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The Significance of Chinese Immigrants in American History

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The American Industrial Revolution took place during the nineteenth century. As a result, new inventions were produced including the Steam Engine. The Steam Engine was a revolutionary invention that was capable of mass transportation. Two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, worked together in order to commence the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. This caused the second wave of immigration, as cheap labor was required for the project. Primarily, the second wave of immigration in America consisted of Chinese and Irish immigrants. However, although both races were immigrants, Chinese immigrants were treated as outcasts in American society. This was shown through the use of government regulations placed upon the Chinese immigrants followed by frequent riots against them.

Although both races were immigrants, each immigrated to America for different reasons. The Irish suffered from the Great Potato famine. In Ireland, potatoes were the Irish’s main food source. However, a potato blight caused the crop to become rotten and inedible. As food became limited, there was a mass famine in Ireland. In order escape the famine, the majority of Irish people immigrated to the United States. From 1847 to 1852, nearly a million immigrants immigrated into the United States. They also immigrated to the United States for religious freedom. At the time, Ireland was colonized by Britain and encouraged to convert to Protestant. As an incentive to becoming Protestant, the government would provide financial aid to those who convert and ignore those who didn’t. The majority of the Irish population was Catholic at the time and unable to practice their religious beliefs. Because of this, they sought religious freedom they soon immigrated into the United States.

On the other hand, Chinese immigrants immigrated for economic purposes. Back in China, there was mass poverty. Families would live in small homes and have very limited food to eat from. Due to these conditions; the Chinese sought for economic opportunity. At the time, California was discovered to have large amounts of gold. Because of this, from 1849 to 1930, 380,000 Chinese Immigrants traveled to the United States. Doing so, they hoped to mine gold in order to send back money to their families in China. This period was known as the California Gold Rush. However, not all Chinese immigrants immigrated for gold, as they planned to work on the Transcontinental Railroad in order to make small accumulations of money in exchange for strenuous labor.

During the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, there were differences in productivity between the two races of immigrants. The two companies, Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad planned to build on opposing sides and meet at the Utah Territory. The Union Pacific started from the east while the Central Pacific Railroad started from the west coast. The Chinese immigrants were shown to be a better choice then Irish immigrants. Not only did the Chinese work harder, but they also worked for less pay.

The Chinese immigrants were very successful due to their prior knowledge from China. Chinese laborers were able to use explosives and gunpowder, further speeding up the construction process. On the other hand, Irish workers had trouble keeping up with the Chinese, as they were found to be usually drunk and rowdy. Because of this, construction from the Central Pacific Railroad Company was slower than that of the Union Pacific Railroad. Irish workers would quit after receiving their first paycheck, as the work was very dangerous. This caused the Union Pacific to lack laborers. It was suggested by the Central Pacific to use Chinese immigrants, as they had a good reputation from the work they did. Soon enough, thousands of Chinese workers were hired to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, but were treated differently than white workers. Although they received 35$ per month (the same pay as white workers), they had to pay for other expenses. This included food and housing. The white workers had these necessities given to them with their work. Although this was the case, Chinese laborers used this to their advantage. Because they had to pay for food, their diets were healthier than other races. Chinese laborers were able to eat foods such as fish, fruit, and rice. Most importantly, they drank tea, which boiled the germs from water. On the other hand, the white workers drank contaminated water and ate unhealthy diets. Because of this, Chinese laborers were in a more fit condition than other workers. Although Chinese immigrants were key to the success of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, they were exploited by their bosses. They were often treated as if they were slaves, and whipped to work harder. This was not the worst of it all. When the project was completed, the white owners took complete responsibility over the project. The Chinese immigrants received no recognition over the harsh labor they bared. Afterwards, although they were able to become residents, Chinese citizens were unable to receive citizenship.

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The Transcontinental Railroad was one example of Chinese immigrants taking unwanted jobs. The Chinese continued to pick up unwanted jobs. In the political cartoon, it depicts a Chinese immigrant working multiple jobs. It also shows the other non-Chinese immigrants standing around without labor. This political cartoon conveys the Chinese replacing workers, known as scabs. This was shown to be extremely prevalent during the Civil War. As workers left their jobs in order to fight in the war, many laborers sought out for workers to fill in for them. Chinese immigrants quickly filled up the positions, working hard for low wages. When soldiers returned from the war, conflict arose as their jobs were stolen away from them. Tension arose, as Anti-Chinese feelings began to arise. Soon enough, the government began to intervene and set laws that targeted Chinese immigrants. For example, this political cartoon depicts the Queue Ordinance law of 1873. This was an example of a racist law that the Chinese immigrants had to deal with. This law stated that criminals of the city had to cut their hair to a certain extent. This instilled fear into the Chinese immigrants, as they wouldn’t be accepted back to China if they lost their queues.

White Anti-Chinese groups began to sprout due to the Chinese immigrants stealing their jobs. In their meetings, they would call Chinese immigrants invaders of the United States and how they came to steal the money from other laborers. This soon led to violence throughout the country. For example, in Los Angeles a massacre took place, as a white officer was accidently hit. As a result, an angry mob of white people attacked the Chinese immigrants, invading and destroying their homes. This took place in multiple Chinese communities. These “Chinatowns” that developed over time were destroyed by angry mobs, causing a large amount of Chinese immigrants to be killed in the process. These mobs were only stopped due to military intervention by the government.

One notable leader that arose was Denis Kearney. He was an Irish immigrant who told speeches to the common laborer. In his speech “Appeal from California”, he said: “We have permitted them to become immensely rich against all sound republican policy, and they have turned upon us to sting us to death. They have seized upon the government by bribery and corruption. They have made speculation and public robbery a science. They have loaded the nation, the state, the county, and the city with debt. They have stolen the public lands. They have grasped all to themselves, and by their unprincipled greed brought a crisis of unparalleled distress on forty millions of people, who have natural resources to feed, clothe and shelter the whole human race”. In this part of his speech, Denis describes the invasion of Chinese immigrants into America. He blames the Chinese immigrants as the root cause of the lack of labor. He accuses them that their intention was to steal the available jobs while bribing the government on the side. Ironically, this was completely wrong as the government punished the Chinese immigrants the most out of all the other races of immigrants.

In response to all the commotion, the government continued to release laws that restricted Chinese immigrants. For example, in 1870 congress passed a law that stated Chinese immigrants were prohibited to become citizens. Because of this the Chinese had no political representation, as they were unable to elect political leaders. However, the government drew the line when they passed their final law, the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act itself prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. However, at the time America was already limiting other races to regulate the population. This act added something different, as it states: “…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”.

This part of the Chinese Exclusion Act states, that Chinese immigrants must carry around identification card at all times. The identification card contained information that made them recognizable. This included things like age, height, name (with English pronunciation), occupation, and a picture identifying them. This part of the Chinese Exclusion act was to remove as many Chinese immigrants as possible. Any illegal immigrants without this identification card would be sent back to China. This was clearly an act of racism, as other immigrants were not required to do so. The act was considered to be “successful”, as it decreased the Chinese population in America, giving more job opportunities to white laborers. Because of this, the Anti-Chinese groups pressured the government to continue the act. In 1892 Congress enacted the Geary Act, as it extended the Chinese Exclusion Act by another 10 years. By 1920, the Chinese population had plummeted by 40,000 due to this. They also had no say in this, as they were not considered citizens, but only residents of America.

The Chinese had many hardships during their time in America. Although they were showing to be hard workers in American society, this came as a double-edged sword as it was used against them. Because they stole white laborers’ jobs, they were treated poorly and suffered from it. This also caused government intervention and restricted the small freedoms they once had.

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The Significance of Chinese Immigrants in American History. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“The Significance of Chinese Immigrants in American History.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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