An Unexpected 1880s Plea: The Chinese Must COME!

      When one thinks about what kind work early Chinese immigrants did, most people think of railroad labor, mining, and farming, followed later by hand laundries and small restaurants.
    It is a surprise, however, that domestic service such as "houseboy"was the third most frequent work for Chinese, more common than laundry work, according to the 1870 census.

   Many Chinese, especially boys too young to be merchants found work as domestic servants or houseboys for middle class and affluent white families. They performed the domestic tasks usually assigned to women such as cooking meals, washing and ironing clothes, and providing childcare.  Although many of them became "part of the family," they were essentially slaves to their masters and mistresses.  Some missionaries returning from China brought young boys who had served as domestics in their households  in China with them to America. 

   Historian Andrew Urban noted that white middle class families prized having Chinese servants, often in preference to white servants.  “Unlike single white women who were constantly leaving service to assume unpaid domestic labor as married women in their own homes, a Chinese bachelor—often a misnomer, since many immigrants had wives in China—could be counted on to stay in a situation for a longer period of time. Chinese men did not pose the same liability therefore when it came to time spent hiring and training.”

     In the East, Irish were the main competitor for Chinese seeking domestic work.  However, Irish had reputations as unreliable or demanding in dealing with the terms of employment whereas Chinese were regarded as compliant, obedient, and docile servants who would follow their employers’ orders diligently. White employers came to assume Chinese immigrants had an innate, racial disposition to servility, overlooking that racism had excluded them from most other forms of labor. 
     In marked contrast to the cry of exclusionists in the 1870s that “the Chinese must go,” white housewives felt just the opposite, wanting more Chinese who could serve the role of domestic servant, as illustrated in an 1880  "Help wanted" cartoon by Joseph Keppler published in Puck Magazine.

       One distinct advantage of domestic service for Chinese was the advocacy of white employers in dealing with immigration issues, travel arrangements, and other problems that most immigrants had to deal with themselves or with translators. They also had more opportunities to learn English and American customs than Chinese living in Chinatowns, advantages that enabled many of them to leave domestic work later to open businesses, gain higher education, and enter professional careers.
      Interestingly, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, originally a ten-year ban, but extended for another decade in 1892 with the Geary Act, created a shortage of available Chinese to serve as domestic servants, leading some white housewives to exasperation at the lack of Chinese for domestic labor. A 1902 Oakland, California newspaper commentary noted that the scarcity of Chinese candidates for domestic work created a seller's market in which Chinese made demands and negotiated favorable work conditions before accepting employment. 


Walling Off Chinese Immigrants

       Building walls to prevent immigrants entering the United States illegally is a hot topic under the Trump administration, but this approach is not a new idea.  In 1870, the concept was considered, but never implemented, as a way to prevent hordes of Chinese immigrants coming into the country. 

     The current talk of border walls today focuses on our southern border with Mexico, and is directed primarily against illegal entries of Mexicans and Central Americans. However, there is now growing concern that Chinese are also being smuggled across the southern border just as they were over a century ago.

        In addition during the late 1800s, there was concern about Chinese entering the U. S. across our northern border from various points across Canada which was receiving less scrutiny. 

        This 19th century fear of Chinese entering from Canada has largely vanished now and Chinese Canadians probably prefer staying on their side of the border.

         But how effective can physical walls be to prevent those "wily" Chinese from illegal entry? As suggested in the cartoons from Puck at the end of the 19th century, Chinese are like chameleons, able to change their appearance easily and pose as Spaniards, anarchist, Irishmen, Sicilian, English wife-hunter, or  yacht racer." Whereas these disguises are rather unlikely, many Chinese crossed the southern border disguised as Mexicans, back in the day when Mexicans, but not Chinese, were allowed to cross the border freely.


Why Were Chinese "Coolies "Crossing the Missouri" in 1870?

         Is this 1870 drawing published in Harper's Weekly of Chinese "coolies" crossing the Missouri River an accurate rendering of an historical event or a figment of the artist's imagination? Aside from the mistaken use of the term, coolie, which did not apply to 19th century Chinese immigrants, where is this orderly single file line of Chinamen coming from and going to?

The Missouri River, referred to in the caption, flows through Omaha, Nebraska, the starting point for the Union Pacific Railroad which by 1870 had been extended westward to link at Promontory Summit, Utah with the Central Pacific Railroad coming from Sacramento, California to create the transcontinental railroad that linked the U. S. "from sea to shining sea."

Since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, a year before the depicted scene occurred, the Chinese would not be headed west.  Therefore, the scene must be showing Chinese railroad workers after the transcontinental railroad was completed who were coming from Utah to Omaha, and possibly then to further destinations. The label under the drawing reads,

        Chinese railroad workers crossing the icy Missouri River."

The accompanying text in Harper's Magazine describes the scene of a "Mongolian Invasion" of 250 Chinese workers who had worked on the transcontinental railroad and were now crossing the Missouri River "on a plank walk across the uneven ice on the river to reach Council Bluffs, Nebraska, which was not their final destination. They were headed to Texas to work on railroad construction there. The "celestials," as Chinese were often called in the mid to late 19th century, crossed the river "carrying their baggage on poles balanced over the shoulder, in true Oriental fashion."

Leavitt Burnham, who drew the sketch, was a land surveyor in Nebraska for the United States Government in 1869. In 1870 he passed the bar and practiced law until 1878 when he was appointed Land Commissioner for the Union Pacific Railway company in Omaha.

What might have been Burnham's purpose or thinking behind this drawing? Was he illustrating how Chinese were moving across the country, and not just the Missouri River, to settle in the mid-sections of the United States? The year of the drawing, 1870, is accurate insofar as there were very few Chinese in the midwest or South before that year. However, it is somewhat simplistic to think that the Chinamen marched single file across the river, carrying bamboo poles across their shoulders to balance containers of baggage on each end.


Newspaper Reports of the 1943 Repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barring entry of laboring class immigrants from China had a devastating impact of Chinese in America that lasted for decades as it was not repealed until 1943.
During these 61 years, many Chinese families remained separated, with some members in the U. S. and others in China, unable to be reunited. The bachelor societies that were the result of the law denied family formation and the benefits of families for communities. Gambling, opium smoking, and prostitution were some of the consequences for bachelor societies.

Although the repeal of the Act in 1943 was no more than a symbolic and political gesture, permitting the entry of only 105 Chinese each year, from the rest of the world, nonetheless it was an important improvement in the status of Chinese in America and cause for celebration in Chinese communities.

One would not expect as much positive impact for the rest of American society, as the changes to immigration would not have much effect on nonChinese.  Evidence that the repeal on Dec. 17, 1943 was of no special significance to most Americans can be seen in newspaper reports, three examples of which are shown below.

The report of the repeal was buried among the advertisements for movies in the Idaho Register on Dec. 19, among the comic strips in a Pennsylvania paper on Dec. 21, and on the front page at the very bottom of an El Paso, TX. paper on Dec. 18. Clearly, the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was not considered newsworthy by the American press.


The Barber of Chinatown

Before the 1911 Chinese Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty, Chinese immigrant men wore "queues" or a long braided tail of hair at the back of the head as a sign of allegiance to the Manchu. 

It was often mocked by white Americans, and a source of torment for Chinese men.

How did Chinese men have their hair cut? Since they were not welcome in white barber shops, nor did the Chinese wish to patronize white or black barbers, they faced a problem.  An interpreter told the reporter that his countrymen were afraid that they might be decapitated or otherwise injured by colored tonsorial workers.


In 1896, therefore, when Moy Lee opened a "tonsorial parlor" in Washington, D. C., there was occasion for rejoicing according to a local newspaper article that publicized his arrival.

Moy Lee was described as a "dapper little fellow, who struts about his shop proudly attired in a sky blue pea jacket and flowing nether garments of a rather loud pattern."

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