Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Chinese-American West

One must explore immigration laws of California and other western American states to see full wonders of western territories--natural and racial colors.

Great Fountain Geyser. Great Fountain Geyser in Yellowstone
Great Fountain Geyser, Yellowstone National Park
Photo; National Geographic
When I was a little girl, my mother introduced me to the wonders of the American West. She had a sister who had moved to Denver and a brother who had moved to Northern California in the 1940s to avoid Jim Crow laws. 

My mother and I visited many Colorado, California and other western resorts, parks and reservations when I was young to witness in person the beauty of the land and people and to experience freedom we were denied at home. 

My early education formed a disturbing picture on our visits to beaches, mountains, indigenous people and immigrants.

Until my mother and I began to travel, I simply wondered about and accepted their facial features and listened to the stories of people in the neighborhood who knew the truth. Traveling and learning about Asian ethnic groups revealed a hidden history of the American West.

Most Americans do not realize the integral role Chinese immigrant laborers played in building Yosemite National Park. Many of these workers were former workmen on California railroad and levee systems that had been completed in the state. Below is a video that documents their participation in the building of the park. Chinese immigrants took this work after completing other projects in American development and then experiencing severe discrimination.

The film was researched, narrated and produced 
by Yosemite National Park Ranger Yenyen Chan 
for the National  Parks Service.

Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years
In the 1870s through the early 1900s, Chinese were lynched in Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma, California and other western states in an effort to rid the West of the race. Yellowstone National Park was established as the first park protected by the United States government in 1872. The same decade that the United States established its national park system, Chinatown in Denver was raided by a racist mob after hearing a rumor that a Chinese had killed a white man.

The World Rushed In: 
The California Gold Rush Experience
News of the discovery in 1849 in the foothills of northern California's Sierra Nevada Mountains traveled to all points around the world rapidly. The California Gold Rush attracted non-Native American gold diggers, pioneers and immigrants, including thousands of Chinese indentured servants in search of a new life crowded onto ships headed to California to take part in the claiming of the rich mineral claimsCompetition in the mining business was fierce among the untamed mod of gold diggers and murders, producing an atmosphere of violence and fear. Lynching of Chinese miners and other ethnic groups increased to discourage their participation and to steal their claims.

Interracial Encounters: 
Reciprocal Representations 
in African and Asian American 
Literatures, 1896-1937
It was during our travels that I learned the deep cultural connections between African and Asian Americans that began during the 19th century. Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937 explores literary relationships and similarities between the experiences of Asian and African characters during history.

Chinese immigrants in Hop Alley between Blake and Market Streets were beaten and lynched in an effort to rid the state of that race. The Rocky Mountain News (Denver) reported that homes were burned, businesses were looted and Chinese were killed by more than 3,000 anti-Chinese rioters, which reportedly included Irishmen, African Americans and other races, yelling “Stamp out the yellow plague.” The mob dragged a man named Look Young down 19th Street; according to a doctor, Young died “from compression of the brain, caused by being beaten and kicked.

Washington Historical Society
Tacoma, Washington, 1892

Racial tensions and Jim Crow legislation affecting Chinese and other groups were prevalent in many parts of the West as in the rest of the rest of the nation, in areas that one would not have expected to find racism and discrimination in housing, employment, education, public transportation, landownership and other aspects of daily life. The sign to the right was an announcement of a Tacoma, Washington, meeting concerning the expiration of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882  

Although beatings, murder and lynching on the Western Frontier did involve former slaves and their descendants, much of this violence was not limited to African Americans and Native Americans. Cases of lynching in the West occurred for the same reasons they happened in other parts of the nation.  Many cases of lynching and murder in the West occurred as a result of property rights, territorial disputes, employment, ethnic differences, religion and political competition. Immigrants were often targets. 

Mississippi Delta  Chinese Farm Family
Chinese Farm Family, Mississippi Delta

After being forced from gold mines during the California Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants became the primary source of labor for other industries, such as the construction of roads, highways, railroads, telegraph lines and other  American infrastructure in the West. In the 1850s, thousands of Chinese laborers built levee systems, roads and the intercontinental railway in California

When this dangerous work was done on these projects, where the death toll had been heavy, the Chinese laborers were scorned by the general population, prevented from getting an education in American schools and driven from their homes and businesses, which some had established in their segregated neighborhoods.

Burned out and chased away by racist mobs under the influence of Jim Crow laws, many Chinese immigrants in California were threatened, tortured and murdered as examples to others who later fled to other states or back to their homeland in China. 

The plight of the Chinese attracted Mississippi Delta plantation owners to California to exploit and import displaced Chinese farm families to Delta farms to replace slaves after Emancipation. Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park 
Photo: National Parks Service 

When word spread of the resources and beauty of the American West.

Naturalist, John Muir, campaigned to have the area protected. Yosemite National Park in northern California was created in 1890 with the U.S. Army in command from 1891 until 1914, when the United States entered World War I. 

The Immigration Act of 1924 further restricted Chinese and other Asian groups from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but Jim Crow laws against Chinese people continued to limit their freedom and civil rights. People in my own family and neighborhood had Chinese and Japanese ancestry mixed in with their African ancestry. 

Until my mother and I began to travel, I simply wondered about and accepted their facial features and listened to the stories of people in the neighborhood who knew the truth. Traveling and learning about Asian ethnic groups revealed a hidden history of the American West.

Sunny Nash
In my Book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, recognized by the American Association of University Presses for contributing to the understanding of U.S. race relations, I write about this Chinese immigrant experience in a story called: Voyage to America. Follow the Link to read the entire story. Here is an excerpt from the essay.

Don't forget to leave me a comment below and please use the LIKE button.

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America


  1. Gosh thank you for sharing this History about Asian labor abuse. Is it ok to share your link in my journal with a friend? Also If you have any good suggestions on books to read about Asian labor and the railroads it would be great to read up on this. Thank you so much.

  2. Great blog, thank you for telling this story. I am working on a documentary on this topic too. Can you tell me the source of the Chinese farm family in Mississippi photo? I would love to be able to include it. Thank you! Anastasia Walsh,


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