For many years it was common in the United States to associate Chinese Americans with restaurants and laundries. People did not realize that the Chinese had been driven into these occupations by the prejudice and discrimination that faced them in this country.
The first Chinese to reach the United States came during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Like most of the other people there, they had come to search for gold. In that largely unoccupied land, the men staked a claim for themselves by placing makers in the ground. However, either because the Chinese were so different from the others or because they worked so patiently that they sometimes succeeded in turning a seemingly worthless mining claim into a profitable one; they became the scapegoats of their envious competitors. They were harassed in many ways. Often they were prevented from working their claims; some localities even passed regulations forbidding them to own claims. The Chinese therefore started to seek out other ways of earning a living. Some of them began to do the laundry for the white miners; others set up small restaurants. (There were almost no women in California in those days, and the Chinese filled a real need by doing this "woman's work".) Some went to work as farmhands or as fishermen.
In the early 1860's many more Chinese arrived in California. This time the men were imported as work crews to construct the first transcontinental railroad. They were sorely needed because the work was so strenuous and dangerous, and it was carried on in such a remote part of the country that the railroad company could not find other laborers for the job. As in the case of their predecessors, these Chinese were almost all males; and like them, too, they encountered a great deal of prejudice. The hostility grew especially strong after the railroad project was complete, and the imported laborers returned to California -- thousands of them, all out of work. Because there were so many more of them this time, these Chinese drew even more attention than the earlier group did. They were so very different in every respect: in their physical appearance, including a long "pigtail" at the back of their otherwise shaved heads; in the strange, non-Western clothes they wore; in their speech (few had learned English since they planned to go back to China); and in their religion. They were contemptuously called "heathen Chinese" because there were many sacred images in their houses of worship.
When times were hard, they were blamed for working for lower wages and taking jobs away from white men, who were in many cases recent immigrants themselves. Anti-Chinese riots broke out in several cities, culminating in arson and bloodshed. Chinese were barred from using the courts and also from becoming American citizens. California began to demand that no more Chinese be permitted to enter their state. Finally, in 1882, they persuaded Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped the immigration of Chinese laborers. Many Chinese returned to their homeland, and their numbers declined sharply in the early part of this century. However, during the War II, when China was an ally of the United States, the Exclusion laws were ended; a small number of Chinese were allowed to immigrate each year, and Chinese could become American citizens. In 1965, in a general revision of our immigration laws, many more Chinese were permitted to settle here, as discrimination against Asian immigration was abolished.
From the start, the Chinese had lived apart in their own separate neighborhoods, which came to be known as "Chinatowns". In each of them the residents organized an unofficial government to make rules for the community and to settle disputes. Unable to find jobs on the outside, many went into business for themselves -- primarily to serve their own neighborhood. As for laundries and restaurants, some of them soon spread to other parts of the city, since such services continued to be in demand among non-Chinese, too. To this day, certain Chinatowns, especially those of San Francisco and New York, are busy, thriving communities, which have become great attractions for tourists and for those who enjoy Chinese food.
Most of today's Chinese Americans are the descendants of some of the early miners and railroad workers. Those immigrants had come from the vicinity of Canton in Southeast China, where they had been uneducated farm laborers. The same kind of young men, from the same area and from similar humble origins, migrated to Hawaii in those days. There they fared far better, mainly because they did not encounter hostility. Some married native Hawaiians, and other brought their wives and children over. They were not restricted to Chinatown and many of them soon became successful merchants and active participants in general community affairs.
Chinese Americans retain many aspects of their ancient culture, even after having lived here for several generations. For Example, their family ties continue to be remarkably strong (encompassing grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and others). Members of the family lend each other moral support and also practical help when necessary. From a very young age children are imbued with the old values and attitudes, including respect for their elders and a feeling of responsibility to the family. This helps to explain why there is so little juvenile delinquency among them.
The high regard for education which is deeply imbedded in Chinese culture, and the willingness to work very hard to gain advancement, are other noteworthy characteristics of theirs. This explains why so many descendants of uneducated laborers have succeeded in becoming doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. (Many of the most outstanding Chinese American scholars, scientists, and artists are more recent arrivals, who come from China's former upper class and who represent its high cultural traditions.)