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California Cultures

Asian Americans: Gold Rush Era to 1890s

Questions to Consider

What kinds of employment did Chinese Californians find during the period between 1850 and the 1890s?

What do the political cartoons tell us about the attitudes of white Americans toward Chinese during the late 1800s?


Filipino sailors came to California with Spanish explorations as early as 1587, arriving in Morro Bay. And according to Eloisa Gomez Borah, “Manila men were reported to have been the major population” of one of the earliest gold camps in Mariposa County. Most of the Asian miners and immigrants during the Gold Rush Era, however, were Chinese.

Gold Rush Era

After 1851, Chinese gold seekers arrived in California in great numbers. Soon, they comprised about a fifth of the entire population in mining areas. The lithograph shows Chinese miners working a claim; and a photograph by Eadweard Muybridge shows a prospector panning for gold in a river in 1852. The title of this photograph is “The Heathen Chinee.” Twenty years later, Bret Harte wrote the lyrics to a song of the same title (shown here in sheet music), reflecting the mistrust of California’s white population toward the Chinese immigrants.

Nonetheless, Chinese men continued to come to California. The lithograph “Chinese emigration to America” shows a below-decks dinner scene on the San Francisco-bound steamship Alaska. Men are crowded around a wok, eating freshly cooked food. A wicker basket seems to hold rice.

Many Chinese immigrants earned a living by working claims abandoned by other miners. They also took jobs as cooks, launderers, merchants, and herbalists, hoping to return to China with a small fortune. A song from San Francisco's Chinatown expressed this desire: “I am returning home with purses and bags stuffed full. Soon I will see my parents' brows beaming with joy.” However, low pay, discriminatory hiring practices, and the monthly foreign miners' license tax made this goal all but impossible.

Some Chinese Californians challenged American racism by organizing unions, as well as through the legal system and in the court of public opinion. Chinese community leaders petitioned Sacramento to overturn unfair laws and worked to gain the right to testify in court (finally granted in 1872). Norman Asing, a restaurant owner in San Francisco's booming Chinatown, wrote to California governor John Bigler in a 1852 issue of the Daily Alta California insisting, “We are not the degraded race you would make us.”(“To His Excellency Gov. Bigler," in Daily Alta California (San Francisco: May 5, 1852).

One of the many difficulties involved in completing the transcontinental railroad was the problem of finding laborers willing to take on the dangerous, back-breaking work. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad turned to Chinese workers, who soon comprised two-thirds of the railroad's labor force. Most of the approximately 10,000 Chinese railroad laborers came directly from China, joining thousands of their countrymen already in California from the Gold Rush era. A photograph shows a Chinese man carrying water for construction; and a lithograph shows “Mingling of European with Asiatic Laborers” on the last mile of the Pacific Railroad.

Discrimination and Violence

By the 1870s, Chinese Californians faced discrimination and outright violence. An economic downturn during this decade heightened job competition and encouraged anti-Chinese xenophobia.

“The First Blow at the Chinese Question,” a political cartoon from The Illustrated Wasp, shows a white worker punching a Chinese man. So-called "anti-coolie clubs" formed throughout the state (even though the Chinese weren’t “coolies,” a term referring to those coerced or deceived into migration, or indentured servants) to denounce Chinese immigration. White mobs attacked Chinese communities up and down California, climaxing in an all-out assault on San Francisco's Chinatown in 1877. Another political illustration from The Wasp shows a kitten labeled “Chinese cheap labor” growing up to be a tiger that kills everyone in its path.

California politicians buckled to this mounting pressure and helped pass The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This federal ban on Chinese immigration was the first such law in US history to explicitly exclude a group of people based on their race.

Daily Life

Despite this restriction on immigration, Chinese communities continued to thrive. San Francisco’s Chinatown is shown in a variety of images: men on Dupont Street, now Grant Street, are shown in the late 1880s; an 1888 photograph taken near Portsmouth Square in Chinatown shows a cable car going up the street, which is filled with men. Robert F. Blum’s painting of a street corner in Chinatown shows a more festive scene, with women and children.

Few women immigrated to the United States, as the labor market demanded men for manual labor. Although the majority of Chinese migrants at this time were men, there was also family life. The photograph of “Chinese Public School Children” (c. 1890) shows a group of boys in traditional Chinese clothing; the “Children of High Class” are also dressed traditionally. In the photograph of vegetable peddlers, a woman bends over to choose something from a basket. And a photograph taken in Golden Gate Park in the 1990s shows a family group sitting on a park bench. The group portrait of a Chinese family in Anaheim was taken in 1892. Most of the Chinese in this area worked as laborers or sold produce.

Japanese Migration

Until 1884, Japanese laborers could not legally migrate. Nonetheless, Japanese settlers first began migrating to California in the late 1860s. By 1870, 33 of the 55 Japanese in the United States lived in California. By 1880, 86 Japanese lived in California.

In 1884, Japan began allowing people to migrate to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantations. Six years later, many had moved on to California, bringing the state’s Japanese population up to 1, 114 — about half of the total of Japanese living in the United States. Most of these immigrants—the vast majority of whom were men—probably worked as laborers.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.3)

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.(4.4.1, 4.4.2, 4.4.3)

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Chinese, gold mining in California, 18— 'The Heathen Chinee Prospecting', Eadweard Muybridge (photographer), 1852 'The heathen chinee' words by Bret Harte; music by F.B, c. 1870
Unidentified Chinese man working on construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near Donner Lake. 'Work on the Last Mile of the Pacific Railroad -- Mingling of European with Asiatic Laborers' Chinese emigration to America: sketch on board the steam-ship Alaska, bound for San Francisco, April 29, 1876
'The First Blow at the Chinese Question', White member of Workingmen's Party shown punching Chinese man, 1877. The tables turned: Denis Kearney in jail Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue), Chinatown, San Francisco.
'In the Clutches of the Chinese Tiger' 'Near Portsmouth Square in Chinatown' ca. 1888 The Chinese Question Again. (The Wasp, backcover), 1889
Street corner in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, ca. 1890 'Chinese Public School Children -- About 1890.' Taber, I. W. (Isaiah West) photographer, c. 1890 'The Vegetable Peddler', Chinatown, San Francisco
'A Slave Girl in Holiday Attire' Golden Gate Park. 1890s 'Children of High Class.'
Wong Hand: Certificate of Residence, 1894 Chinese woman Chinese family, 1892, Anaheim

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)