On The Physical Fitness of Chinese Laborers

When southern planters were considering bringing Chinese laborers to work in cotton and rice fields or on construction projects in the late 1860s and early 1870s, they raised questions about the fitness of Chinese for heavy labor.

In Augusta, Georgia, Chinese were recruited in 1873 to expand the canal to generate power for mill operations. A reporter for the Augusta Chronicle asked the labor contractor, Mr. E. L.Rider, in light of the "small stature and effeminate appearance of the Chinamen," just "how they stood on such severe manual labor as that required upon railways and canals."

Mr. Rider, himself half Chinese, replied:
"the effeminance of the immigrants was in appearance only. They are exceedingly hardy and muscular, and have never failed to beat the six footer with the pick and shovel. Physicians who have occasion to see their naked bodies when attending them for injuries are astonished at their firm flesh, and large and well developed muscles."

Anticipating the general belief of Americans that Chinese were "very filthy and abhored cold as the devil does holy water," Rider went on to reassure them:
"Their habits of personal cleanliness, which are always rigidly adhered to, render them less liable to contract disease than many other classes of laborers."

Rider was anxious to introduce the Chinese laborers upon the rice plantation of the coast.  "He is confident that the results... would be a marked reduction in expenses, and a large increase in production...it would force the colored labor of the coast back into the cotton belt of Middle Georgia."

The Chinese acquitted themselves well in their work on the canal, and when that was completed, it is not known what happened to them.  They must have moved on to find work in other places although it seems plausible that some may have remained in the Augusta area, perhaps operating the small grocery stores in the black neighborhoods.  In the Mississippi Delta, Chinese originally recruited to work in the cotton fields did not find that work suited them and some of them also turned to opening family-run grocery stores in black neighborhoods.

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