Butte County California Chinese Immigrants
During the last century most writers focused their research and writing regarding nineteenth century Chinese influence as it related to large political, social or economic developments. They asked questions about war, poverty, elections--won or lost--and how race, class, status, power, and gender had been used to form human identity and cultural norms.
Lately writers have written extensively about the Chinese immigrant influences, including their diaspora (spread of people throughout the world), intracountry diplomatic/transnational history, and specific country/societal assimilation, and have written about experiential social/minority history (Chinese immigrant’s experience in different societies). Geographers, social scientists, economists and historians continue to write about Chinese immigrants’ experiences hoping to clarify details of their human conditions.
While many are interested in such studies, I presume more of us are interested in their past for personal reasons, fundamentally to recreate information about past family or past places. Generally we want specific answers to very specific questions concerning the past. Where do we come from? Who are our ancestors? Why did they live their lives in certain ways? Why did they move from place to place? Modern day citizens of Chinese ethnic background, whose families have lived in the United States or elsewhere for generations, ask those same questions.
As a result of media exploitation (nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers) and formal government information (detailed immigration records), discriminatory practices have been thoroughly recorded. If modern Americans of ethnic Chinese background read nineteenth century discourses describing Chinese people as “diseases” or as “genetically inferior,” they may not be disposed to seek after their kin. Even the 1879 California Constitution states “...No Native of China, no idiot, insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, and no person hereafter convicted of the embezzlement or misappropriation of public money, shall ever exercise the privileges of an elector in this state.” Descendents of those Chinese people wonder how they became equated with “idiots,” “insane persons,” and “criminals.”
The burgeoning interest in family history and its primary and secondary sources is now finding its way onto reputable global Internet source pages. These sources are often housed thousands of miles away from the researcher, and in times past, would be shared only by those that have the time and resources to march about a region discovering buried “family” treasure. Placing substantive information on web sites allows each of us to experience the sources ourselves and ask our own personal questions or the larger questions about indigenous or immigrant people.
The Chinese immigrants coming into mid-nineteenth century American society, with its dominant white population, are now mostly nameless and faceless. In 1850 few people noticed the Chinese immigrants or knew them by name. They were described through their occupation, dress, mannerisms, food or in terms of “curiosities.” At the time of the first exclusion act (1882) the federal government began to build thousands of pieces of paperwork to keep a whole race of people “processed”--a whole race of people left out of the United States immigrant society. Some of that federal record for California has now been destroyed. Before Angel Island opened in 1910 the interrogation and often detention of Chinese was held at the San Francisco headquarters of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. More to come.