Except for the few Chinese adventurers who remained in Hawai’i from the ships of whalers, fur traders and merchants, their numbers did not have a significant impact upon the society of the Hawaiian kingdom.
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.
This planned immigration had a strong influence on the growth, size, and composition of the population as well as on sociological change in the young Territory of Hawai’i at the turn of the century. (Nordyke)
The first contract from China came in 1852: 195 workers from the city of Amoy in the Fujian Province. By the 1880s more than 25,000 Chinese immigrants (more than 20% of Hawaii’s population) were working on Hawaii’s sugar plantation. (Jillian)
Because of excellent employment opportunities in Hawaiʻi, as well as the high value placed by Chinese on education (even though most immigrants had little formal schooling,) Chinese parents encouraged their sons to get as much education as possible. (Glick)
This strong emphasis on education resulted in a highly favorable position for Chinese men and women in Hawaiʻi. Nearly three-fourths of them are employed in higher-lever jobs – skilled, clerical and sales, proprietary and managerial, and professional. As a result, the Chinese enjoy the highest median of income of all ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi. (Glick)
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.
Chinese immigrants worked as domestic servants, laundrymen, miners, road graders, railroad workers, cannery workers, fishermen, cooks, farmers and other occupations that were often shunned by others. (Chin; Organization of Chinese Americans)
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.
Non-Chinese laborers often required much higher wages to support their wives and children in the US, and also generally had a stronger political standing to bargain for higher wages. Therefore many of the non-Chinese workers in the US came to resent the Chinese laborers, who might squeeze them out of their jobs. (State Department)
Competition with American workers and a growing nativism brought pressure for restrictive action. (US Archives) On the continent, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited (1) the immigration of Chinese laborers, (2) denied Chinese of naturalization; (3) and required Chinese laborers already legally present in the US who later wish to reenter to obtain “certificates of return.”
The latter provision was an unprecedented requirement that applied only to Chinese residents. Other Acts were passed and steps taken by the US to extend the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Scott Act (1888) prohibited all Chinese laborers who would choose or had chosen to leave the US from reentering, cancelled all previously issued “certificates of return,” which prevented approximately 20,000 Chinese laborers abroad.
Geary Act (1892) extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for 10 years, required all Chinese persons in the US – but no other race – to register with the federal government in order to obtain “certificates of residence.” In 1898, the US annexed Hawaiʻi and took control of the Philippines, and excluded thousands of Chinese in Hawaii and the Philippines from entering the US mainland.
In 1902, Congress indefinitely extended all laws relating and restricting Chinese immigration and residence. (Chin; Organization of Chinese Americans)
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 to 2,400 men a year and to require Chinese leaving the Islands to obtain a passport to prove previous residence if they expected to return.
In 1885, harsher regulations limited passports to Chinese who had been in trade or who had conducted business for at least one year of residence, and no return passports were to be issued to departing laborers.
Further government regulations introduced from 1886 to 1892 virtually ended Chinese contract labor immigration by restricting passports to business people who had resided in the Islands, Chinese women and children and a few persons in China who were specifically invited by the minister of foreign affairs.
A limited number of Chinese laborers were permitted to enter Hawaiʻi under conditional work permits for agricultural purposes, provided that they left the Islands after five years. (Nordyke)
An effort to stabilize the Chinese population was made by a Hawaiian government policy that curtailed Chinese immigration so that the number of arrivals would not exceed departures.
While 5,727 Chinese were employed on sugar plantations in 1888, only 2,617 were reported in that occupation by 1892. Many of these workers migrated to the cities to obtain higher-paying jobs, but some laborers returned to their homeland. Between 1884 and 1890, the Chinese population declined from 18,254 to 16,752 persons. (Nordyke)
The Chinese Exclusion Acts were not repealed until 1943, and then only in the interests of aiding the morale of a wartime ally during World War II. (State Department)
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