The first Thanksgiving dinner was held nearly 400 years ago. The pilgrims were some of the first immigrants from Europe and their experiences influenced American history. This is reminiscent of the first immigrants to come to the United States from East Asia. They too have contributed to our rich society.
The Chinese were the first, arriving in large numbers around 1850. Drought in southern China pushed many villagers to seek out new opportunities away from home. The news of the discovery of gold in California made its way to China and thousands decided to take the risk to get rich in the USA.
The early Chinese entered the United States in San Francisco. This is the Chinatown there. (Photo credit:USATourist.com).
In 1850s and 1860s California, many worked as domestic servants, opened up restaurants and laundries, or became gold miners. Another popular job was construction work on the Central Pacific Railroad, which in 1869 was connected with the union Pacific to form the countries first transcontinental railway. The Chinese worked long days, 30 to 35 workers per group, or tong. According to Eloise Paananen and George Tsui, this is what they ate:
Each tong had a Chinese cook who served a healthy diet of dried bamboo sprouts, seaweed, mushrooms, salt cabbage, and five kinds of vegetables. They had Chinese bacon, poultry, and cuttlefish, abalone, dried oysters, and four kinds of dried fruit, sugar, sweet rice crackers, vermicelli, peanut oil, tea, and rice. They drank only tea made from boiled water that carriers brought in several times a day.
In his book roughing It, Mark Twain wrote positively of the new immigrants. “They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.”
It may be that because of their work ethic native-born politicians moved to exclude Chinese immigrants’ participation in political affairs. Among the many unfair conditions Chinese lived through then, their testimonies were not admissible in courts and their children were allowed to attend a public school only if white parents at said school consented to it.
In 1882, the U.S. government passed a law greatly limiting Chinese immigration. Regulations were tightened in 1892. Here is how lee Chew, an immigrant from southern China’s Guangdong province sums it up in a 1903 article in the Independent magazine:
The treatment of the Chinese in this country is all wrong and mean. It is persisted in merely because China is not a fighting nation. The Americans would not dare to treat Germans, English, Italians or even Japanese as they treat the Chinese, because if they did there would be a war.
That was in the late 1800s. Fast-forward to today and the picture has changed for the better. There are nearly three million people of Chinese ancestry living in the United States holding jobs in all sectors of the economy and many Chinese students thrive in our education system. This is a reminder of a people’s perseverance to endure in tough environments and strive for success.
Roughing It by Mark Twain by way of the Library of Congress
Mark Twain's Observations of Chinese Immigrants
Last updated July 14, 2003
American Waves by way of The World and I
The Chinese in America
By Eloise Paananen and George Tsui
Chinatown San Francisco
History of San Francisco Chinatown