Photos: Chinese Migration And Labor Conditions


The sojourners - the first immigrants to California in the mid-1800's primarily from China's southeastern area - came in search of "Gold Mountain," the mythical land of wealth known as "Gam Saan" in Cantonese. Instead, they endured hostility and extreme hardship while performing the difficult, dangerous labor of railroad construction. To link the nation by rail, these immigrants worked in winter snow and summer heat, sometimes being lowered in baskets down sheer mountain faces to carve passages from hard rock. Other sojourners found work in California's abundant agricultural fields, picking oranges, mulberries, and other produce. Still other sojourners were part of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevada, working in mines, doing laundry, and sometimes supplementing their meager incomes through gambling. This initial wave of immigration lasted almost one hundred years, stretching from the time that California was still part of Mexico until well past the global Depression of the 1930's. Despite their invaluable contribution to California's economy and the nation's railroad system, the sojourners faced anti-immigration legislation as well as outright fear and hatred from surrounding communities.


Chinese railworkers are depicted in this image, titled "Across the Continent: The snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains."  Artist Joseph Becker, whose work appeared frequently in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, most likely made this etching to illustrate Leslie's famed excursion to the Pacific on the Central Pacific Railroad between July 1877 - late 1878.
Chinese laborers work towards the completion of a major railroad bridge running through the mountains of Northern California.
This photograph shows workers constructing the Loma Prieta Rail Road in 1882 in the hills near Santa Cruz, California.
Workers level the rails with gravel on the North Pacific Rail Road in Corte Madera, California, circa 1898.
Chinese laborers ride a handcar on the Southen Pacific Railroad near Lang in 1876, where construction of the railroad beween San Francisco and Los Angeles joined the two lines with a golden spike.
A Chinese miner operates a sluice box in Northern Calforia, circa 1860s.  Mining for gold and other elements was an alternative occupation for Chinese migrants in the new frontier.
Chinese Section Hands. North Pacific Coast R.R. Corte Madera, CA 1898.
Chinese rail workers pose next to their foreman, circa 1878.
Rail workers in Contra Costa County break for a group photo.  Hercules, California, late 1870s. 
Chinese migrants work in an orange grove, Santa Ana, California, circa 1900.  
Orange picking and packing in Pasadena, California.
"Gathering Mulberry Leaves for Silkworm Culture, Los Angeles, California" 1907
Chinese laborers harvest grapes in J. de Barth Shorb Vineyards, San Marino.
This etching of Chinese miners and gamblers, titled "Celestial Empire in California," was made by Britton and Rey. These famed lithographers worked in the latter half of the 19th century, and they were well known for their illustrations for California sheet music and their Map of the State of California.
Anti-Chinese sentiment increased when the completion of the transcontinental railroad freed up 9,000 Chinese laborers, fueling the hostility of American workers who, like the miners before them, resented Chinese immigrants for the economic competition they presented. Tensions came to a head on July 23, 1877, when a labor rally held in a sand lot in San Francisco to support railroad strikers in the Eastern U.S. turned to violence. A group of young vagrants, aged 15 to 20, attacked a Chinese man in the vicinity of the rally, igniting three days of riots. 



Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading