9. Becoming American – The Chinese Experience
Laying the foundations of the mining, agricultural, fishing, and railroad industries, then fighting the anti-Chinese movement and the Exclusion Act and at the same time building Chinatowns and helping with the revolution in China, left Chinese Americans little time to become Americans.
For European Americans, there was a clear “melting pot” roadmap to follow. But the melting pot was not available to non-Whites. Instead of a pathway, the Chinese faced a minefield of obstacles. The most fundamental step to becoming American, citizenship, was closed to them. The Chinese quickly realized they would have to create their own pathway.
The obstacles the Chinese faced would delay the start of an American born Chinese generation until the turn of the 20th century. But by that time a new problem had emerged. With the passage to the Exclusion Law, and an unspoken policy of expulsion, Chinese Americans became the only immigrant group to come to America and face a dwindling population. In 1890 there were 107,488 Chinese in America. By 1900 that had been reduced to 89,863. In 1910 only 71,531 remained and in 1920, 61,639.
The declining population had an enormous impact on the Chinese American community, not the least of which was the psychological one. Any Chinese American child growing up during that period knew that it was only a matter of time before there would be no more Chinese in America. It was hard to work towards a future, when there was no future to work towards. The great meeting of east and west would have proven to be a failure.
Chinese American businessmen faced problems not encountered by their European American counterparts. Every immigrant group before and after the Chinese could count on their communities increasing in size. With a population boom, a businessman would see an increase in his market; equally important he would have a supply of labor as new immigrants got established here. Chinese American businessmen did not have these advantages.
Workers and professionals also faced obstacles. Chinese Americans were barred from joining labor unions. The racists created the “union label” which everyone knew meant “European American labor” had been used to make that product; thus products without the label were most likely made by Chinese Americans. Professionals were prevented from getting licenses by using the “eligible for citizenship” barrier. The courts had ruled that the Chinese were not eligible for citizenship.
As part of the policy of expelling Chinese Americans, laws were passed at the federal, state, and local levels, directed against the Chinese immigrants. These laws, the most important one, Exclusion, meant that the Chinese were spending an inordinate amount in time in court.
It wasn’t merely the time that was spent in court; the Chinese eventually won almost all the cases that discriminated against them. When the lawmakers passed the discriminatory laws, they knew that many of them would never pass constitutional muster. They passed them anyway because they also knew that the laws would keep the Chinese tied up in court for years. The enormous expense of attorney and court fees would drain the Chinese American community from being able to advance in American society. The discriminatory way in which immigration laws were enforced often meant that a Chinese American man would be financially exhausted for trying to immigrate his wife and children into this country. With all his funds gone, the American dream of starting one’s own business would be forever out of his reach.
Yet in spite of the obstacles, a Chinese American culture started to emerge. In business, they started herbalist shops, grocery stores, laundries, and restaurants. When they lacked capital, they formed partnerships. When there was opportunity away from the established Chinatowns, they left town. Soon all the small towns of California had at least one Chinese restaurant.
In education, even though there were no jobs waiting for them when they graduated, they never lost faith. They studied math, science, and business; majors that had objective standards, so they at least had some prospects of employment. Starting in the 30s they were able to find employment in government jobs. These were the least discriminatory because they were protected by the civil service system. It wasn’t until after Second World War that private firms started to hire the Chinese.
In sports and in their social life, stopped from participating in the majority society, they set up their own teams and social activities. The Wah Sung baseball team was organized in Oakland and played semi-pro ball. Oakland also fielded a female baseball team called the Oakland Dragonettes. In football, the Northern California Football League started. And in basketball, a number of leagues were formed, both in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to compete with each other.
Social life centered on college and high school campuses with dances and parties. Many larger events were sponsored during the Lunar New Year, where the whole community participated.
In the face of enormous obstacles, a vibrant Chinese America was being born.