Certificate of Vote on "An Act to Ascertain and Express the Will of the People of the State on California on the Subject of Chinese Immigration," 1879
The opinion of 161,405 California voters in 1879 represents a critical turning point in the history of Chinese immigration into the United States. The overwhelming majority of California voters revealed themselves to be opposed to immigration, even though many Americans had been supportive of it just a decade earlier when in 1868 the Burlingame Treaty was signed, facilitating immigration between the United States and China in order to feed the insatiable demand for cheap labor on the intercontinental railroad. Urged by the myth of the "golden mountain" and the belief that anyone could become wealthy in America, many Chinese took the opportunity to participate in the gold rush by operating mines in the Sierra Nevada.
American citizens accepted these new immigrants until the railroad was completed and gold became scarce. As thousands of Chinese railroad workers and miners moved into the cities of California and set up distinct ethnic neighborhoods, American citizens became wary of their unfamiliar customs. Left without other options, the immigrants began providing cheap labor in various industries, notably agriculture and laundromats. Misunderstanding a symptom of the sluggish economy as the source of it, the Workingmen’s Party of California started lobbying for the expulsion of the Chinese, who, they claimed, drove down wages and were incapable of assimilating into American culture. One popular argument held that Europeans had come to America with good intentions to seek opportunities and had been welcomed with open arms, even though European immigrants had, in fact, been spurned just a few decades earlier.
Anti-Chinese sentiment came to a head during a labor rally in San Francisco in 1877. A number of protestors attacked a Chinese man, inciting three days of rioting during which Chinese businesses were destroyed and Chinese immigrants were beaten on the streets. By the time Californians voted on the issue of Chinese immigration in 1879, public opinion had clearly shifted. This resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which halted the immigration of Chinese (and eventually all Asian) laborers.
Despite heavy resistance to Chinese immigration, many immigrants were able to gain admittance to America by posing as family members of US citizens. Those who were able to settle in the United States created a vibrant community that relied on itself to obtain the rights it did not receive from the American government. Thanks in part to the lobbying of these communities, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, the same year that the United States allied with China in World War II. Eventually, citizenship was extended to Chinese immigrants as well.
This document portrays just one of many chapters in the history of US immigration in which a group has to be demonized before it becomes accepted. Even though the vast majority of Californians voted in favor of excluding Chinese immigrants from the United States in 1879, Chinese Americans enjoy the same freedoms as any other American citizen today.
R. Scott Baxter, "The Response of California's Chinese Populations to the Anti-Chinese Movement," Historical Archaeology 42, no. 3, The Archaeology of Chinese Immigrant and Chinese American Communities (2008): 29-36.
The Chinese in California, 1850-1925, Library of Congress Teachers' Resources, accessed November 2012, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/chinese-cal/index.html.
Eric W. Fong and William T. Markham, "Anti-Chinese Politics in California in the 1870s: An Intercounty Analysis," Sociological Perspectives 45 (2002): 183-210.
Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).