A powerful force worked against thousands of Chinese nationals who came to California during the Gold Rush. It is called racial discrimination. Like blacks, the Chinese were easily identifiable as a group. Their features, dark skin, and exotic dress and customs set them apart. Nothing debunks the myth of the "Great American Melting Pot" better than the story of these Chinese Californians, who became the symbol and scapegoat for economic woes and political clashes.
Guests of the Golden Mountain
Most of the Chinese who came to California were single men from Kwangtung Province in South China, and most came as indentured servants. Known to their countrymen as "Gum Shan Hok" (guests of the Golden Mountain), they flocked to the gold fields of California as soon as they could work off their indentures. By 1851 over 25,000 Chinese had arrived in California.
The success of Chinese miners also earned the envy of American and European miners. In 1850 the California legislature passed a Foreign Miner's Act, which put a monthly tax of $20 on immigrant miners. But in practice this law was enforced only for Mexican and Chinese miners. The Chinese managed to overcome this tax and sporadic mistreatment. Between 1850 and 1860, payment of Miners' License fees contributed more than one million dollars to county treasuries in the Mother Lode.
Pawns of Industry and Labor
This was just the first step in a series of laws to halt or curtail Chinese immigration. After the Gold Rush the Chinese became a major pawn in the fight between capitalist industry and agriculture, and the growing labor movement in California.
Many "capitalist" Republicans welcomed the Chinese as a cheap labor source when they first arrived. Known as hard workers, more than 12,000 Chinese eventually worked on the Central Pacific link of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese were also instrumental in early road, tunnel, and bridge building throughout the state, in the lumber, mining and winery industries, in laundries, and as domestic servants.
Manufacturers defended the use of Chinese workers in their factories, arguing that the Chinese were tolerable as long as they performed labor that Americans would not do, and accepted lower wages than Americans. This argument did not sit well with a growing labor movement, which saw the Chinese as a threat to already precarious livelihoods.
Irish Lead Movement for Chinese Exclusion
Fueled by a national depression in 1873, the Workingman's Party, led by Irish immigrant Denis Kearney, gained prominence by the late 1870's. Along with the fight for a shorter working day and higher wages, a major plank of this party's platform called for more stringent federal and state laws to exclude the Chinese. A series of such laws did pass, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. Nevertheless, many of these angry Workingmen continued to take matters into their own hands.
Chinese workers and shopkeepers in cities and rural areas throughout California endured sporadic violence. As just one example, on July 26, 1877, a mob of 10,000 vigilantees in San Francisco, shouted, "Death to Capitalists!" while assaulting Chinese with clubs and setting fires in Chinatown. This was a true race riot. Some of those who carried out the violence were recent immigrants themselves, many of them Irish.
The "Chinese Question" In Sonoma County
As in other parts of California, residents of Sonoma County were divided on the "Chinese Question". Chinese workers began to move into the area from the northern gold mines in the 1850's and 1860's. They worked as servants or as day laborers. By the late 1860's larger groups of single Chinese men arrived to build roads, rock walls, and bridges. Many more came to work on the railroad, completed in the early 1870's. (see chapter Iron Horse Comes to Healdsburg).
Almost immediately these larger groups met with violence. One account appearing in the September 8, 1870 edition of Healdsburg's Russian River Flag newspaper described an incident on Charles Alexander's ranch in Alexander Valley. A group of Chinese who had been working in the fruit dryers there were rousted from sleep by a group of "ruffians" who attacked, stoned, and drove them from their lodgings. The attackers even took their blankets.
Despite such incidents, Chinese continued to find employment in the local mercury mines, where mercury poisoning killed many. They also found employment in local agriculture and wineries, or as domestic servants. Some Chinese even managed to start their own shops and businesses, especially laundries.
Rival Chinese Laundries in Healdsburg
Dr. William C. Shipley, in his Tales of Sonoma County, recalled the rival laundries of Jo Wah Lee and Sing Lee of Healdsburg, which did a thriving business in the late 1800's:
"Many local people patronized these two celestial laundries, their business was gigantic, in fact, they were an institution in the town; ...There was a bit of rivalry between the two wash houses which reflected to the homes of their patrons. There was always four to six "pig tails" employed in each institution and both turned out perfectly beautiful laundry at a very nominal sum, ...they worked 12 to 15 hours per day...It was great fun to...watch them iron with their gigantic irons; first they would spread out the garment on the board, take a sip of water from a bowl and spew this water in a fine spray all over the piece...and then proceed with the ironing, at the same time keeping up a string of conversation in Chinese sing song...Their work, their customs, their language, in fact their whole ensemble, fascinated us small boys...
From Jo Wah Lee's wash house a countryman named Ah Sing Lee conducted a fruit and vegetable business. He carried his wares about town in two large baskets suspended by a bamboo pole which he balanced over his shoulders. His loads would weigh between three and four hundred pounds and he dog trotted from customer to customer with ease and grace...a white man could not lift the load, for I have seen them try and fail, which greatly pleased Ah Sing...His Business prospered for he was honest, friendly and always appreciated a sale, no matter how small. He would usually have some small token for the children.".
Not all county residents shared Shipley's condescending, yet sympathetic, view of the Chinese, and it became ever more dangerous to be an isolated Oriental in the 1870's. Since the Chinese, like the Pomo and Wappo Indians, were not allowed to testify against a white man, they had no recourse in the courts to protect themselves from violence. The "Chinatowns" that formed on the outskirts of major cities and towns like Petaluma and Santa Rosa were in part a defense against white hostility. Within these more protected communities, the Chinese felt free to carry on their ancient customs.
By 1876 both Republican and Democratic newspapers in Sonoma County seemed to unite in anti-Chinese sentiment. In fact one local newspaper publisher "made" his future political career by taking a strong stand on the "Chinese Question". Thomas L. Thompson, publisher of the Sonoma Democrat, wrote forcefully against the Chinese and later became California's Secretary of State and a Congressman.
Grisly Murder Re-Examined
By far the most intense period of anti-Chinese violence throughout the County raged between January and June of 1886. Some local historians have attributed this to the spectacular "Wickersham Murders", a violent rape and murder of a white couple near Skaggs Springs. It was alleged that the Wickersham's Chinese cook did the gruesome deeds, but the case was never closed.
When reviewing this case in 1993, I found many aspects disturbing. The murders were actually reported after the vehement anti-Chinese movement had begun in the County. Throughout the 1880's public sentiment had become more and more inflamed. Anti-Chinese rhetoric had reached a fever pitch by early January of 1886, when "Anti-Coolie" meetings were being held in most Sonoma County towns.
Suddenly, in late January, 1886 came word of the grisly murder of Jesse and Sarah Wickersham, residents in the vicinity of Skaggs Springs near Healdsburg. The newspapers and all law enforcement officials jumped to the immediate conclusion that the murderer was the Wickersham's Chinese cook, who disappeared right after the murder.
Piece of Cake
No compelling motive was ever put forth for the crime. Although Mrs. Wickersham was allegedly raped, nothing was stolen. The Chinese cook supposedly fled in such a hurry that he took none of his personal belongings, not his diary, money, only suit of good clothes, nor even his whiskey bottle. Yet he allegedly took the time to place a piece of cake on the pillow of the slain women.
Local papers claimed the cake pointed to a Chinese murderer, as this was a curious Chinese custom. Stranger still, the man supposedly took the time to travel all the way to Cloverdale to confess to a relative that he committed the murders, but then ran away again after making that one implicating statement. The case was never resolved. My research only turned up reports that the man accused of the crime, Ang Tai Duck, was apparently being held in a prison in Hong Kong. Nothing further has been found.
Press Makes Use of Murders
The press and others used the Wickersham murders to incite public sentiment against the Chinese throughout the West. Shortly after the murder became public, the editor of the Sonoma Democrat newspaper said, "We hope the feeling, now intensified, will lead to the organization of anti-Chinese societies in every town in the county..."
The incitement caught fire. Chinese businesses, and those who employed Chinese workers, were boycotted. Groups of Orientals were attacked, beaten, and driven out in many isolated incidents. Some had their homes and shops burned to the ground.
Legend has it that citizens in the small town of Bloomfield, in western Sonoma County, poisoned the water supply of its Chinese population, killing several before the rest were driven out of town on one infamous night. In later years when asked about Bloomfield, the Chinese were said to say starkly, "We walk around that hill." Even a personality as respected and famous as Luther Burbank felt the need to sign himself as a member of a local “exclusionist” committee in 1886.
Healdsburg Harasses the Chinese
Dr. Shipley described the tactics used by a "certain element' in Healdsburg to harass the Chinese:
Rocks were thrown at Chinamen on the streets, sometimes when delivering clothes they would be assaulted and the clean clothes scattered in the dirt; of course the poor Chinaman would have to take them back and do them all over again or pay for those damaged beyond repair.
At other times gangs of young men would collect a flock of ancient eggs, rotten vegetables or some other obnoxious substance, and at night would gather in front of a laundry, have one of their number rap on the door, run out of range so that when the Chinaman opened the door the rest of the mob would give him a volley of garbage, much of which would get inside and foul up everything it came in contact with.
How successful was such intimidation? One newspaper claimed the Chinese population in Santa Rosa was reduced from 600 to 100 in a six month period. A Santa Rosa newspaper reported that many remaining Chinese were suffering starvation, and were forced to look for food along the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. Towns like Healdsburg and Bloomfield, of course, drove their Chinese workers to other communities or to the safety of large urban centers.
Chinese Clung Tenaciously
Despite the hostility and hardship, some Chinese clung tenaciously to their new land. The effects of anti-Chinese actions are echoed in County census records. The Chinese population increased steadily from 1850 to 1890, when it reached its highest recorded point, 1,145 This figure may have been much higher just prior to 1886. But by 1900 the figure had dropped to 599. As the new century dawned, such ancient racial prejudice began ever so slowly to fade.
Yet it was not until 1943 that earlier Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed. They were replaced with a stringent quota on people of Chinese descent. And it was not until 1965 that national origin quota systems were finally abolished.