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July 13, 1995
A warning: What follows are replies to a discussion on Chinese immigrant labor conducted on H-Labor, the discussion list on the history of American labor <H-Labor@msu.edu>. My impression is that the original query and later comments have not appeared on H-West. Because you will be jumping into the middle of a conversation, the discussion may seem a bit disorienting.
Nonetheless, the issues seemed pertinent to western history, and I think you can puzzle out at least some of the issues from the context of the replies.
Sorry for the confusion and inconvenience.
Elliott West, Co-moderator
>Date: 13 July 1995
>From: Vince Peloso <email@example.com>
SW's addition to MS's addition to the Indentured Chinese thread (which I joined only lately) prompts me to make the following stab at a reply. The difference I've noted between "indentured" and "contract" Chinese labor in the 19thc is that "indentured" laborers were contracted for a long period of time, usually 7-8 years. There is no disputing the length of such contracts, the brutal treatment the indentured men received, including overwork (and some would argue worked nearly to death), miserable housing, food, medical care, etc., making indenture in some countries seem like the black slavery it usually replaced. Most of the process is, however, still under study and specific mortality, illness, suicide rates and similar matters are not well known. This is especially true in those countries of the Americas to which the Chinese were brought, 1840s-1874: Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, in addition to the US. Others also were sent to the Anglo-Caribbean under similar conditions.
Less is known about what happened after identure ended. Few of the men were able to return to China and most remained farm laborers of one sort or another, and willingly or not. Here is where a bit of controversy enters the picture. Not all the indentured men were freed immediately. Many had accumulated debts to the plantations-- for tools, medicine, days absent from work (because of flight from the plantation), etc.-- and in these cases the planters often successfully demanded and received additional labor-time. But many escaped this trap. As "free laborers," the men were offered and many accepted short-term labor contracts. They ran anywhere from "a harvest" in length to a year. This was "contract" labor; it was relatively short-term, the men had an easier time avoiding debt and-- more to the point-- they were free to leave at the end of the contract. They were so free in fact that (again in contrast to indentured men) they found female companionship within the local populations and they raised families. That's enough to begin to establish a distinction, an important one I think, between "indentured" and "contract" Chinese labor.
Some work hs been done to lay much of this story out in Trinidad, Guyana, Peru and Cuba. I am most familiar with the bibliography for the latter two. Begin with the work of Evelyn Hu-Dehart whose articles on Chinese indenture in Cuba, Peru and Mexico appeared in the journals "Amerasia" and the "Journal of Arizona History," among others, in the past 4-5 years, and Mike Gonzales, especially an article in the "Journal of Latin American Studies" about 1990 and his book, "Plantation Agriculture and Social Control in Northern Peru, 1875-1933" (U of Texas Press, 1985).
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>Date: 13 July 1995
>From: "Mae M. Ngai" <email@example.com>
Immigration of Chinese labor during the nineteenth century to the United States and Canada was, legally speaking, voluntary and not contracted or indentured. The latter was common practice to South America and the Caribbean, especially after the end of African slavery in the British island colonies. Indians in addition to Chinese were used as a replacement labor force for plantation work. The term "indentured" is not commonly used for Chinese contract labor to the west. I believe, though I am not entirely certain, that Chinese contract labor differed from indentured labor to the North American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries in that the former had even fewer legal rights and were not entitled to "freedom dues" upon the end of their contract. Incidentally, the term "coolie" is taken from the Chinese phrase ku-li, which means, literally, bitter strength.
It is interesting to note that the growth of Hong Kong as the premier entrepot in Asia during the latter half of the 19th century rested in great part on the trade of coolies. Human beings constituted the single largest "export item" out of southern China through the British crown colony. I might add that there is very little comparative work on Chinese immigration during the 19th century. One of the areas of Asian American studies that is fast gaining recognition is that of "diasporic" studies.
Chinese immigration to the United States began with the California gold rush. As early as 1850 California passed a law providing for a "foreign miners tax" that was aimed at the Chinese (and secondarily at Mexicans). Although Chinese miners mostly worked abandoned placer mines that had already been exploited by white miners, to tease out remaining scraps of gold. Chinese also quickly entered what might be considered the provision business for the white mining camps (perhaps foreshadowing occupational concentrations in cooking and washing to which the Chinese would later become condemned). Such early discrimination against Chinese miners in the form of the foreign miners tax--in light of a lack of economic competition--suggests the strength of the white racist thread in manifest destiny and, during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, the force of the view shared by north and south that the west was for white people. In any case, direct hostility on the part of white miners against the Chinese did not occur until later, when independent prospectors became waged workers employed by mining firms (see Alexander Saxton on this point). Chinese continued to come to California throughout the 1870s to work on the western portion of the transcontinental railroad and lured by the image of gold; the Chinese name for San Francisco is 'gold mountain.' While technically free labor, many Chinese bought their passage on credit and had to work off their debt upon their arrival in the U.S. The system was organized and run by the kin and district (or village) associations of co-ethnics in the U.S. The leadership of these 'benevolent societies' comprised the local merchant elite. During the period before exclusion, the local elite had worked out an understanding with Immigration Bureau officials so that no Chinese could leave the U.S. unless he had papers from the local association certifying that the returning sojourner was debt-free. The benevolent societies performed complex functions, serving as instruments of labor and social control but also as spokespersons for civil rights and aginst racial violence aimed at Chinese. I believe this situation is what has led many people to believe that Chinese laborers in the U.S. were bound and not free labor.
And yes, the Chinese did organize and strike; there is evidence of at least one major strike of Chinese railroad workers, in June 1867, when 6000 Chinese workers struck the Central Pacific, high in the Sierras. One of their demands was to receive pay equal and hours to that of the white workers. The strike lasted a few days until, having been denied any food by Charles Crocker, they ended it. There is no evidence of white labor having had any role either in organizing or supporting the strike or other struggles. Later in 1870s Chinese cigarmakers organized in response to a campaign led by the CMIU to boycott all cigars made by Chinese labor (this is the compromising origin of the union label -- it actually said: 'made by white labor'). I'm afraid the record of socialists wasn't much better than the AFL. Jack London was a notorious anti-Chinese.
some sources (some of these have been mentioned already on H-Labor):
Alexander Saxton, The Indispensible Enemy _______, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans, an interpretive History (general survey) Ronald Takaki, STrangers from a Different Shore Sucheng Chan's essay on Asian immigration in Virginia Yans McLaughlin's Immigration Reconsidered.
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