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,” many 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.