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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Chinese and Japanese Immigrants
Come to America

The Chinese
The initial impetus for Chinese immigration to America was news of the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Most of the early immigrants came from China's southern provinces of Kwangtung (modern name Guangdong) and Fukien, where flood, famine, and general social and economic upheaval were capped by a revolution that lasted from 1851 to 1864. Unable to support their families in the midst of this chaos, some 300,000 Chinese made their way to the United States, the "Land of the Golden Mountain." Most came with the intention of returning home to their families as soon as they made their fortunes.

Between 1850 and 1880, operators of mining camps and railroad construction projects eagerly hired Chinese workers until European American workers began to demonstrate bitter opposition. Although prejudice and violence drove the Chinese out of mining, they played a major role in the construction of the western section of the transcontinental railroad. When the railroad was completed in 1869, some of those Chinese laborers were hired to work on an extensive levee project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The levees, constructed by Chinese laborers, eventually turned 500,000 acres of swamp into some of California's most valuable farm land. When machinery replaced human labor on the levee project, the reclaimed land provided a new source of employment. With the creation of large farms and a shift from wheat to intensively cultivated fruits and vegetables, cheap manual labor was in demand. In the last part of the 19th century, the Delta, known as the home of the Bartlett Pear, was ranked as the pear capital of the world. By the 1890s, when technological improvements in canning made it profitable to grow asparagus, even more hand labor was needed. The Delta eventually accounted for nearly 90% of the world's asparagus crop.

The predominantly male Chinese immigrant population proved an able work force for the older pear orchards and the booming asparagus fields. Few had brought their wives and children with them, because they planned to return to their homeland when they had saved enough money to pay their debts in China. The workers found their jobs through Chinese "bosses," the same businessmen who set up Chinatowns throughout the Delta to use as bases of operation. Laborers congregated in these towns between jobs, waiting for the bosses to direct them to their next jobs. They stayed in boarding and rooming houses, often owned by the bosses, and bought their supplies at the bosses' stores. This system maintained the Chinese workers' indebtedness and obligation to the bosses, who also catered to the recreational needs and desires of the predominantly adult male population by providing a variety of recreational activities, legal and otherwise. Gambling was an especially popular pastime because it provided not only recreation, but also the hope of substantial financial gain.

The Japanese
After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited further Chinese immigration, Japanese laborers began working the fields. The majority of Japanese immigrants came to America after 1890. While China was a victim of depression and imperialism, Japan was a modernizing nation and rising imperial power. The technological change that accompanied modernization caused social upheaval, particularly in the countryside. Many thousands of Japanese decided to emigrate to America.

San Francisco was the center for Japanese immigrants who preferred city life, but the nearby agricultural fields attracted those who had worked as farmers in their native country. Like the Chinese, most Japanese agricultural workers were recruited by labor bosses. By 1904, Japanese workers were farming 50,000 acres in California, and by 1919 the figure had risen to 450,000 acres.

Like the Chinese, most of these Japanese farm workers came as single men, but they were able to establish family lives sooner than the Chinese. Some soon brought over the wives they had left at home. Others married "picture brides," women chosen by the immigrant's family who sent their sons photographs of their prospective wives. In the Delta, the Japanese farm laborers built houses for their families in an area known as a nihonmachi, or Japanese section of town. Some even became landowners and started their own farms.

Questions for Reading 1

1. When and why did the Chinese emigrate? The Japanese?

2. How did levees help to create good farmland in the delta region?

3. What were two major crops of the delta region?

4. Who were "bosses" and how did they operate? What services and recreational opportunities did they provide?

5. What were the differences between Chinese and Japanese family arrangements? Do you think the differences would have affected their communities? Why or why not?

6. Why were the Japanese laborers able to find jobs in the fields that had previously been worked primarily by Chinese?

Reading 1 was adapted from James H. Charleton, "Locke Historic District," (Sacramento County, California) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990, 21-23; Roger Daniels, Asian America, Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); Roger Daniels, Coming to America, A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990); and George Chu, "Chinatowns in the Delta: The Chinese in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 1870-1960," California Historical Society Quarterly, XLIX (March, 1970): 21-37.

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