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Chinese Exclusion Act

Questions to Consider

How did the Chinese preserve their culture in American society?

What did they do for work?

How did some white Americans regard the Chinese?

About the Images

The images in this group reflect the daily lives of the Chinese in California during the late 1800s. Some also express the anti-Chinese feeling that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


Starting with the Gold Rush, Chinese migrated to California and other regions of the United States in search of work. As several photographs show, many Chinese found work in the gold mines and on the railroads. They accepted $32.50 a month to work on the Union Pacific in Wyoming in 1870 for the same job that paid white workers $52 a month. This led to deep resentment by the whites, who felt the Chinese were competing unfairly for jobs.

White labor unions blamed the Chinese for lower wages and lack of jobs, and anti-Chinese feelings grew. The cartoon "You Know How It Is Yourself" expresses this sentiment. Several political cartoons in this topic are graphic representations of racism and conflicts between whites and Chinese. "Won't They Remain Here in Spite of the New Constitution?" shows a demonized figure of political corruption protecting Chinese cheap labor, dirty politicians, capital, and financiers. "The Tables Turned" shows Denis Kearney (head of the Workingman's Party of California, a union that had criticized Chinese laborers) in jail, being taunted by Chinese men.

In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Chinese Exclusion Treaty, which placed strict limitations on the number of Chinese allowed to enter the United States and the number allowed to become naturalized citizens. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China (The Act was not repealed until 1943). The two-part cartoon from the July-December 1882 issue of The Wasp reflects how some citizens saw the situation. After the Act was passed, anti-Chinese violence increased. One illustration depicts the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, a Wyoming race riot in which 28 Chinese were killed by British and Swedish miners.

The "Certificate of Residence" document illustrates that Chinese individuals were required to prove their residence in the United States prior to the passage of the Exclusion Act. The poster offering a reward for Wong Yuk, a Chinese man, makes it clear that the United States was actively deporting Chinese.

Despite discrimination and prejudice, this first wave of immigrants established thriving communities. Photographs taken in San Francisco's Chinatown show prosperous businesses, such as the "Chinese Butcher and Grocery Shop." Wealthy merchants formed active business associations, represented by the image "Officers of the Chinese Six Companies." The Chinese celebrated their heritage by holding cultural festivals, as shown in the photograph from 1896. The photographs "Children of High Class," "Golden Gate Park," and "Chinese Passengers on Ferry" are evidence that some Chinese adopted Western-style clothing while others wore more traditional attire.

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 8:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Deliver research presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

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. (4.4.3)

Grade 8:

8.12 Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.

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.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Cartoons (PDF) (Source: NARA)
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)