Butte County California Chinese Immigrants



The Chinese who came to California played a major role in the development of the chaotic gold rush in the Sacramento Valley and foothill communities. These laboring people combined hard work with unusual capabilities needed in mining endeavors, then used their hard work ethic to give themselves opportunities to work in agricultural development, including land reclamation, building of railroad beds, canals and irrigation facilities and, in urban areas, commercial and retail development.

Thousands immigrated to the United States before the first exclusion acts (basically 1850 to 1882) (Hardwick and Holtgrieve 1996:91). Federal data, even decennial census Chinese returns, are likely severely undercounted and remain suspect as reputable sources.

Economic problems in mid-nineteenth century China, especially widespread famine brought on by internal and external wars, religious and racial conflict, produced a massive global economic out-migration. With Chinese entrance into the United States territories, various settlement crises followed, including reoccurring racial violence, discriminatory legislation on local and national levels, and restrictive citizenship rights that led to a precarious survival (Loo 1991:31). Global immigration worldwide provided similar experiences as those found in the United States.

We know more about them, not because of who they were, but for what was “done” to them by those in political control. We know little about them for what they accomplished or what they did for themselves as part of this large immigrant nation. The earliest Chinese immigrants (97% male--Chinese women were culturally prohibited from leaving their homeland) flooded California seeking economic opportunity. American traders in China described them as superstition-ridden, cruel, diseased, amoral and filthy. The prejudice in white America was evident long before California’s gold rush. These ideas became entrenched in the public consciousness leading to violence and discriminatory laws.

We know that kinship networks and social/economic group alignment, culturally manifested in the south China provinces, were transferred from the homeland to the United States. Pooling resources through relatives or sponsors, immigrants were provided jobs and business opportunities in the new “American” society. Coming from the war- and famine-torn Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province area inland from the Pearl River Delta, most nineteenth century Chinese immigrants spoke dialects of Say-up or Toishan (60 to 80% of the Chinese who came). This language, spoken by the majority in those provinces, was brought from northern invaders who had moved steadily south toward Canton and the power and fortunes provided by the sea.

Assimilationist historians have been quick to note the Chinese were exceptions to the melting pot theory, not wanting to settle down but wanting to become sojourners. The 1789 United States Constitution, however, only recognized two racial groups, “Negro” and “white,” initially allowing only white Europeans the basic freedoms and privileges of naturalization and citizenship (Hardwick and Holtgrieve 1996:91). They were not slaves or Native Americans, not able to be wards of the states or placed on rancherias or reservations. By the early 1850’s, California law, if not federal law, had already begun to chip away at the Chinese, designating them as a new underclass, a new racial group with little privileges. They were shortly to be classed “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (Wey 1980:107), forced through the law to be aligned with black slaves and Native Americans.

Like other seekers of gold, they made for the Sierra and the Siskiyou foothills, settling first in the small and temporary gold mining communities (Hardwick and Holtgrieve 1996:93). By 1870, having been continually denied social or economic progression, many shifted their focus into areas of labor available near the urban areas of the state amid the coastal and/or in the central valley farm/orchard/ranching communities. They found employment in domestic work, land reclamation, planting and harvesting, manufacturing, and other common labor jobs such as railroad building. Others opened small businesses, retail and wholesale companies responsible for bringing Chinese specialized food and culturally-based medical supplies to other Chinese immigrants. Some, especially in Butte County near Oroville, did not retreat from mining or from jobs closely aligned with mining operations. Census and assessor’s records show hundreds of Chinese immigrants working in mining and mining service operations through 1880 and beyond. Chico, a city 20 miles northwest of Oroville, was a valley agricultural town, showing little or no mining or mining activity jobs. Those coming to Chico and other parts of Butte County looked to laundry, agriculture, or laboring in lumber manufacturing for livelihood.

California’s long list of discriminatory legislation against the Chinese commenced from the early state constitution charging a monthly Foreign Miners Tax in 1850 (Loo 1991:34-35). This $20.00 tax was originally directed against all foreign nationals in an attempt to make California a “white” only mining territory. Between 1851 and 1870, however, the Chinese were the hardest hit, paying an estimated five million dollars--many doing so while being either subtly or forcefully pressured to leave their mining operations or perish. Other forms of taxation, on the state and local county or urban level, used discriminatory measures to purposefully include the Chinese as aliens or were complicit in segregating them into economically undesirable, less profitable occupations. Between 1850 and 1879 California lawmakers enacted numerous discriminatory acts in the development of two state constitutions against resident Chinese (Loo 1991:36). Justices of the United States Supreme Court were kept busy declaring most of these acts unconstitutional.

By 1868 a weakening United States government and the continued weakening Ch’ing dynasty in China had agreed to a newly signed treaty. Dubbed the Burlingame Treaty, it overtly recognized the rights of citizens to migrate into and reside in both countries with the complete protection of legislation enactments and law enforcement. Anti-Chinese immigration sentiment in California had already fully blossomed, however, progressing from local harassment and violence to the pressure of massive national political movements. Labor and labor organizers were growing significantly stronger using the local and some national newspaper publishers to renounce Chinese migration and labor. Induced by powerful labor unions, editors and publishers began to write slanderous and scathing stories about Chinese culture and religion and supported political rallies advocating strong opposition to the rights of Chinese laborers.

After a long, booming economic growth period, California’s laboring classes fortunes began to experience a painful recession. A year later, in 1869, white workers were already blaming the Chinese workers for high unemployment rates in California, low wages, and poor working conditions. The Chinese workers, though, had simply proven they could outperform “white” workers on every level. Labor leaders and the workingmen were offended. By labeling them “filthy heathens” or “enslaved coolies” in newspapers and magazines, labor leadership and organizers set the stage for the first exclusionary immigration laws ever enacted in the United States.

Driven by political entanglements and bitterness of labor vs. management issues, the white elected leaders of the nation (Chinese could not vote) allowed a whole race of people to be made criminals by their very presence in the country. These restrictions (first placed into law in 1882) closely followed similar changes made in California’s second constitutional convention of 1879. Basic concepts of discrimination against what was called “foreign domination” of California were written into state law by the constitutional convention attendees and adopted by the delegates of all political parties. Doing so aligned the laws of California’s new constitution with the soon-to-be changes in national immigration law regarding Chinese people.

On May 8, 1882, the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Chester Arthur (Wegars 1993:238). It suspended the openness of the Burlingame Treaty, disallowing laborers from China the right to immigrate to the United States for ten years. It afforded students, teachers, tourists, diplomats and merchants entrance privileges as resident aliens but made all Chinese (even those born in the United States) ineligible for naturalization. Laborers who temporarily left the United States to visit with family in China needed special return certificates to re-enter the country. Chinese nationals could not bring wives or family members into the United States under the restrictions set out in this statute. Congress renewed and strengthened the Exclusion Act with the passage of the Scott Act in 1888. This statute increased exclusionary policies by barring all Chinese laborers (even those who had been here for years) from leaving and returning to the United States (Wey 1980:118; Peery 1968:70).

The Geary Act (May 5, 1892) continued these regulations against the Chinese (Minnick 1988:170; Perry 1968:70) for another ten years. Under this law Chinese who were Americans citizens and non-citizens from any class were required to carry residence certificates as proof of their right to be in the country (the first green cards). The United States customs agency (later to become the Immigration and Naturalization Service--INS) created an internal passport system and specific documentation had to be carried on one’s person at all times. This arbitrary law did not distinguish between those Chinese who were aliens and others who were born citizens (Wegers 1993:240). The penalty for not having this documentation was imprisonment for a year of hard labor and then deportation.

“It shall be the duty of all Chinese laborers within the limits of the United States, at the time of the passage of this act, and who are entitled to remain in the United States, to apply to the collector of internal revenue of their respective districts, within one year after the passage of this act, for a certificate of residence, and any Chinese laborer, within the United States, who shall neglect, fail, or refuse to comply with the provisions of this act, or who, after one year from the passage hereof, shall be found within the jurisdiction of the United States without such certificate of residence, shall be deemed and adjudged to be unlawfully within the United States, and may be arrested…(27 U.S. Statues at Large, pages 25-26).”

Some of the Chinese fought against these discriminatory tactics, hoping to win a test case brought to the supreme court. By refusing to comply (and some say fully 80% did not) many in California were arrested and imprisoned only to be deported later. Because no relief came from the courts, the requirements for identification continued to stand. Exclusion laws were made permanent for an additional ten years in 1902 and were hardened in 1904.

Photographic representation was a part of the required process of identification. A detailed Certificate of Residence form had to be filled out to comply with the law. It stated:

”This is to certify that (individuals name), a Chinese has made application, no. (each certificate was numbered) to me for a Certificate of Residence, under the provisions of the Act of Congress approved May 5, 1892, and I certify that it appears from the affidavits of witnesses submitted with said application the said (individuals name) was within the limits of the United States at the time of the passage of said Act, and was then residing at (a named place)and that he was lawfully entitled to remain in the United States, and that the following is a descriptive list of said Chinese (individuals name) viz: Name, Age, Local Residence, Occupation, Height, Color of Eyes, Complexion, Physical Marks or Peculiarities for Identification. And, as a further means of Identification, I have affixed hereto a photographic likeness of said (individuals name). GIVEN UNDER MY HAND AND SEAL the (day, month, year) at (named place) State of (name). Signed by Collector of Internal Revenue or other government official and district”.

These certificates were normally 8 1/2 by 11 inches in size, but many of differing sizes have been found. Duplicates were kept by the immigration officials and became part of the National Archives collection when it was organized in 1934. Many, if not all, of the duplicate Certificate of Residence records held by the National Archives for the San Francisco district were destroyed. The INS applied to the National Archives to dispose of those records (Disposal job II-NNA-2668) in January of 1958. Included in this application was the statement “these records have no appreciable value for research purposes,” a statement that surely completes the discrimination. Even the federal records administration, so important for ongoing preservation of documents of value, in this case, was discriminatory toward Chinese-Americans.