U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act; Passed into Law on May 6, 1882

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U.S. Congress
Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act; Passed into Law on May 6, 1882

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"A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist."
—Mark Twain, 1872

Chinese immigrants (people admitted to a foreign country to become legal citizens of that country) crossed the Pacific Ocean by the thousands in the mid-1800s. The event that sparked such massive migration was the 1849 California gold rush. Prior to that time, Chinese emigrated in smaller numbers, and they were favorably welcomed when they landed at Angel Island in San Francisco. Angel Island was the detention center for those immigrants coming to America's western shores. It was nicknamed the "Ellis Island of the west." (Ellis Island was the immigration processing center located in New York; see Chapter 3.)

The majority of the early Chinese immigrants were men. Most were successful businessmen. Those who were not businessmen brought with them other beneficial skills. These men were fishermen, artists, craftsmen, restaurant owners, or innkeepers. They quickly became known as dependable, hard-working citizens.

San Francisco was home to about twenty-five thousand Chinese by 1851; more than half the population of the United States was in that region. No longer primarily a skilled group of immigrants, the Chinese who came to the United States with the start of the gold rush were mostly unskilled laborers. They prospected for gold for themselves or sold their labor to other miners. Many Chinese were sojourners (people who came to another country temporarily to work and return home with money). A great number of them, however, discovered their chances for success were greater in San Francisco than they had been in their homeland. They opened businesses such as laundries and restaurants. During the gold rush years, they were guaranteed business. After the gold rush, many Chinese immigrants found work in railroad construction for the Central Pacific Railroad. The work was physically brutal and dangerous; hundreds of men died building the Transcontinental Railroad. Although ten thousand Chinese labored for the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, they were never publicly recognized for their contribution. No Chinese workers appear in a famous group photo taken at Promontory Point in Utah, where the eastern track met with the western track.

Those who did not work for the railroad found low-paying industrial or agricultural jobs. These unskilled workers were referred to as "coolies" (derived from words from various languages that mean "hired laborers"), and American-born citizens came to resent their presence. They believed coolies were taking jobs from them, yet the jobs these Chinese immigrants took were those no native-born workers would accept, because they were dangerous, difficult, low-paying, or all three. Hatred of the Chinese intensified as American companies hired them while other workers were without jobs.

As anti-Chinese sentiment spread, violence toward the immigrants increased. In 1862, eighty-eight Chinese were reported murdered, a figure many historians say is inaccurately low. The Chinese did not want to further antagonize authorities, so they probably did not report every incident. When jobs became scarce even for skilled laborers, the immigrants organized the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a group of organizations better known as the Chinese Six Companies that acted as a clearinghouse where the Chinese would contract for work with American companies. Even with this organized labor activity, work became hard to find as Americans became more hateful. Many Chinese resorted to work as gardeners or domestic (household) servants.

American hatred was fueled by more than just resentment over jobs. As a society, America prided itself on its moral values. The Chinese immigrants had values and customs that differed from those of Americans. As a way of surviving in a foreign land without losing their cultural identity, the Chinese formed their own city-within-a-city, called Chinatown. Chinatowns were built all over the country, wherever a large Chinese population existed. These little cities operated completely independent of their surroundings. Everything the Chinese needed to survive and maintain their own traditions existed within the boundaries of Chinatown. Like other areas in cities, Chinatown offered activities of questionable morality, such as prostitution (selling sex) and gambling. Even as American-born citizens enjoyed these pastimes in Chinatown, they blamed the Chinese for being an immoral race.

In 1870, Congress passed the Naturalization Act. Naturalization is the process by which an immigrant becomes a legal citizen of a foreign country. During the early nineteenth century, immigrants from any country could become United States citizens. In a direct effort to cut down on the number of Chinese immigrants coming to America, the Naturalization Act restricted citizenship to "white persons and persons of African descent." No longer were Chinese immigrants eligible for legal citizenship.

That law was only the beginning of America's immigration restriction laws. On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur (1829–1886; served 1881–85) signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law forbid Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States for ten years.

Mark Twain on Chinese Immigrants

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835–1910) was, above all others, the writer who exemplified the Gilded Age (roughly 1877–99). In fact, he was the one who coined the term "Gilded Age," when he titled his first novel-length work The Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was the period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century), characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption.

Twain quickly became known for his sharp wit and social criticism. In 1872, he published a book titled Roughing It, in which he included comments about American sentiment toward Chinese immigrants. As was true in many cases, Twain was critical of America's behavior and attitude. What follows is an excerpt from Roughing It:

They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable [easily managed], free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious [productive] as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist. So long as a Chinaman has strength to use his hands he needs no support from anybody; white men often complain of want of work, but a Chinaman offers no such complaint; he always manages to find something to do. He is a great convenience to everybody—even to the worst class of white men, for he bears the most of their sins, suffering fines for their petty thefts, imprisonment for their robberies, and death for their murders. Any white man can swear a Chinaman's life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man. Ours is the "land of the free"—nobody denies that—nobody challenges it. (Maybe it is because we won't let other people testify.) As I write, news comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death, and that although a large crowd witnessed the shameful deed, no one interfered.

Things to remember while reading the
excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act:

  • Chinese immigrants already living in America at the time of passage of the act were allowed to remain in the country.
  • Chinese businessmen and those in skilled trades were not barred from entering the United States under the Exclusion Act, but they could never become legal citizens. This meant they had no legal protection or the right to vote.
  • The South was home to a large Chinese immigrant population, where laborers worked primarily in agriculture. The most violent opposition to the Chinese began in the South, where Americans historically believed themselves to be superior to any other race.

Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act

An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese.

Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.

SEC. 2. That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and may be also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

SEC.3.Thatthetwo foregoing sections shall not apply to Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and who shall produce to such master before going on board such vessel, and shall produce to the collector of the port in the United States at which such vessel shall arrive, the evidence hereinafter in this act required of his being one of the laborers in this section mentioned; nor shall the two foregoing sections apply to the case of any master whose vessel, being bound to a port not within the United States, shall come within the jurisdiction of the United States by reason of being in distress or in stress of weather, or touching at any port of the United States on its voyage to any foreign port or place: Provided, That all Chinese laborers brought on such vessel shall depart with the vessel on leaving port.

SEC. 4. That for the purpose of properly identifying Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and in order to furnish them with the proper evidence of their right to go from and come to the United States of their free will and accord, as provided by the treaty between the United States and China dated November seventeenth, eighteen hundred and eighty, the collector of customs of the district from which any such Chinese laborer shall depart from the United States shall, in person or by deputy, go on board each vessel having on board any such Chinese laborers and cleared or about to sail from his district for a foreign port, and on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall be entered in registry-books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks of peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each of such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the custom-house; and every such Chinese laborer so departing from the United States shall be entitled to, and shall receive, free of any charge or cost upon application therefore, from the collector or his deputy, at the time such list is taken, a certificate, signed by the collector or his deputy and attested by his seal of office, in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, which certificate shall contain a statement of the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, personal description, and facts of identification of the Chinese laborer to whom the certificate is issued, corresponding with the said list and registry in all particulars. In case any Chinese laborer after having received such certificate shall leave such vessel before her departure he shall deliver his certificate to the master of the vessel, and if such Chinese laborer shall fail to return to such vessel before her departure from port the certificate shall be delivered by the master to the collector of customs for cancellation. The certificate herein provided for shall entitle the Chinese laborer to whom the same is issued to return to and re-enter the United States upon producing and delivering the same to the collector of customs of the district at which such Chinese laborer shall seek to re-enter; and upon delivery of such certificate by such Chinese laborer to the collector of customs at the time of re-entry in the United States said collector shall cause the same to be filed in the custom-house and duly canceled.

SEC. 5. That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land, shall have the right to demand and receive, free of charge or cost, a certificate of identification similar to that provided for in section four of this act to be issued to such Chinese laborers as may desire to leave the United States by water; and it is hereby made the duty of the collector of customs of the district next adjoining the foreign country to which said Chinese laborer desires to go to issue such certificate, free of charge or cost, upon application by such Chinese laborer, and to enter the same upon registry-books to be kept by him for the purpose, as provided for in section four of this act.

SEC. 6. That in order to the faithful execution of articles one and two of the treaty in this act before mentioned, every Chinese person other than a laborer who may be entitled by said treaty and this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall be identified as so entitled by the Chinese Government in each case, such identity to be evidenced by a certificate issued under the authority of said government, which certificate shall be in the English language or (if not in the English language) accompanied by a translation into English, stating such right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title or official rank, if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China of the person to whom the certificate is issued and that such person is entitled, conformably to the treaty in this act mentioned to come within the United States. Such certificate shall be prima-facie evidence of the fact set forth therein, and shall be produced to the collector of customs, or his deputy, of the port in the district in the United States at which the person named therein shall arrive.

SEC. 7. That any person who shall knowingly and falsely alter or substitute any name for the name written in such certificate or forge any such certificate, or knowingly utter any forged or fraudulent certificate, or falsely personate any person named in any such certificate, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor; and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned in a penitentiary for a term of not more than five years.

SEC. 8. That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report of the entry of the vessel pursuant to law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers, deliver and report to the collector of customs of the district in which such vessels shall have arrived a separate list of all Chinese passengers taken on board his vessel at any foreign port or place, and all such passengers on board the vessel at that time. Such list shall show the names of such passengers (and if accredited officers of the Chinese Government traveling on the business of that government, or their servants, with a note of such facts), and the names and other particulars, as shown by their respective certificates; and such list shall be sworn to by the master in the manner required by law in relation to the manifest of the cargo. Any willful refusal or neglect of any such master to comply with the provisions of this section shall incur the same penalties and forfeiture as are provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of the cargo.

SEC. 9. That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such line vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passenger, comparing the certificate with the list and with the passengers; and no passenger shall be allowed to land in the United States from such vessel in violation of law.

SEC. 10. That every vessel whose master shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed forfeited to the United States, and shall be liable to seizure and condemnation in any district of the United States into which such vessel may enter or in which she may be found.

SEC. 11. That any person who shall knowingly bring into or cause to be brought into the United States by land, or who shall knowingly aid or abet the same, or aid or abet the landing in the United States from any vessel of any Chinese person not lawfully entitled to enter the United States, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

SEC. 12. That no Chinese person shall be permitted to enter the United States by land without producing to the proper officer of customs the certificate in this act required of Chinese persons seeking to land from a vessel. And any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the President of the United States, and at the cost of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.

SEC. 13. That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and household servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons.

SEC. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed .

SEC. 15. That the words "Chinese laborers", wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.

What happened next …

The enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act sparked an illegal immigration movement that involved an Underground Railroad, similar to that used by African American slaves earlier in the century. Natural-born Americans and Chinese immigrants already in the United States worked together to smuggle Chinese across the border through Texas. Once in Texas, those illegal immigrants attended a secret school that taught them enough English to help them find work. As important as they were before 1882, Chinatowns took on an even more central role for immigrants, providing them with immediate and necessary shelter and work.

The act was renewed for another ten years in 1892, and it became permanent in 1904. Despite passage of the act, America's Chinese population continued to grow. It reached its peak in 1890, with approximately 107,488 Chinese living in America. China became America's ally in World War II (1939–45), and the ban was lifted in 1943. At that time, Chinese were subject to the same immigration laws as any other immigrant group. Most of the Chinese who came to the United States after the war were women, many of them wives of Chinese men already living in America.

Did you know …

  • In 1890, the ratio of Chinese males to females was 27:1. Those immigrants lived in what is known as a bachelor (single male) society. The only reason the Chinese American population was sustained was through illegal immigration, which brought to the States thousands of Chinese women.
  • A law known as the Scott Act was passed in 1888. The act, named after U.S. representative William Scott (1828–1891) of Pennsylvania, forbid any Chinese already living in the States to return to their homeland. As a result, thousands of Chinese families were permanently separated and would never see one another again.
  • Chinatowns in the 1800s were often overcrowded, crime-ridden slums. Restoration led to a renewed interest in these cultural centers located in big cities, and they became profitable tourist destinations in the mid-1900s.

Consider the following …

  • What are the similarities between illegal Chinese immigration of the late nineteenth century and the illegal immigration situation in current society? What are the differences?
  • How could the federal government prevent the conflicts between Americans and Chinese immigrants?
  • How did the preponderance of Chinese male immigrants contribute to the misconceptions Americans had of the immigrants and Chinese culture in general?

For More Information


Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking, 2003.

Daniels, Roger. American Immigration: A Student Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gillenkirk, Jeff, and James Motlow. Bitter Melon: Inside America's Last Rural Chinese Town. Berkeley, CA: Heydey Books, 1993.

Lingen, Marissa K. Chinese Immigration. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2004.

McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Miscevic, Dusanka, and Peter Kwong. Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience. Westport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2000.

Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don't Bring Their Women Here: Chinese Female Immigration Before Exclusion. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Yin. Coolies. New York: Philomel Books, 2001.


"Chinese Exclusion Act." Digital History.http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=419 (accessed on July 14, 2006).

"Immigration, the Journey to America: The Chinese." Thinkquest.org.http://library.thinkquest.org/20619/Chinese.html (accessed on July 14, 2006).

Library of Congress. "Mark Twain's Observations About Chinese Immigrants in California." American Memory: Rise of Industrial America, 1876–1900: ChineseImmigration to the United States, 1851–1900.http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/riseind/chinimms/twain.html (accessed on July 14, 2006).

Lum, Lydia. "Angel Island: Journeys Remembered by Chinese Houstonians." HoustonChronicle.com.http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/special/angelisland/intro.html (accessed on July 14, 2006).

"Transcript of Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)." OurDocuments.gov.http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=47&page=transcript (accessed on August 9, 2006).

Boat or ship.
Previously mentioned.
Money collected as taxes.
Carrying out.
Prima facie:
Assumed to be true.
Put into circulation.
Given official approval.

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U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act; Passed into Law on May 6, 1882

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U.S. Congress: Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act; Passed into Law on May 6, 1882