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Rise of Industrial America
Chinese Immigration to the United States
Enactments So Utterly Un-American

Constance Gordon-Cumming was an Englishwoman whose far-flung travels included California. Granite Crags (1884), from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900, is a volume of her travel letters. In the following excerpt from that book, who did Gordon-Cumming blame for the federal legislation that excluded Chinese immigrants from the United States? What may account for her views? Why did she find this legislation so unjust?

View more of Gordon-Cumming's observations (scroll down to page 369) about the Chinese in California. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


A very large section of the city [Oakland, California] is occupied by Chinamen--for the Celestials muster strong in San Francisco; in fact they number about 30,000, and about 70,000 more are hard at work in all parts of California. Their special quarter in this city is known as Chinatown. It is built on hilly ground, and its long steep streets are intersected by narrow alleys and wretched courtyards, where an incredible number of human beings are huddled together in the smallest possible compass. The houses are as crowded and as hopelessly dirty as in many parts of the old town of Edinburgh and other British cities, where the very poor congregate. All precautions being utterly ignored, the district is foul beyond description.

But the miracle is to see what really well-washed, neatly dressed, smiling and shining men come forth from their filthy and miserable homes, to do faithful and honest work at fair wages--not necessarily lower wages than those demanded by white men, but in return for which, work is, as a general rule, more conscientiously done.

The cruel and unreasonable howl against Chinese immigration is raised by jealous men who would fain keep a monopoly of all work, and do it on their own terms and in their own fashion--earning enough in a day to keep them idle for a week. They cannot forgive the frugal, patient, hard-working Celestial, who is content to work cheerfully from dawn till midnight, for wages equal to three shillings a-day (some can earn six shillings a-day), and contrive to save a considerable sum in the course of a few years. The low Irish and the dreadful San Franciscan hoodlums (young roughs) have no sympathy with the self-denial of men who willingly live on rice and vegetables, that they may save up such a sum as will enable them to return to their own homes, there to invest their little capital, first providing for their parents.

The constant cry against the Chinamen is, that they earn money in America, and take it all out of the country--even importing from China their clothes, their rice, and their opium--and so in no way benefit trade. Their detractors do not take into account the good sterling work by which the country is enriched, both at the time, and in some cases permanently. For Chinese labour has been largely employed in all departments of State work--in railway and road making, and wherever else steady and hard and conscientious work is required. Many masters of large factories bear witness to the satisfactory nature of the work done for them by Chinese hands, in contrast with the manner in which it is scamped by white men, when they are tempted to yield to the general howl, and employ only white labour. . . .

So, however little John Chinaman may be appreciated as the representative of the coming race, his departure from California would be bewailed by many, as a serious loss to the Granite State.

Concluding Note.

The month of May 1881 was marked by the most extraordinary anomaly which could possibly have arisen, among a people whose national existence is based on the Declaration of Independence, and the assumption of liberty and equality of all men, without distinction of race or colour.

This extraordinary event was nothing less than that the American Legislature should have yielded to the clamours of the low Irish in California, and to their ceaseless anti-Chinese howl, to the extent of actually passing a law prohibiting all Chinese immigration for the next ten years, beginning from ninety days after the passing of the Act, heavy penalties being inflicted on any Shipmaster who shall land any Chinaman of the labouring class at any port in the Land of Freedom. An exception is made in favour of merchants, diplomatists, travellers, and students, provided they are duly provided with passports!

A law has also been passed to prevent any Chinaman from becoming an American citizen--the fear being that so many might wish to avail themselves of that privilege, that the whole white population of the Pacific coast would ultimately find itself a small minority, and that the Chinese "Six Companies" (mysterious but mighty potentates, who rule all the affairs of their countrymen in California) would actually rule in the Legislature of the State.

That enactments so utterly un-American could have been suffered to pass, appears so extraordinary, that it has been generally assumed to have been brought forward by the Republican party, solely as a means of making political capital by securing the Democratic vote. If such was indeed the secret spring of action, it is so far satisfactory to know that it failed in securing its object, the Democrats having frustrated that move by voting in favour of the bill. Public opinion appears to have been about equally divided on the question, the Eastern States taking part with the Chinamen, the Western States clamouring for his exclusion.

The clamour, however, has carried the day, and for the next ten years no Chinese workman may enter the Golden Gates of the American Paradise.
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View more of Gordon-Cumming's observations (scroll down to page 369) about the Chinese in California. For other observations, use the Book Navigator for Granite Crags from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. To return to this point, use your browser's Back Button.