Facing Racism: Reminiscence of Chinese American Immigrant
Between the 1850s and the 1870s, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrated to the West Coast of the United States in search of opportunity. They worked in the gold mines and on the transcontinental railroad, but were subjected to violence and discrimination, ultimately leading to their segregation in “Chinatowns” and exclusion from further immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In the following reminiscence, Huie Kin, who worked on a farm near Oakland, describes the impact of the “Chinese Must Go!” movement led by racist demagogue Dennis Kearney—himself an Irish immigrant. From Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Chinese American Family Album (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 64:
The sudden change of public sentiment towards our people in those days was an interesting illustration of mob psychology…. The useful and steady Chinese worker became overnight the mysterious Chinaman, an object of unknown dread. When I landed [in 1868], the trouble was already brewing, but the climax did not come until 1876-1877. I understand that several causes contributed to the anti-Chinese riots. It was a period of general economic depression in the Western States, brought about by drought, crop failures, and reduced output of the gold mines, and on the top of it came a presidential campaign…. There were long processions at night, with big torchlights and lanterns, carrying the slogan “The Chinese Must Go,” and mass meetings where fiery-tongues flayed the Chinese bogey. Those were the days of Denis Kearney and his fellow agitators, known as sandlot orators, on account of their vehement denouncements in open-air meetings. To Kearney was attributed the statement which showed to what extremes political demagogues could go: “There is no means left to clear the Chinamen but to swing them into eternity by their own queues, for there is no rope long enough in all America wherewith to strangle four hundred millions of Chinamen.” The Chinese were in a pitiable condition in those days. We were simply terrified; we kept indoors after dark for fear of being shot in the back. Children spit upon us as we passed by and called us rats. However, there was one consolation: the people who employed us never turned against us, and we went on quietly with our work until the public frenzy subsided.