8.12.1 Immigration Interview on Angel Island
Three immigration officials ask questions to an immigration applicant.
Like all immigrants to the United States, the Chinese had hopes of better opportunities here than they could find in their home country. In China, the lack of available jobs and land for farming led many people to leave home for work in the United States. Large numbers of Chinese (almost all of whom were men) came to California during the Gold Rush. They continued to arrive in the following decades — sometimes brought by American businesses looking for laborers — and they were critical in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, preparing lands for agriculture, growing valuable crops, fishing the Pacific waters, and in many other industries. They were such successful workers that non-Chinese laborers in California and other Western states felt that the Chinese immigrants represented unfair labor competition. In 1882, the United States passed a law saying that Chinese laborers were no longer allowed to immigrate. Non-laborers, like merchants, could immigrate, as could children of Chinese immigrants already living in the United States. As we see in this photograph, some of the Chinese men who arrived were quite young.
The early Chinese immigrants to the United States were almost all men. The majority of these immigrants came from the Guangdong Province of China, where it was common for a family to designate one son for work abroad to increase the family’s earnings. After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, there were about 10,000 Chinese laborers in search of new work. Some returned to China, while others worked on new rail lines to Southern California and in other parts of the country. Most often, these laborers worked in California farms and factories. In the 1870s, Chinese workers made up almost 50 percent of San Francisco’s labor force in the city’s four key industries: shoes, woolens, cigars, and sewing. A number of Chinese in California also established their own restaurants and laundry businesses, which had their roots in the Gold Rush era.