Shortly after the arrival of Captain James Cook and his crews in 1778, the Chinese found their way to Hawaiʻi. Some suggest Cook’s crew gave information about the “Sandwich Islands” when they stopped in Macao in December 1779, near the end of the third voyage.
In 1788, British Captain John Meares commanded two vessels, the Iphigenia and the Felice, with crews of Europeans and 50-Chinese. Shortly thereafter, in 1790, the American schooner Eleanora, with Simon Metcalf as master, reached Maui from Macao using a crew of 10-Americans and 45-Chinese. (Nordyke & Lee)
Crewmen from China were employed as cooks, carpenters and artisans, and Chinese businessmen sailed as passengers to America. Some of these men disembarked in Hawai’i and remained as new settlers.
The growth of the Sandalwood trade with the Chinese market (where mainland merchants brought cotton, cloth and other goods for trade with the Hawaiians for their sandalwood – who would then trade the sandalwood in China) opened the eyes and doors to Hawaiʻi.
The Chinese referred to Hawaiʻi as “Tan Heung Shan” – “The Sandalwood Mountains.” The sandalwood trade lasted for nearly half a century – 1792 to 1843. (Nordyke & Lee)
The Chinese pioneered another Hawaiʻi industry – sugar.
Although ancient Hawaiians brought sugar with them to the Islands centuries before (it was a canoe crop,) in 1802, Wong Tze-Chun brought a sugar mill and boilers to Hawaiʻi and is credited with the first production of sugar. Later, Ahung and Atai built a sugar mill on Maui.
Sugar gradually replaced sandalwood and whaling in the mid-19th century and became the principal industry in the islands.
However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
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 were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.
The first to arrive were the Chinese (1852.)
“When they (Chinese contract laborers) reached Honolulu, they were kept in the quarantine station for about two weeks. They were made to clean themselves in a tank and have their clothes fumigated. Planters looked them over and picked them for work in much the same way a horse was looked at before he was bought.” (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
“These Chinese were taken to the plantations. There they lived in grass houses or unpainted wooden buildings with dirt floors. Sometimes as many as forty men were put into one room. They slept on wooden boards about two feet wide and about three feet from the floor. … (T)hey cut the sugarcane and hauled it on their backs to ox drawn carts which took the cane to the mill to be made into sugar” (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
The sugar industry grew, so did the Chinese population in Hawaiʻi. Between 1852 and 1884, the population of Chinese in Hawai’i increased from 364 to 18,254, to become almost a quarter of the population of the Kingdom (almost 30% of them were living in Honolulu.) (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
Concerned that the Chinese had secured too strong a representation in the labor market, the government passed laws reducing Chinese immigration. Further government regulations introduced between 1886 to 1892 virtually ended Chinese contract labor immigration.
The Chinese pioneered another Hawaiʻi industry – rice; with the collapse of the taro industry in 1861-1862 (as the Hawaiian population declined, the demand for taro also declined,) rice was raised in former taro loʻi.
During the 1860s and 1870s, the production of rice increased substantially. It was consumed domestically by the burgeoning numbers of Chinese brought to the Islands as agricultural laborers.
In 1862, the first rice mill in the Hawaiian Islands was constructed in Honolulu (prior to that it was sent unhulled and uncleaned to be milled in San Francisco.) By 1887 over 13 million pounds of rice were exported.
In 1899, Hawaiʻi’s rice production had expanded so that it placed third in production of rice behind Louisiana and South Carolina.
In 1886, calamity struck the Honolulu Chinatown when a fire raged out of control and destroyed over eight blocks and the homes of 7,000 Chinese and 350 Native Hawaiians and most of Chinatown. Later, in 1900, fires were deliberately set in an effort to wipe out the bubonic plague which was spreading through Chinatown.
Most Chinese plantation workers did not renew their five-year contracts, opting instead to return home or to work on smaller private farms or for other Chinese as clerks, as domestics in haole households, or they started their own businesses.
Chinatown reached its peak in the 1930s. In the days before air travel, visitors arrived here by cruise ship. Just a block up the street was the pier where they disembarked — and they often headed straight for the shops and restaurants of Chinatown, which mainlanders considered an exotic treat.
Because of excellent employment opportunities in Hawai’i, 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 has resulted in a highly favorable position for Chinese men and women in Hawai’i. 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 Hawai’i. (Glick)