Chinese Immigrants: Their Lives in America

By Grace Cornish, June 1859

The Gold Mountain, or as we Americans call it, The United States of America. This is the destination of the many who are searching for fortune and are arriving from all around the globe, and a significant portion of these hopefuls are from China. The Chinese have ventured far from their homeland, and the voyage over to the United States is no pleasant or simple task; the journey to reach our land is five thousand miles over the daunting Pacific Ocean.1 The Chinese do not leave behind a country of peace and tranquility, characteristics that we Americans are fortunate to use to describe our nation. China is currently in a state of conflict, rebellion, natural disaster, along with a lack of farming land and significant taxation from their rulers, the Qing.2 These brave souls are coming to America to earn wages that they can send back to their families. The gold they harvest will also go back to China, along with the miners, when they believe that they have collected an adequate amount of the precious metal. This is where the current conflict considering the Chinese has planted its roots: certain American citizens claim that by sending wages and gold back to China, the Chinese are intentionally stealing money from our nation’s economy.
As previously mentioned, the foreigners arrive to America with the aspiration of striking gold and creating a fortune for themselves and their families. I will not deny that these outsiders are strange: the clothes they choose to dress themselves in are peculiar, and not to mention the choice of hair style, which, for readers who are not aware, closely resembles a rat’s tail. But despite these absurdities, these foreign men are very similar to the Americans currently searching for gold: they too have children and wives that depend upon them. Unfortunately, many Americans cannot see these similarities. I recently became aware that in the earliest stages of the California Gold Rush, when the veins of gold seemed never ending and work appeared plentiful, there was no conflict between foreigners and whites.3 But, like most good things, this peace did not last forever. Gold became less accessible, and thorougher work had to be performed in order to strike the precious metal. American miners began to blame the foreigners for their misfortunes: the feeling of disappointment was too difficult to bear, so the blame went to the strange looking men surrounding them. The hostile attitude that was developed was targeted at the Chinese, displayed by the photograph below.hb2w100241-FID4 The title of the photo is “The Heathen Chinee Prospecting”, but how does the photographer know that the subject is, as he claims, a heathen? Is he a close friend to the miner or has he studied the subject’s habits and actions? The relationship between the Chinese and American miners has shifted significantly during the California Gold Rush, and because many of the miners from other countries have already left our nation, almost all of the American miner’s frustrations are now targeted directly at the Chinese.
One of the greatest attacks that has been made on the Chinese is the “Foreign Miners Tax Law” of 1850.4 There was a taxation that required each foreigner to pay a total of twenty dollars every month, but fortunately for the Chinese, this tax has been repealed. The effect of the tax made the populations of the mining camps decline, and the foreigners became poor and unable to look after themselves. Along with taxation, the Chinese are being spoken of in a poor light by public authority figures. The Governor of California John Bigler has made claims to the public that he believes that the Chinese are unskilled laborers, a danger to the public, and that not a single Chinese man possesses a proper moral compass.5 But the ill-treated have not stayed silent. In fact, one man, Norman Asing, or Sang Yuen, who originates from China, has written directly to Governor John Bigler. This letter has been published in The Daily Alta California, a newspaper that is currently gaining popularity. Here is an excerpt from the letter written in 1852: “Your opinions through a message to a legislative body have weight, and perhaps none more so with the people, for the effects of your late message have been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil”.6 Mr. Asing is witnessing his people become aliens because of the insults and assumptions that are currently being made by individuals who have no knowledge about them, and he will not stay silent. Perhaps many will follow in his footsteps, which could lead to internal rebellion in America caused by its very own citizens.
I feel, that as Americans, it is our duty to show foreigners how life in a great country like the United States can be. We pride ourselves on being independent and self sustaining, but when a person who is not from our homeland attempts to live the same way, we become angry and attempt to stop that life becoming a reality for foreigners. Why? What reason is there to treat outsiders in this fashion? If people are earning money in order to support their families and American soil gives them the ability to do so, should we not take pride? Should we not give these people the resources to have a stable life? The United States, if this refusal to help others continues, will be viewed as the land of the selfish and unaccepting. I am not certain about you reader, but this is not the legacy I desire to leave behind.


  1. Wu, Nina. “A Retelling of Gold Rush History: The Lives of Chinese Miners.” Inside Oakland. Accessed April 23, 2017.
  2. Jorae, Wendy Rouse. The Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 10.
  3. Norton, Henry Kittredge . “The Chinese.” Gold Rush and Anti-Chinese Race Hatred – 1849. Accessed April 23, 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Yung, Judy H., Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai. Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006. 9-12.

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