Chinese Exclusion

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Chinese Exclusion


Chinese Immigrants. In the 1870s Chinese immigrants in California, Oregon, and Washington suffered legal discrimination as well as physical intimidation. Chinese immigrants represented cheap labor and competed with native-born Americans for jobs. When a major depression struck in 1873, many Americans blamed the foreigners for contributing to the massive unemployment rate. Racism also played a role in popular attitudes toward the newcomers. To protect themselves Chinese immigrants formed Zhongua Huiguan, or Six Benevolent Companies, which lobbied against restrictive laws and tried to protect Chinese from physical violence. In 1870 California passed a Cubie Air Law, aimed at lodging houses that crowded Chinese laborers into small rooms. Each adult had to have at least five hundred cubic feet of clear air, and both landlords and tenants could be jailed for violations. The Clear Air Board, created to enforce this law, also mandated that prisoners in the city jail have their hair cut to within one inch of the scalp, thus requiring Chinese prisoners to have their queues, or long, braided ponytails, cut off.

State and Federal Law. In October 1876 a Congressional committee held hearings in San Francisco to determine what, if anything, Congress should do about Chinese immigration. Two years later Congress passed the Fifteen Passenger Bill, limiting to fifteen the number of immigrants one ship could bring to the United States from China. President Rutherford B. I Hayes vetoed the bill on 1 March 1879 as a violation of

the Burlingame Treaty (1868), which guaranteed free travel to Chinese and Americans in each others country. Nonetheless, Hayes noted in his diary that the Chinese labor invasion was pernicious and should be discouraged. In May of the same year California officials responded to public pressure by revising the state constitution and prohibiting all county and municipal governments from hiring Chinese laborers. The legislature was also given the power to ban Chinese immigration and to let towns or cities deport Chinese. During this time the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory haircutting was unconstitutional and awarded Ho Ah Kow $10,000 for the loss of his queue.

The Exclusion Act. In 1880 American diplomats in Peking signed a treaty to regulate, limit, or suspend but not to exclude completely the entry of Chinese nationals into the United States. The need for cheap labor on the railroads had waned, and China was willing to accommodate the United States, especially since its friendship would be needed to counter growing Japanese influence in the Pacific. The new president, Chester A. Arthur, vetoed a bill in April 1882 that barred Chinese immigration for twenty years, but on 6 May he signed a bill with a ten-year suspension. At the time 102,991 immigrants from Great Britain and 250,630 from Germany came to the United States; in contrast, only 39,579 Chinese immigrated to American shores. In the year after the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, 10,000 Chinese left the United States, and over the next ten years the Chinese immigrant population dropped by nearly 80,000.

Tightening the Exclusion Order. With the federal government supporting exclusion, the state of California went further to restrict Chinese activities. In June 1882 San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring laundries to be licensed by a board of supervisors. In order to receive a license, the proprietor had to have the approval of twelve neighbors. In August the Supreme Court struck down this ordinance. In October 1888, hoping to use immigration as an election issue, Democratic chairman William Scott pushed through Congress a bill with stringent stipulations. The Scott Act held that a Chinese laborer who had left the country and did not return before passage of the act could not return in the future. Some twenty thousand Chinese previously eligible to return to America now were denied admittance. Because the Scott Act exempted merchants and teachers, many Chinese took advantage of this loophole and created new identities in order to return. In 1892 Congress passed a second exclusionary act. Aside from excluding laborers for another ten years, the Geary Act denied bail to Chinese in certain cases and gave all Chinese one year to apply for a residence certificate or face deportation. The McCreary Act (1893) amended the time period needed to obtain a certificate to six months and further defined laborers to include merchants, laundry owners, miners, and fishermen.

Challenges to Exclusion. The Six Benevolent Companies challenged the exclusion acts in court. One case concerned Chae Chan Ping, who had been a legal resident of the United States from 1874 to 1887. Attempting to return to America after the Scott Act had become law, Chan Ping was detained and then turned away. He argued that the Scott Act was unconstitutional because it violated provisions of the 1882 treaty with China. In May 1889 the Supreme Court ruled that the Scott Act was indeed constitutional and that Congress alone had the power to interpret treaty stipulations. On behalf of three detained Chinese laborers, the Six Benevolent Companies in 1893 engaged Americas leading constitutional lawyers William Maxwell Evarts, J. Hubley Ashton, and Joseph Choate to challenge the Geary Act. Fong Yue Ting of New York had lived in the United States since 1879. Arrested without a writ or warrant, Fong admitted through an interpreter to being a laborer and to never applying for a residence certificate. Wong Quan was arrested and ordered deported after it was discovered that he too lacked the proper documentation. When Lee Joe made an application he was denied a certificate because his only witnesses to permanent residence in the United States were Chinese. (Under the law only whites were credible witnesses for residency.) All three cases were argued before the Supreme Court in May 1893. Government lawyers maintained that the United States had the authority to exclude whomever it pleased; the plaintiffs argued that the Bill of Rights guaranteed to all persons, not just all citizens, due process of law, including the rights to trial by jury and to have witnesses on their behalf. On 15 May the Court upheld the Geary Act as constitutional. Justice Horace Gray, for a majority of the Court, said sovereignty included the power of admitting or excluding immigrants. In dissent, Justice David Brewer, joined by Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller and Justice Stephen Field, argued that Congress had gone too far. It is true, Brewer wrote, this statute is directed only against the obnoxious Chinese; but if the power exists, who shall say it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other people? .... In view of this enactment of the highest legislative body of the foremost Christian nation, may not the thoughtful Chinese disciple of Confucius fairly ask, Why do they send missionaries here?


As the federal government and various state legislatures restricted Chinese immigration in the 1880$, Chinese throughout the United States were brutally attacked. In Denver, Colorado, on 13 December 1880, a mob of three thousand whites surrounded the homes of four hundred Chinese on Blake Street, rampaging for eight hours before police dispersed the mob with fire hoses, One Chinese man was killed; the rest were put in the city jail for their own protection, Unfortunately, while they were in jail, the mob looted their homes, When Chinese minister Chen Lanpin asked Secretary of State James G. Blaine to compensate the immigrants for their destroyed property, Blaine responded that the federal government was not liable because it had no jurisdiction over the state of Colorado.

This federal policy encouraged further attacks. In September 1885 mobs in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Coal Creek, Washington, attacked Chinese miners. Twenty-eight Chinese died in Rock Springs, and $150,000 worth of property was destroyed. A grand jury dominated by the Knights of Labor refused to indict any of the rioters. President Grover Cleveland, under pressure from the Chinese government, agreed to compensate the immigrants for their losses. The formation of an Anti-Chinese Congress in the state of Washington soon followed. On 24 October a Seattle mob burned Chinese homes to the ground, and on 3 November white residents in Tacoma drove all the Chinese from that city, Chinese laborers were warned to leave Washington by 5 November, Federal troops did not restore order until three days later.

Conclusion. In 1894 the United States and China negotiated a new treaty which rescinded the Scott Act but still banned immigration for ten years and denied American citizenship to Chinese workers. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had gone too far in prescribing imprisonment and hard labor to Chinese found in violation of the exclusion orders. However, the courts in general upheld the governments power to deport Chinese. After the United States acquired Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898, Congress barred Chinese in either of those places from entering the mainland. Even Chinese born in the United States were subject to exclusion. Jew Wong Loy, born in San Francisco in 1877, went to China the following year with his parents. In August 1898 he tried to return to California but was refused. His uncle, who had remained in America, testified that Jew Wong Loy was an American by birth, but his testimony was discounted because he could not remember where Loys parents lived in China. On the other hand, in the same year Loy was denied entry, the Supreme Court ruled that Wong Kim Ark was an American citizen, as he was born in the United States to parents who were permanent residents. Meanwhile, a legal immigrant working in an Oregon laundry sent for his two sons, aged eleven and thirteen. The boys came from Hong Kong in 1896 and were enrolled in school. The federal government moved against the two boys, Chu Hee and Chu How. Though a district court in Oregon decided that the boys could stay, the federal government appealed the decision, and in 1899 a circuit court ordered the boys deported. The discrimination against Chinese culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902, which put an indefinite ban on all Chinese immigration. This act was not repealed until 1920.


Shih-shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986).

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