Chinese americans in the 19th Century
While there is evidence to support the arrival of Chinese to the United States prior to the mid-19th Century (1), it was during this period that the first large migration of Chinese began arriving in America, many from the Canton region of China, Spurned on by civil war, floods and droughts, and little opportunities in their own homeland, many Chinese men and a few women hoped to seek their fortunes during the rush for gold in "Gold Mountain"(2).
At the beginning, entry into the U.S. was uneventful, as the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the United States and China allowed Chinese to migrate. Under this treaty, while children who were born in the U.S. would automatically become American citizens, Chinese, unlike the European immigrants, could not become naturalized citizens (3). To earlier Chinese, becoming a naturalized citizen may not have mattered, as many wanted to return to China anyway, rich from gold found in America. This, however, as we shall see, will have later consequences for future Chinese immigrants.
A few Chinese did become rich in the gold fields of America, however most Chinese contented themselves to working over "spent" mines or riverbeds. Whereas an American gold-seeker might dismiss a river-bed or mine as "unprofitable and not worth the time and effort", Chinese would diligently work at it, gleaning small bits or flakes of gold (4).
As more and more Chinese arrived in America, other gold-seekers began viewing Chinese as a menace. Many incidents of Chinese being murdered, having their claims taken over or "jumped" by whites, forced to pay exorbitant permit fees to mine, and being denied any civil liberties are documented (5). Still, the Chinese were viewed as hard and dependable workers, and many Chinese who did not become miners took other jobs. These jobs included domestic servants, farming, laundering, cooking, peddling, and becoming storekeepers. Others worked at jobs that nobody else wanted or would consider too dirty (6).
Many Chinese also worked on the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese were often exploited and worked under the most hazardous of conditions. As an example, Chinese laborers were lowered from mountainsides and used to tunnel through mountains using the highly unstable and volatile nitro-glycerin. Many times, Chinese often suffered serious injury and death from premature explosions. The term "not a Chinaman's chance" is often associated with this type of action (7).