Education and Social Justice Journal

"Chinese in America: A Silent Journey and Invisible Existence"

Xianghui (John) Xu


Today many people don't think twice about an education that is free and open to all people. But this has not always been the case for minorities like Chinese Americans. In fact when the group of Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the year 1820, they had no access to schools, libraries, or any other educational resources. Since then, Chinese in America has been waging in a silent struggle to gain equality, political right and most importantly right to education.

It was a time of turmoil in China around the mid 19th century. China was experiencing the decline of the Qing dynasty. In 1850, under the leadership of Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping Rebellion erupted, being the most serious of many (Chang, 2003, p. 16). In addition, the Opium trade, Opium War, and Treaty of Nanking weakened and impoverished the nation and its people (Chang, 2003, p. 14). All these conditions and more compelled Chinese to leave their homeland, which contributed to the present Chinese Diaspora (Hon, 2004, presentation).

The first major wave of Chinese immigrants to America was drawn to California starting 1849, when news of the "Gold Mountain" broke out in Guangdong region. A Chinese resident in California wrote a letter sharing the news with one of his friends in the Canton region (Chang, 2003, p. 14) when gold was discovered at John Sutter's Sawmill, north of San Francisco in 1848 (Tung, 1974, p. 7). The promise of gold excited the poor peasants. Poor people had the thought that they could go and earn money quickly and soon return wealthy. Mostly men and boys went on the adventure. In order to tie them to their families and home villages, many young men were married to local women and some even fathered a child just weeks before their departure (Chang, 2003, p. 19). Thus they boarded the vessels leaving for the Promised Land in hopes that they might return with money someday. By 1850, the Chinese in California totaled about 4,000. There were about 25,000 Chinese by the end of the year 1851 (Tung, 1974, p. 8).

In California, Gold Mountain dreams came true for a few, who returned to China, but many more Chinese Immigrants found only disappointment and remained working as Coolies, which literally meant "hardworking laborers". Their customary frugality, diligence, and willingness to undertake any kind of work, as indicated by many scholarly sources (Courtney, 1956, p. 3; Tung, 1974, p. 8; Chang, 2003, p. 38), pleased the employers by providing cheap and productive labor. "They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness," Mark Twain wrote in admiration. "A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist." (Chang, 2003, p. 39) When Chinese coolies realized that they were only paid two dollars while their white counterparts were paid seven dollars a day, they stopped mining (Chang, 2003, p. 39).

Impressed by their successful performance, Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four partners, thought of recruiting Chinese laborers for the construction of Central Pacific Railroad. At its peak, about ten thousand Chinese were working on the construction (Tung, 1974, p. 11). At the completion of Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese labor constituted 90% of the work force of 10,000 (Tung, 1974, p. 12). The completion of railroad construction resulted in massive layoffs of Chinese Coolies.

According to Chang (2003, p. 77), Chinese immigrants then engaged in other ways of making a living. Some of them became fishermen around the Pacific Coast using traditional Chinese ships built by themselves. Some of them became successful businessmen and were competing with local whites. Many of them became farmers in the west for white landowners. Many white landowners were eager to use Chinese labor because they were inexpensive and self-sufficient. In 1870, one in ten California farm laborers was Chinese; by 1886 the proportion increased to almost nine in ten (Chang, 2003, p. 72). Chang (2003) also points out that some Chinese even signed contracts to work on cotton plantations in the South to replace former slaves. Plantation owners thought of it as match made in heaven (p. 93). However, the Chinese understood the contract and expected both sides to adhere its terms. Thus, the plantation owners' conspiracy did not work. The Chinese were aware of the consequences of slavery based on race and most left plantations when their contract was over (p. 99).

Antagonism, racism, and discrimination from the whites against the Chinese were always present, and mounting by the day. As early as 1850, the California legislature enacted the Foreign Miners' License Tax Law, under which laborers of Chinese descent and of some other nationalities were required to pay special taxes (Tung, 1974, p. 8). Naturalized persons were declared exempt from the payment of the $4.00 license fee (Courtney, 1956, p. 5). However, there was no law under which the Chinese could be naturalized prior to 1940, as confirmed by multiples sources (Tung, 1974, p. 9; Wang, 1972, p. 15). Since they could not vote, they had no political participation or influence whatsoever. There were also other unreasonable taxes such as the Fishermen License Fee in 1960 and the Police Tax fee in 1962, which required the Chinese in California to pay $2.50 monthly (Courtney, 1956, p. 8).

As Chinese Coolies got jobs because employers favored their cheap labor, white workers resented the presence of Chinese more. In 1962, as Anti-Chinese sentiment grew stronger, the House and Senate passed "An Act to Prohibit the 'Coolie Trade' by American Citizens in American Vessels" to that effect in an attempt to limit Chinese Immigration (Cohen, 1984, p. 177). In 1871, such hatred resulted in a massacre of Chinese laborers in Los Angeles. According to Tung, "Only the bravery of a few American individuals saved them from total annihilation" (1974, p. 13). There was no police intervention. Many other laws and acts well into the 20th century deprived the Chinese of their rights and freedoms. Chinese were silent because they had no vote and hence no say in politics. Courtney agreed that, "had the Chinese been extended the privilege of citizenship and the right of franchise at that time, their lot during the ensuing thirty years of downright persecution would have been entirely different" (1956, p. 13).

Soon the Anti-Chinese sentiment became the Anti-Chinese movement. Many white workers, including white women, protested against Chinese Coolies. The Workingmen's Party of California (WPC) together with women activists discredited Chinese laborers by arguing that the Chinese men posed a threat to white women in three ways: as a diseased body, as a sexual pervert, and as an economic competitor (Gardner, 1999, p. 5). WPC expressed fears of racial contamination, invoking conservative images of white working-class women as innocent, chaste and vulnerable working girls, and creating false stereotypes of both the Chinese sexual pervert and the white female victim (Gardner, 1999, p. 6). The logic for the sexual part was that Chinese took the jobs that white women used to have, and they were driven to prostitution for lack of employment (Gardner, 1999, p. 6). In 1873, the unemployment problem that occurred in a year of economic depression was again blamed on Chinese (Tung, 1974, p. 14).

As early as 1858, a Chinese Exclusion Law was passed by California legislature, but was soon declared unconstitutional (Courtney, 1956, p. 7). But in 1882, at the climax of Anti-Chinese movement and progressive racism, the Chinese Exclusion Act, initially for 10 years, was to be put in effect for longer than expected. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers, skilled or unskilled, from entering the U. S. This was the first immigration law of the U. S. to ban a race from immigration. The only way that Chinese could have entered the U. S. legally was to prove that he/she was related to a citizen. As a result, many paper-sons and daughters with forged documents purchased at high prices became common (Chang, 2003, p. 147).

Meanwhile amid all the discrimination and difficulties, Chinatowns began to form where Chinese immigrants gathered as they realized that they wouldn’t go back to China any time soon. There were mostly male residents, but there were also female immigrants. Unfortunately some of them were kidnapped forcibly in port cities of China and sold in America as slaves, concubines, or prostitutes (Chang, 2003, p. 86). Horrified, Christian activists rescued many of the women (Chang, 2003, p. 85), some of who later married to Chinese bachelors in Chinatowns. Statistics showed that although the number of Chinese women decreased during the 1870s, the number of household wives increased (Chang, 2003, p. 87). As recorded by Riis (1890, chap. 9), women in Chinatown often engaged in operations like laundries, and sometimes grocery stores. Although working wife was a sign in Chinese culture that her husband and family couldn’t support her, it was acceptable in the U. S. because the money produced by her could mean the difference between life and death for her relatives in China (Chang, 2003, p. 92).

By the 1870 census, 64,199 Chinese lived in the U.S., most of whom resided in the West (Tung, 1974, p. 13). It was estimated that there were a few hundred Chinese families and perhaps one thousand Chinese children in 1876 by Chinese organizations (Chang, 2003, p. 92). The education of the ABCs (American-Born Chinese) was becoming one of the outstanding issues because Chinese culture always valued education. Contemporary articles like "Chinatown needs a school" all addressed the need for education. These children were historically the first generation of Chinese American citizens. If they did not receive education, they wouldn’t be able to utilize their voting power just like their parents had not been able to do.

However, in the beginning, according to a California statute in 1960, Mongolians (1) , Indians (2) , and Negroes were excluded from public schools (Tung, 1974, p. 10). The statute was vague as to Chinese children although the whites did not seem to distinguish between Mongolians and Chinese. Quite interestingly, many laws stating phrases on "Mongolians" affected mostly Chinese since there were only few Mongolians in the U.S. then. A provision of a statue of California stated that the California Labor and Employment was open and free to all persons, except Mongolians. As a result, Chinese labor on ditches and canals of the West Side Irrigation District was prohibited. Another one required evidence that Mongolian women immigrants were of good character and that they had come voluntarily in order to control the influx of prostitutes, and rather oddly the law was also extended to the male Chinese (Courtney, 1956, p. 22). Perhaps it was a deliberate refusal to recognize Chinese as one of the oldest civilized peoples known to man.

During 1864, the California legislature liberalized the school laws, allowing trustees to admit Chinese children as long as parents of white children did not object (Courtney, 1956, p. 9). The question to whites became whether Chinese should be treated as white or colored. Some Chinese immigrants enrolled their children in white public school at first. But within two years, California enacted a racist law allowing the state superintendent of education to withhold funding from schools that enrolled Chinese children (Lynch, 1997, p. 1). In 1868, The U.S. and China concluded the Sino-American Treaty began in 1858, which signed in Washington, D.C. This treaty recognized the right of free migration and emigration of the citizens of both countries, with the exception of naturalization, and guaranteed their reciprocal privileges of residence, school, and travel on the basis of the most-favored-nation treatment. The U.S. only ratified the Burlingame Treaty, in their interest of carrying on large-scale trade with the most populous country in the world, (Tung, 1974, p. 12). However, there was no evidence that Chinese children were allowed to attend public schools in the U.S. following this treaty. The treaty was abrogated, at least in practice (Courtney, 1956, p. 69).

In 1870, the "California School Law" repealed prior legislation that limited public education to white children, and specifically provided funding for separate schools for only Negroes and Indians (Courtney, 1956, p. 21). Again, there was no mentioning of Chinese as to whether they were allowed to attend public schools, if so, which school. For 14 years, from 1871 to 1885, Chinese children were the only racial group to be denied a state-funded education. Many Chinese parents home-schooled their children under Confucian influence, some sent them to private schools, some requested help of missionaries to tutor them individually, others were too poor and illiterate to do anything (Chang, 2003, p. 176). Courtney's claim that "schools for all children were provided by 1880" was untrue. It is safe to say that the Chinese were one of the last minorities at that time to be admitted into American public school.

Schools for Chinese children didn’t happened without a struggle. In 1884, Joseph Tape and his wife, Mary sued the San Francisco Board of Education when their daughter Mamie was denied admission to a public white primary school. This case, Tape v. Hurley (the school principal), was argued at the height of the Anti-Chinese movement. The school officials argued that Mamie was a child with "filthy and vicious habits suffering from contagious or infectious diseases." When presented with a clean bill of Mamie’s health, the superintendent of schools openly stated that barring Chinese children from public schools was "unconstitutional but necessary" (Chang, 2003, p. 176). The courts upheld justice instead of public passion of anti-Chinese sentiment in Tape v. Hurley. When ordered by the California Supreme Court to admit Chinese into public schools, San Francisco school board lobbied for a separate educational system for Chinese children in order to avoid having Chinese and whites in the same school. The bill was passed swiftly, and the Oriental Public School was established in 1885 as the first separate elementary school in America for Chinese (Courtney, 1956, p. 76). Finally, at least Chinese children had a public school to attend. This signified the beginning of access to American education by Chinese children.

Meanwhile, China remained in chaos: the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the establishment of Republic of China, Japanese invasion, and communist revolution. Chinese had always been looking for ways out of the mess. They constantly emigrated from China to other places of the world. Most of them could not enter the U.S. due to Chinese Exclusion Act.

After decades of exclusion of Chinese immigrants under Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese residing in the U.S. decreased drastically from about 145,000 in 1882 to its low of 61,639 in 1920, and then to 78,000 in 1943 (Tung, 1974, pp. 16-32). One dramatic change in American Chinese population was the increase of females. By 1943, it was estimated that women made up about one third of 78,000 Chinese residents.

The year 1943 was unique. First of all, a new treaty between the U.S. and China entitled "Treaty for the Relinquishment of Extraterritorial Rights in China and the Regulation of Related Matters" was signed, which in effect abolished all unilateral rights and privileges previously acquired by the U.S. in China (Tung, 1974, p. 32). This partly occurs as a result of China and the U.S. both fighting again Japan in World War II. Both factors helped lead to the eventual repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, all Chinese exclusion laws and other discriminatory laws against Chinese. 1943 was also significant because the Yale Institute of Far Eastern Languages was founded, focusing on teaching Chinese language and culture (Tung, 1974, p. 32). Finally, ABCs had a place to learn more about their original culture.

Though racism and discrimination still existed, the removal of such Chinese exclusions laws and anti-Chinese ordinances, which had limited the potential of Chinese immigrants, fostered a very favorable environment for generations of Chinese youth to excel in academics as they fully embrace Confucian Ideal—to learn and to serve. In 1944, K.C. Li established the Li Foundation, providing fellowships to students working for advanced degrees (Tung, 1974, p. 32). In 1947, Eddie Gong was named "Boy President of the U.S.A.," and was warmly received by the President Harry S. Truman in Washington, D.C. He was then a high school student, and later graduated from Harvard. Quite few others were noted for academic excellence as well. Perhaps more significantly was the fact that a record number of Chinese students studying abroad remained in the U.S. when Communists conquered Mainland China in 1949. Most of them completed their studies and stayed. This increased the total number of Chinese scholars present in America.

In the post-Exclusion period, we also witnessed the first rise of Chinese Americans in politics. In 1946, Wing F. Ong was elected to the Arizona legislature. He was the first American of Chinese descent to sit in a state legislature in the United States (Tung, 1974, p. 33).

During 1950s and 1960s, the second wave of Chinese immigrants arrived. They were mostly scholars and intellectuals who first fled to Taiwan from all around China due to the Communist Revolution. Not only that they were anti-Communist elites, but also their children were intellectually capable and scientifically directed, as well masters of English. Also enjoying the benefit of the environment, most of the parent generation obtained their doctoral degrees in the U.S. and later become professors, doctors, scientists, engineers, and academics (Chang, 2003, p. ix). They had usually been sent to study abroad in the U.S. and financially sponsored by Nationalist Party in Taiwan. But only one in four students returned to Taiwan after earning their degrees. The majority remained in the U.S. and accepted positions at universities, government laboratories, and corporations, swiftly moving into upper class in American society (Chang, 2003, pp. 298-299). They were warmly welcomed and urged to stay by Americans because the U.S. needed and recruited Chinese scientists and engineers to strengthen defense during the Cold War (Chang, 2003, p. xi).

Not only were those well-prepared Chinese students doing well in elementary and secondary schools, many more were accepted into prestigious universities and colleges, such as Berkeley, MIT, UCLA and UCI (the University of California at Irvine). Some of them were even received distinguished. Most of the parents fully pressured them to achieve high standards (Chang, 2003, p. 227). In 1979, the admission rate for Asians was as high as 44 percent of total Asian applicants (Chang, 2003, p.330). By the 1980s, media began reporting educational success of ABCs and profiling distinguished students receiving special scholarships (Chang, 2003, p. 328).

Perhaps the reports and the ensuing reputation of academic success of some Chinese American students created the myth of model minority. But as importantly, at this time we saw the potential of Chinese Americans when they were left alone in peace and given fully the access if not equal opportunity, and earned their entrance into and excelled in academia of the U.S. Even today, Asian Americans are often referred to as a "model minority." They have been noted for their academic achievement and their ability to use education as a means for social and economic mobility (Books, 2003, p. 53). It was true that some succeed better than others, but it would be an unrealistic assumption that every Asian was doing well academically, which would certainly render many invisible and helpless. Fortunately, education researchers have identified this as an easy mental trap into thinking that Chinese students could always take care of themselves and hence it more often than not precluded many Chinese students from much needed help and an equitable education.

Not all American Chinese had the resources to succeed. Some, especially recent immigrants who came from low socioeconomic class with illiterate parents, often struggled with difficulties and suffered barriers of learning, one being the language barrier. In 1974, in the case of Lau v. Nichol, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that offering same classes, providing desks, textbooks etc. are no longer equal access to an education to a non-English speaking Chinese student. The decision of this case provided that public schools must provide bilingual classes for student with LEP (Limited English Proficiency). It was established by experts that a meaningful education could only be attained in the language understood by students (Ambert & Medendez, 1985, p. 40). Since then many states have instituted bilingual program in their public schools.

Those who do succeed, have detected as a growing trend the existence of a "hurdle," certainly somewhat related to racial discrimination, excluding them from higher education, which they believe they deserve with proper qualification if not over-qualification. In the 1980s, as a reward of their academic success, enrollment of Chinese Americans at top universities soared (Chang, 2003, p.329). But also soaring at the same time was the growing anti-Chinese sentiment (3) on campuses. Anti-Chinese graffiti appeared on college campuses such as "Stop the Chinese before you flunk out." Universities with high Chinese Concentration were often given nicknames: "Made in Taiwan" for MIT, “University of Chinese Immigrants” for UCI and more (Chang, 2003, p. 229). Many Chinese students felt that they were the victims of their own success. Many alleged that the bars for admission of Chinese were set much higher that those for whites and othrs minorities. More alleged that university officials were concerned by the growing presence of Asian Americans and sought to reduce their numbers. The statistics showed that admission rates for Asian Americans plummeted drastically from 44 percent in 1979 to 14 percent in 1987. Enrollment rates for Asian Americans in some universities fell over 20 percent within a single year (Chang, 2003, p. 331).

The sudden drop in admission of Asian Americans triggered various investigations and lawsuits. Yat-Pang Au, a straight-A star student at Gunderson High School in San Jose, valedictorian of his class, an athlete, who was involved and won prizes for many extracurricular activities, was shocked to find out that he was rejected by Berkeley (Chang, 2003, p.331). He was dismayed, frustrated and infuriated when he learned that ten other students with lower grades and test scores had been admitted. For two years he attended a local community college before finally enrolling at Berkeley (Chang, 2003, p. 332). Stories like these were not uncommon. Universities turned away students with perfect GPAs, while admitting others who had not even submitted their grades (Chang, 2003, p. 331). Federal investigations were carried out in light of controversy. Federal officials eventually exonerated Harvard and Berkeley, but found UCLA guilty of bias (Chang, 2003, p. 331).

At this point, there was no question that many Asian Americans qualified for admission, but were "capped" out because there were too many of them. Many school official began to use "Affirmative Action" as a defense stating that they have quota that they could not exceed implying that "educational benefits" will not result when there are too many of one race or ethnicity. Shockingly, this was also common in public high schools. According to a journal article, although he demonstrated that he was more qualified by grades and test scores and more, fourteen-year-old Patrick Wong was denied admission to three San Francisco high schools including prestigious Lowell because they had already filled their quotas for students of Chinese descent (Lynch, 1997). Lowell High School officials claimed that they were mandated to have at least four ethnic groups represented and no more than 40-45 percent of one single ethnicity enrolled. Also to discourage/decrease/bar excessive enrollment of Chinese Americans, the minimum test scores for admission to Lowell was 66 for ethnic Chinese applicants, 59 for Caucasians, and 56 for Hispanics and African Americans (Chang, 2003, p. 333). The issue of racial/ethnic quotas has not been solved.

More recently, public educators have been promoting multiculturalism/diversity, or sometimes bicultural education, as a way to eliminate yet another barrier in education. Many recent studies have concentrated on this topic, citing psychological and academic benefits, especially for a population so diverse and global. In one study, a researcher concluded that Asian American students attending high schools who valued acculturation while attempting to maintain their culture and language had superior academic achievement compared to those adopting values of the dominant culture. He believed that "these results suggest public school curricula should emphasize helping cultural and language minority students to maintain their original heritage while offering new ideas." (Lee, 2002) Another study, urged Chinese teachers to become culturally responsive, preferably during their certification programs. The study identified white teacher resistance as the major barrier to multicultural education and lack of knowledge of other culture groups and long period of mono-ethnic teaching as significant obstacles (Sheets & Chew, 2002).

As a Chinese immigrant who came to the United State at 13, I was shocked to learn the history of Chinese in America. They faced many enormous barriers and hardships. Their existence was invisible or oddly invisible. They were treated without rights and freedom and yet as uncivilized, cheap and dirty. They were silent in their struggle because they had no voting rights until the first generation of ABCs. But with frugality, diligence and persistence, they eventually prevailed.




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(1) The terms "Chinese" and "Mongolian" were employed freely by this time to express the intent of the legislators, and were considered by ignorant whites to be equivalent. (Courtney, p. 9). [back]

(2) Indian Americans [back]

(3) hate, as used by Chang, 2003, 2003, p. 329. [back]



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