaction with others such as engineers or scientists instead of professions that needed public speaking skills such as entertainers or broadcasters. According to Dr. Bob Suzuki, Emeritus President of Cal Poly Pomona University, this self-selection of career choices was initially driven in part by the lack of English proficiency of the early immigrants as well as the discriminatory practices of employers in the early nineteen hundreds.  Over the years, because of their relatively higher concentration in the fields of science and technology, Chinese Americans, as well as Asian Americans in general have come to be perceived as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds.’

Some Chinese American scientists have gained fame such as Steven Chu, a 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, or An Wang, Founder of Wang laboratories.  However, there are others that are less well known.  For example, Dr. C. K. Kao, a Chinese-American electrical engineer from Taiwan, derived a theory about the vital role of a material with low heat loss fibers in the transmission of communication.  This led to a breakthrough in the fiber optic technology in 1970 when three scientists at Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.) came up with a single-fiber that facilitated the recent advancement in fiber optic communications.

Notwithstanding the large influx of Chinese immigrants into the US, the treatment of Chinese Americans in the country fluctuated with the ebb and flow of international relations between the two countries.  Moreover, although their situation in the US has vastly improved when compared to that of the later 1800s, they still face significant challenges.

To begin with, many Americans do not differentiate Chinese from Japanese, or from other Asian ethnic groups.  For some Chinese, this has had consequences.  For example, in 1968, two days before his wedding day, Vincent Chin, an engineer of Chinese descent in Detroit, was bludgeoned with a baseball bat by two unemployed white autoworkers who mistaken him as a Japanese and blamed him for their job loss, which they ascribed to Japanese auto imports.  Chin went into a coma and died five days later.  Found guilty of manslaughter, the two defendants were fined $3,000 each.  Predictably, there was a public outcry about this injustice; less predictably but significantly, the Chin incident galvanized an Asian American pan-ethnic movement that had not existed before at a national level.

Secondly, some Americans presume any Chinese, or any Asian Americans they encounter, is an immigrant and seem blithely unaware that many Asian Americans are Americans by birth. This perception is what Frank Wu, in Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, has referred to as the ‘perpetual foreigners syndrome.’  For me, two examples hit close to home.  One relates to two of my children who are native Texans.  While they were growing up, I was asked frequently about their well-spoken English to which I simply replied, “they were born here.”  The other incident occurred in a BART rail-ride in San Francisco with my American-born niece.

A lady, overheard our conversation, complimented our English and asked which country we came from.  My niece was dumbfounded, not knowing how to respond, simply blurted out, “I was born here.”  The lady looked surprised and was embarrassed, to say the least.  This attitude has often left me, and others, wondering about the acceptance of Asian Americans by the general public notwithstanding our having been born here or the effort by those who are immigrants to assimilate.

It also infuriates us when there are wrongful prosecutions of Asian Americans by the US government, as in the case of Wen Ho Lee in 1999. Lee, an American of Taiwanese descent that worked as a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was indicted on 59 counts of mishandling classified government information and was charged with alleged espionage on behalf of the Peoples’ Republic of China.  He was held in solitary confinement for 278 days despite the lack of substantial evidence.

When Lee was eventually released in September 2000, US District Judge James Parker issued an official apology in open court for Lee’s maltreatment by the executive branch of the government.  Parker added that “the Department of Energy has embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”  Whatever the original basis for the charges, one may wonder whether this unsubstantiated prosecution was inspired by a general notion that Asian Americans are ‘perpetual foreigners’ because they look different from whites and are ‘not one of them.’

Thirdly, the image of Asian American as a model minority in this nation of immigrants has backfired.  Since the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s, journalists and scholars came to notice the better school performance, higher education attainment, and upward social mobility of Asian Americans, relative to the general population.  Besides publicizing their success stories, the popular media further portrayed Asian Americans as smart, hard working, and accomplished citizens that have realized the American Dream.

Unfortunately, many in the general public seems to be unaware of the ever-present familial pressure on Asian American children to excel academically, especially on those attending college.  That pressure is such that many of them suffered from depression; some have even attempted suicide. According to a 2005 report issued by Cornell University, more than 50% of its student suicide victims in the previous 10 years were Asian Americans.  Another report from CNN in 2006 stated that Asian American women ages 15 to 25 had the highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups of the same age.

Such tragic phenomenon is attributed, in part, to the emphasis of ‘face’ in the Asian cultural values mentioned in an earlier series.  Asian American children from a very young age are taught that they must achieve more than anyone else around them.  Otherwise, they face the prospect of bringing shame to their family.’  As for Asian American women, not only must they excel both academically and professionally, they also must fulfill their responsibilities assigned to their gender, whether as a daughter, a wife, and/or a daughter-in-law.

Finally, despite the value of ethnic diversity, college applicants of Asian heritage appear to suffer adverse consequences in college and university admissions, especially at Ivy League universities.  Many of them were refused acceptance because their academic performance was less competitive than their Asian American peers.  Others were rejected because of the ethnic quota set by the university.  One study showed that if the race/ethnicity preference were removed, UCLA might end up with over 50 % of its entering freshmen as Asian or Asian Americans.


All things considered, the socio-economic status of Chinese Americans is better than that of the general population.  For example, according to the 2006 American Community Survey of the US Census, 27% of the general population has a college degree or higher whereas 52% of the Chinese Americans have similar education attainment.  As for median household income, the general population has a median household income of $48,000 whereas that of Chinese Americans is $62,000.  However, some microdata from the same survey reflect certain disconcerting facts.  For example, the poverty rate of individuals of 18 years of age and over in the Chinese American community is higher (12.5%) than that of the general population (11.6%).  Similarly, the poverty rate of Chinese American seniors 65 of age and over (17.9%) is almost double  that of the general population (9.9%).  Aside from the challenges facing today’s Chinese Americans as mentioned earlier, these statistics serve to remind us that not all Chinese Americans in the US have realized their American dreams.

Author’s Note: Keep in mind that if you were to attend an event organized by Chinese for the Chinese in your community, you would learn quickly that the Chinese American community is not as homogenous as you might have thought. First of all, a U.S. born Chinese is unlikely to speak or write Chinese at all. Secondly, there is no one standardized “Chinese” oral language, but an official Chinese language called Mandarin which is one of the 26 major Chinese “dialects,” most of them mutually unintelligible. Thus, it is not unusual for two Chinese to come together and be unable to communicate with one another in any one Chinese dialect. These variations in spoken Chinese are due, in part, to regional differences in a vast country of 3.7 million square miles and 1.3 billion people.

Finally, there are three forms of written Chinese: traditional and simplified Chinese characters and pinyin— a Romanized alphabetical form used to write Mandarin. The simplified characters in written Chinese are principally the result of Mao’s initiative to increase the nation’s literacy rate by simplifying the traditional Chinese characters during his regime (1949-1976.)

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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