Chink Smuggling From Cuba

       Some early Chinese immigrants who did not hold papers that would enable them to enter the United States turned to smugglers who, for a price, would attempt to sneak them across either the Canadian or Mexican borders.
      In the late 19th century, both borders were somewhat porous and with some luck, smuggling "Chinks" as Chinese were often derisively called was a thriving enterprise.  Those who failed to evade border agents would be jailed and then deported.
     A less obvious source of smuggled Chinese was Cuba, where since the mid 19th century over 100,000 Chinese worked as coolie or indentured laborers under very adverse conditions.  The testimonies of almost 3,000 coolies in 1876 at the Cuba Commission hearings exposed the slave like status and gross mistreatment of Chinese sugar plantation laborers. (See The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves of Cuba. By Lisa Yun. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008)
      Contract laborers could not easily escape their situation, but those few who succeeded often turned to smugglers who could bring them from Cuba to the U. S.  An Alabama newspaper article published in The Anniston Star on January 31, 1925, reported that when smugglers realized how lucrative "rum-running" from Cuba to the United States was, they soon added the smuggling of "Chinks" into Florida and other Southern border towns. (The resolution of the entire article is poor, but below is a paragraph that highlights the origins of this practice).


Are You Looking in the Right Place for Your Chinese Immigrant Ancestors?

         As people get older, their drive to find out more about their origins in China increases. But finding records and information about earlier Chinese immigrants to the United States can be daunting and unsuccessful for many reasons, not the least of which is looking in the wrong place.

       While it seems natural to search for immigrants who entered on the west coast, especially San Francisco or even Seattle, there were a fair number of Chinese who crossed either the northern border from Canada or the southern border from Mexico in the days when these borders were more porous.

      Using familysearch.org, a search was made for three fairly common Chinese surnames, Wong, Chin, and Yee, to see how many of them entered the U. S. from Canada between 1895 and 1956 and from Mexico between 1903 and 1957.

        The figures below are inexact as a few Wongs, Chins, and Yees might not be Chinese, but probably most were.  In contrast, many of the Lee immigrants crossing both borders were not Chinese so it isn't possible to give a count without examining each case individually.

                       from Canada         from Mexico
Wong                 3,610                       1,794

Chin                   2,903                          968

Yee                    1,017                           542

Two sample displays for CHINs from Canada and from Mexico below illustrate some of the information available on an immigrant in the database.


Chinese in Virginia City, Nevada During Comstock Silver Lode Mining 1870s-1880s

The Comstock silver lode discovered in 1859 created an overnight  booming mining town, Virginia City, Nevada with a jump from 4,000 to 25,000 residents within a few years.  

Chinese, who came to represent ten percent of Virginia City residents, referred to Nevada as Yin Shan, or "Silver Mountain," in contrast to Gum San, or "Gold Mountain," their term for California where gold was discovered in 1849 at Sutter's Mill.

Whereas Chinese immigrants in many small towns across the country during the 1880s worked almost entirely as laundrymen, and then cooks,  Chinese in Virginia City were involved in numerous occupations as early as 1870.  Two sample pages from the 1870 Census shows Chinese were merchants, miners, laborers, laundrymen, cooks, gamblers, and harlots.

A decade later Virginia City was still thriving and there was a large increase in the Virginia City population, including Chinese, and other immigrants. A sample page from the 1880 Census lists Chinese doctors, restaurant owners, along with gamblers and prostitutes who, it might be noted  had been labelled "harlots" in the 1870 census.

Eventually the silver mines closed, and during the 1880s Virginia City became a virtual ghost town as it suffered a rapid decline in its population and prosperity as the miners left.  The Chinese population also underwent a big drop.


Mother sponsors brother and his family from China

         Family unification is one of the main goals of U. S. immigration policy.  Accordingly after my father died in 1973, my mother soon decided that she would apply to sponsor her brother to come over from China.  She had never met him as she immigrated to the U. S. from China in 1928 but he was not born until around 1937.  I am sure she would not have been able to make this major decision when my father was still alive because in Chinese families, men traditionally have control over these types of matters.

Nonetheless she felt that she should help her brother and his family consisting of his wife, two sons and one daughter come to the United States. Her brother, and his wife, in their 60s, understandably, were reluctant to come to the U. S. at their age especially since they did not speak and understand English but realized that it would be an opportunity for their three adult children.  

The process was arduous.  She had to go through a lot of red tape in making the application which was delayed for many years before it finally was approved.  The petition she filed for one of her nephews, Kwan Wai Ping, illustrates just part of the required documentation.

Despite all her efforts and success in helping her brother and his family immigrate to the U. S., eventually her brother and his wife decided to return to China, as did their daughter.

Below is a picture my mother and her brother after he arrived. mom brings brother kwan over.jpg


A visit to North Adams, MA., site of the Sampson shoe factory that hired young Chinese as strikebreakers in 1870

            During my visit in 2016 to Williamstown, MA. in conjunction with a Williams College performance of South of Gold Mountain by the H.T. Chen Dance Center of New York, H. T. Chen took me to nearby North Adams, where in 1870 Calvin Sampson recruited 75 Chinese boys and men to work in his shoe factory rather than meet the demands of Crispin Irish workers who were on strike.

 H. T. Chen viewing the historical display in North Adams.
The original factory  building no longer exists and a new building is on the site.  Fortunately, a local historical museum had an informative display about the lives and experiences of these Chinese who travelled across the continent to a place where it is unlikely that any previous Chinese had ever been.

The young Chinese were quick to adapt to many American ways such as how to dress American style as illustrated in the photo below of three very dapper looking young Chinese.


           Lue Gim Gong, an Unusual 12 year old Chinese boy  

       When he was 12 years old, Lue Gim Gong sailed from China to San Francisco with his uncle and some other boys where they lived briefly before moving to North Adams, Massachusetts to work in the Sampson Shoe Factory with other young Chinese boys and men as strikebreakers.  
         Lue Gim Gong was frail and became ill. The daughter of a local farmer, Fanny Burlingame, took him in and nursed him back to health. Lue became a Christian and a US citizen while under her care. In1886, he and Miss Fanny moved to DeLand, FL because Massachusetts winters were too harsh for him. He and Miss Fanny's brother-in-law Mr. William Dumville planted oranges and other fruit trees. Lue was a promising horticulturist and in1888, he produced a new orange which ripened in the early fall and which was bright and sweet called the Lue Gim Gong orange, which helped develop Florida's citrus economy.  There is a monument in DeLand, FL., in tribute to his genius.

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