Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages in the sugar industry were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. The first contract from China came in 1852. On the continent, in the 1850s, Chinese workers migrated to the US, first to work in the gold mines, but also to take agricultural jobs, and factory work, especially in the garment industry. Chinese immigrants were particularly instrumental in building railroads in the American west.
Objections to Chinese immigration took many forms, and generally stemmed from economic and cultural tensions, as well as ethnic discrimination. Most Chinese laborers who came to the US did so in order to send money back to China to support their families there. At the same time, they also had to repay loans to the Chinese merchants who paid their passage to America. These financial pressures left them little choice but to work for whatever wages they could. Competition with American workers and a growing nativism brought pressure for restrictive action. In the Islands, in 1883, the Hawaiian Cabinet Council, concerned that the Chinese had secured too strong a representation in the labor market, passed a resolution to restrict Chinese immigration.