Chinese Americans in the Columbia River Basin

Early Chinese Communities: Merchants, Miners and Railroad Workers
Anti-Chinese Sentiment and Exclusion
Chinese Organizations and Social Life
The Post-Exclusion Era


Small numbers of Chinese immigrants first entered the United States in the late 1840s. Most of these early immigrants, primarily from the Canton area, came to San Francisco to establish small businesses of various types. Soon after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the exciting news of potential wealth reached China, and by the early 1850s many more Chinese had immigrated to San Francisco.

Gold strikes in Oregon and Washington in the mid-1850s, and in Idaho in the early 1860s, prompted many Chinese immigrants in California to follow other fortune seekers to the Columbia River Basin in search of economic opportunity. Many Chinese immigrants worked the placer mines but others provided various services to the mining camp population and towns as cooks, laundry workers, and store vendors.

Early Chinese Communities: Merchants, Miners and Railroad Workers

Chinese immigrants were present in large numbers in Washington Territory, which then included what later became Idaho, by the 1860s. Most Chinese miners were concentrated in the upper Columbia, in the regions of Walla Walla, Fort Colville, and the Chelan and Methow Rivers. In the mid-1860s, they established one of the largest enclaves in the region in Chelan Falls. The village included the best-stocked store in the area, which was operated by a Chinese merchant who also owned a pack of forty animals. By 1870 Idaho had more than 4,000 Chinese, representing almost 30 percent of the total population in the Territory. In Washington Territory east of the Cascades, Chinese outnumbered whites by a ratio of two to one among the mining population . And by 1880, Walla Walla had a Chinese population of six hundred.

Chinese immigrants found some measure of community in the “Chinatowns” of the Columbia River Basin. Chinatowns offered immigrants a place where they could be at home with their countrymen and live according to their cultural traditions and values. Chinatowns usually included restaurants, opium “dens,” laundries, stores, and a Joss House where the Chinese could worship. For example, Silver City, Idaho, with a Chinese population of seven hundred in 1874, had a Chinese Masonic temple, two Joss houses, several restaurants, two laundries, four stores, two lotteries, five gambling houses, and several warehouses. Chinatowns were dynamic places that hosted cultural and religious celebrations and festivals. These included the celebration honoring the birth of the Goddess Quon Yum Po Sart, which began at sundown with a procession through the streets, and the Moon Festival held in August during full moon to appease the evil spirits. The most important celebration, the Chinese New Year, was held before the first full moon in February. In 1873, celebrants in Idaho City ushered in the New Year with a barrage of firecrackers. The celebration included a parade with people marching through the streets with cymbals, gongs, and drums, and a brightly colored, writhing paper dragon with a ten-foot silk tail. Just as important, the Chinese New Year symbolized a time when the Chinese repented for spiritual sins, visiting the Joss house more frequently.

In the 1870s, railroad construction also began to lure many Chinese immigrants to the region. By 1870 four rail lines under construction in Oregon employed several hundred Chinese laborers, all brought under contract from California and China. In April 1868 the Central Oregon Railroad had a Chinese crew on hand and projected hiring 1,000 additional Chinese laborers. Chinese laborers were contracted to work in the construction of the Walla Walla to Wallula railroad from 1871 to 1875. The Northern Pacific also relied on Chinese contract laborers to construct its Kalama to Tacoma line.
In addition to mining and railroad work, many Chinese immigrants found opportunities in enterprises that served those industries, as merchants, restaurateurs, labor contractors, laundry workers, and doctors. When Goon Dip came to the Pacific Northwest, he worked as a laborer and as a domestic servant. He rose to prominence as a labor contractor supplying Chinese workers to railroad and salmon companies in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Wa Kee, like Goon Dip, was a successful labor contractor who supplied Chinese workers to the railroad companies and other industries in Portland and other parts of Oregon in the 1860s and 1870s. C. K. Ah Fong became a prominent doctor who practiced his trade for over twenty years in Idaho starting in 1889. Chinese immigrants were also very successful truck gardeners. They supplied fresh vegetables to mining and other communities in the Columbia River Basin.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment and Exclusion
As the Chinese population in the Pacific Northwest increased, so did hostile responses from many prejudiced whites in the region. Anti-Chinese sentiments frequently became enshrined in legislation that denied the Chinese equal treatment under the law and limited their economic opportunities. The Oregon Territorial Legislature, during the1856-57 session, passed a bill to tax all Chinese miners two dollars a month. In 1866, the Idaho Territorial Legislature passed a similar law that assessed “All Mongolians, whether male or female” a foreign miner’s tax of five dollars a month.

Chinese immigrants frequently became targets of violence. Many whites resented the Chinese because of perceived competition in mining and other work, and because they did not understand their culture. In Idaho in the 1870s and 1880s, for example, whites raided opium dens, destroyed shacks, and assaulted and robbed many Chinese. Other Chinese were murdered. In February 1879, the massacre at Loon Creek near the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River claimed the lives of fifteen “celestials.” In Washington, riots in Tacoma and Olympia during the mid-1880s resulted in the banishment of the Chinese from both communities. In March 1886, an anti-Chinese mob ordered Chinese residents to leave Portland; however, swift response by City leaders and police protected the Chinese and prevented the mob from carrying out their threats. Chinese immigrants in other areas were not as fortunate. For example, in 1887 in Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River, whites robbed and massacred thirty-one Chinese miners.

Chinese immigrants, like African Americans in the era of Jim Crow laws, often found it difficult to receive equal treatment in the courts. Perpetrators of violence against the Chinese usually escaped prosecution and punishment, and Chinese immigrants were denied the right to testify in court against whites. In addition, Chinese immigrants tried in the courts could not expect a fair trial. On rare occasions, a handful of elected officials and justices favored Chinese involved in civil or criminal cases. These officials, however, incurred the wrath of the white community and were removed from office. White hostility against the Chinese gained intensity in the 1870s and peaked with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which essentially ended further immigration from China.

Chinese Organizations and Social Life

Chinese immigrants are rather unique compared to other immigrant groups in American history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and subsequent national laws, effectively curtailed further immigration from China and insured that the Chinese community in the United States remained a “bachelor” community until WW II, when restrictions were eased. Discrimination and anti-Chinese laws deprived Chinese men of a family life, since few Chinese women could immigrate to the U.S. and miscegenation laws prevented them from marrying white women.
Discrimination and exclusion laws fostered the development of protective associations that substituted for family life for Chinese men. Early in Chinese history, family clan associations formed to protect and support all related members. Although association membership was restricted to related members, in the United States membership was expanded to include all persons with the same surname. Clan associations supported the social welfare needs of their members and mediated disputes. District companies, like family clans, also served as protective associations for their American members. Originally formed during the sixteenth century by merchants in the Cantonese region of China, district associations limited membership to persons from the same geographical district. District organizations emerged early in the history of Chinese immigration in the United States, since most Chinese immigrants prior to 1965 came from the Cantonese region.

In San Francisco, family clans and merchants banded together to form six protective district associations, which became known as the six Chinese companies. The companies served as mutual aid societies and provided a variety of services to their members. They provided temporary housing, loans, labor placement, and protection to new arrivals, and served as intermediaries with government authorities. The companies also paid the travel costs of immigrants who signed contracts before departing China that obligated them to repay the companies from earnings after their arrival in the United States. District companies became the dominant social institution in Chinese immigrant communities, since most Chinese men were single or had left their families in China.
The six Chinese companies, although they served as protective associations for Chinese immigrants, limited the freedom of their members, who had to remain loyal to their company. They could not seek work independently and were required to abide by their company’s policies, especially in disputes with other Chinese companies. The companies held members accountable for their behavior and punished offenders. This tight control generated internal conflict and fostered resistance to their influence in the Chinese American community. In Idaho in 1872 a feud developed between the Sze Yap and Yoeng Wah companies. In addition, secret societies that became known as tongs emerged to challenge the power of the six companies. Tongs were based on fraternal principles that accorded the same treatment to their members regardless of clan affiliation or social class background. Tongs challenged the business monopoly of the six companies in gambling, opium, and other activities. However, conflict between tong associations also developed. In Portland, for example, four tong associations signed a peace agreement in April 26, 1917, in which they agreed to resolve conflicts peacefully, and recognized the Mayor, the District Attorney, and the Commissioner of Immigration as mediators.

The Post-Exclusion Era

The policies of Chinese exclusion began to change by World War II. Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 ushered in a new trend of Chinese acceptance. The Walter-McCarran Act of 1952 and the Immigration Quota Act of 1965 further eased restrictions on Chinese immigration. Thousands of Chinese, mostly from Hong Kong, immigrated to the United States after 1965. This new wave of immigration finally began to mitigate the unbalanced sex ratio of Chinese men to women in the United States and began a transformation of Chinese American communities.

Since 1965, Chinese American communities have undergone tremendous change. Chinatowns have seen a social transformation, as second-generation Chinese Americans attained higher levels of education and well-paying jobs and moved to the suburbs. However, decline of Chinatowns prompted revitalization efforts, as occurred in Portland during the early 1960s. Chinese American social activists, influenced by the social movements of the 1960s, focused their efforts on the social needs of the immigrant elders who remained in Chinatown neighborhoods. The communities remained places where second- and third-generation Chinese Americans “can go home” and practice their cultural traditions and foodways.

Chinese Americans made substantial contributions to Columbia Basin economic and cultural life. They contributed much needed labor and services in developing the region. Despite widespread discrimination, Chinese immigrants persevered in urban communities, and these communities grew with a new wave of immigration in the period after 1965.

- Mario Compean


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