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Chinese Immigrants on America's Western Frontier

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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A tiny fellow with a scarred cheek and eager eyes'John John' the Chinese laundry man, was the laughingstock of Weaverville, California. For months during he had been washing the Anglo miners' clothes and never had charged even a penny for his services.

The Anglos thought he was stupid, and intentionally took advantage of him. But a year later, according to prospector John Hoffman, who followed gold and silver trails through the Sierras for nearly three decades, one of the white miners came across John John wearing fine clothes in Sacramento. The Chinese laundry man had washed enough gold dust out of pants cuffs and shirttails to set himself up for life!

John John (the name was one commonly given to Chinese by whites during the California Gold Rush) may have been the same entrepreneur who contracted for a number of his countrymen to work on a construction project near Coulterville, in the Sierra foothills. Taking advantage of his employer's discriminatory 'All Chinamen look alike' he hired 10 men but listed 18 on the payroll.

John John kept his employees so busy, his Anglo overseers never noticed the manpower shortage. The Chinese entrepreneur pocketed the extra earnings, then he charged each of the 10 laborers a fee equal to half their wages for the privilege of working for him!

James Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter's mill on the South Fork of the American River in January 1848, and the big rush to California had begun in 1849. In 1852, at least 20,000 people (all but a handful were men) arrived in the so-called Golden Mountains from southern China, and in the Gold Rush years that followed, the Chinese kept on coming. With few exceptions the immigrant Chinese formed tightly knit communities–Chinatowns–within the larger communities in which they settled. Every Chinatown included at least one boardinghouse, where both domestic and mine laborers lived. The rooms in some of these establishments were so small they could accommodate only a cot and a hook for hanging a few items of clothing. Residents ate at a communal table, but each Chinatown usually had at least one restaurant as well, a laundry that catered largely to the Anglo community, a few cramped little stores that sold everything from dried squid to kerosene, and perhaps a small brothel.

But the center of the Chinatown was the joss house, or temple. Some, like the ones in Oroville and Weaverville, Calif., were quite elaborate and remain in existence as tourist attractions today. But most of them were ordinary wood, stone or brick structures. The late Dr. Maxwell Lee, a Chico, Calif., physician, told me that many Chinese believed the rude exteriors disguised the value of the joss house's artifacts but added'I do not believe that the immigrant [Chinese] population included many Chinese architects.'

Inside the joss house, even those in isolated communities like Fiddletown and San Andreas in California's Sierras foothills, worshippers burned incense before elegantly carved ivory and jade figurines. Paper lanterns cast a flickering glow across hand-painted porcelain pots and statuettes of bronze and gold. Brass gongs announced the comings and goings of the faithful. Not only did the joss house provide a center of culture and a place of devotion and repose, it was a link between the New World and the Old. 'To go inside' Lee noted'was to return home, to be in China again.'

Women were in great demand in the mining areas, and the Chinese were among the first to cater to the rough miners' needs. Chinese overseers–tong bosses-warred over the few available dance-hall girls and prostitutes. A hurdy-gurdy entertainer called 'Chinese Mary' instigated a number of fights and at least one killing. After being kidnapped by one tong from another, she was transported to Wellington, Nev. There one of the dray men double-crossed his employers, abducted her and sold her to a Chinese merchant in Aurora for $220 and a silver watch and chain.

The merchant married her, but Mary didn't take to domestic life and ran off. In 1876 she provoked several riots in Placer County and, the same year in Columbus, Nev., she was the object of a fight among nine separate men, each of whom claimed her. Most Chinese camp followers, however, were more docile and performed according to their tong bosses' wishes.

Even so rare a commodity as a woman on the frontier didn't guarantee financial stability. Frank Whitfield, a mining engineer who later retired and became a Plumas County rancher, told of a Chinese brothel keeper who, dissatisfied with the profits he was making from his establishment, enlisted the services of a huge immigrant Swede to drag tired miners to the little building he'd set up on the edge of Chinatown. 'The Swede drank a lot' Whitfield recalled'but he was as strong as an ox, and on more than one occasion threw a complaining miner over his shoulder, staggered across town and delivered him to the brothel.'

Not having money was no excuse for not taking a woman to one of the brothel's little rooms. The brothel keeper took gold, silver, belt buckles, tools-even boots–in payment. According to Whitfield, the brothel keeper's cousin ran a secondhand store in which he sold the items taken in trade very cheaply.

Even more ingenious were the suppliers of women who ran a little Chinese laundry in a mining camp near Oroville. Like many Chinese in the area, they were slender and stoop-shouldered from bending over hot irons day after day. Facially, they looked very much alike and often were mistaken for each other.

'Charlie One' who was slightly older and spoke some English, handled all their business transactions. Occasionally, for the insistent and hard-up miners, he would sneak a woman into the camp from an Oroville brothel. 'Charlie Two' spoke no English–in fact he hardly spoke at all. He worked hard in the laundry and in the little garden that the two Chinese maintained. He was known to be swift-footed; some of the miners claimed that Charlie Two could run down a jackrabbit in an open field.

One day a trio of miners, returning from their diggings on the South Fork of the Feather River with several bottles of rotgut, decided to entertain themselves and their companions by forcing Charlie One and Charlie Two to dance for them. They dragged the two frightened Chinese men out of the little laundry building and forced them to hop around a little, but the performance didn't satisfy the miners.

They insisted that the dancers take off their cotton pants. When the two Chinese objected, the miners grabbed them and stripped them. Much to their astonishment, they found out that Charlie Two was a woman! She wiggled out of their grasp and she and Charlie One took off for the mountains, totally naked and very scared. The miners gave chase but quickly were outdistanced. No one in the mining camp ever found out what happened to the two Chinese, but odds are that the two set up a laundry-brothel somewhere else in northern California.

Regarded primarily as laborers and servants by the dominant Anglo culture, the immigrant Chinese bypassed orthodox means of communication and transportation whenever possible. Couriers connected far-flung communities throughout the West. They transported the earnings that their countrymen had saved to San Francisco and Seattle to send back to the old country and they returned with essential supplies: dried squid, joss sticks, dried vegetables, tea, icons and opium.

A descendant of one of these couriers, Dave Cheng of San Francisco, told me his forbear 'never wore good clothing or let on in any way that he was carrying thousands of dollars concealed among his rags.' Whenever possible, he traveled with Chinese companions, since a lone Oriental in a remote part of the gold country was in danger of harassment, if not torture and death. Instead of buying food, or paying for boat or stagecoach passage, he would hire himself out as a stable sweep or dishwasher, deck hand or woodcutter, in exchange for food and passage.

He followed a more or less definite series of stops, delivering little items precious to the immigrants and giving them both letters and the latest rumors and news. The Chinese shopkeepers, miners and laborers paid him either in money or with food, lodging and portions of their imports and entrusted him with savings they wanted their relatives in the Old World to receive.

Many couriers later developed solid mercantile businesses in cities like Portland and San Francisco, which had extensive Chinatowns. One of them may have been the old patriarch that a miner named Amos Ott rescued in the late 1860s. Ott's story was related by Silas Diller, a geologist who included the account in a turn-of-the-century private journal.

Ott came across the old man, wet and dressed in what appeared to be rags, during a driving mountain rainstorm. After arriving safely in the farming town of Red Bluff, Calif., the old man gave Ott a thin piece of yellowing slate on which several Chinese characters were inscribed and indicated that, should Ott ever get to San Francisco, he would try to repay him.

Ott never intended to collect on the offer, but years later, during a grain-hauling trip to the city, he showed the token to several San Francisco Chinatown residents. 'It worked magic' Diller recorded. One of the residents ushered Ott to a house behind a shop on Washington Street. Several minutes later, the old patriarch appeared, even more stooped and feeble than he'd seemed that stormy day in the Sierras. But this time, instead of rags he was wearing jade rings and a brocaded silk robe. He bowed and welcomed Ott and through a translator confided that he considered Ott's impulse to help him as an intercession by the gods on his behalf. No request of Ott's, he told his family, should be refused. Ott spent several weeks in luxury, then he returned to Red Bluff with the money he had thrown away foolishly in the flesh pots and gambling halls restored to his pockets.

Many immigrant Chinese who poured into the Western United States in the 1860s and '70s were indentured servants from revolution-torn Kwangtung province. Unlike either the Mexicans or the Indians, who separately and individually had governed most of the West in carefree, nomadic fashion and actively resented the intruder Anglos, the Chinese recognized their own subsidiary position and worked around it. Thousands of Chinese laid rails, dug dams and built rock fences all the way from British Columbia to Mexico, west to the Pacific and east to Wyoming and Montana. They hired out as gardeners, household servants and street sweepers. But it was for their laundries and restaurants that they became best known.

In an 1882 diary, Levancia Bent noted that the Chinese'seemed to do everything that our own people wouldn't or couldn't do.' Most of the businesses they started involved little capital and lots of labor. A restaurant owner had only to purchase what he needed for one day; a Chinese laundry service needed only tubs and a washboard, plus a little soap. And unlike many European business owners, the Chinese were willing to cater to all elements of society. By the 1880s, one could find a Chinese restaurant–and probably an apothecary shop–in every red-light district from Alaska to Guatemala.

They also set up little gambling parlors. My grandfather remembered betting with 'The Chinaman'–the only name he went by–in southern Colorado before World War I. The games were simple and the stakes were small, but apparently this Chinese gambler earned enough to keep himself in business for many years.

A gambler named Lip Shee followed a regular route from San Francisco through the Mother Lode. Posing as a servant, courier or small-laundry owner, he would enter an Anglo gambling parlor and play carelessly while he appeared to become more and more inebriated.

Complaining loudly about his bad luck, he would drag out the last of his money or gold dust–the remains of a fortune entrusted to him by a dying relative-and vow to kill himself if it, too, sifted through his fingers.

Invariably, his luck would change; slowly he would begin to win. Whatever the roll, the dice seemed to favor him. Suddenly he would be able to guess under which shell the pea was hidden or which mah-jongg tile would be the next to turn up. He ran more than one small gambling parlor out of business, but never stayed long in a town and seemed to vanish as he had appeared, without a trace.

Geologist Diller called Lip Shee 'a master of disguises' and suspected that he was a pickpocket as well as a gambler. There may, in fact, have been more than one 'Lip Shee' and each may have had his own individual habits and idiosyncrasies. But like his countrymen who entered other professions, the gambler had to make himself seem to be both likable and non-aggressive, traits that contributed to the stereotype of the docile, grinning 'Chinee' that for years appeared in story books and magazine cartoons.

Since many of the immigrant Chinese smoked opium, the distribution of that drug provided incomes for a number of enterprising entrepreneurs. Opium and laudanum–a liquid derivative widely used as a painkiller–were not illegal in the United States until 1906, so the drugs could be imported, transported and sold freely. A room or building containing cots and providing opium and opium pipes were found in most of the larger Chinatowns, and Chinese couriers routinely carried the drugs to their countrymen working in distant mines or railroad station houses.

At least one of these couriers tapped a portion of the Anglo population. His name, depending on the source, was either Tson Tin or Son Sun. A specialist in rare Chinese native plants and herbs, he fashioned a reputation–and apparently a more-than-adequate income–by curing a variety of ailments, particularly women's childbirth and menstruation problems.

Tson Tin made regular rounds with his cures throughout northern California. He distributed a potion which some of his clients referred to as 'Heavenly Balm.' It contained, among other things, ginseng and opium. Not only did the women who took it swear by its 'magical' curative qualities, they suffered terrible relapses when their supply of Heavenly Balm ran out, an indication, they thought, of how bad their condition really was. (Apparently a number of these women were active members of the Women's Temperance Union and none of them ever would have admitted that she in any way bore a similarity to the sloe-eyed habitual smoker in the dank Oriental opium den.)

Heavenly Balm wasn't the only palliative that Chinese healers brought to the raw Western frontier. Western medicine had not far advanced past leeches and amputations in the latter half of the 19th century. Chinese healers offering herbal and holistic treatments, including organic purges and acupuncture, were widely respected (see 'Westerners' in the February 2002 issue of Wild West Magazine for a story about two Chines healers in Oregon'Doc' Hay and Lung On).

And distrusted, Dave Cheng believes. To many Westerners, especially those who immigrated from the more provincial parts of Europe, like Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and Italy, the Chinese practitioner seemed to draw his healing powers from the dark side of the spirit world. 'We always were being described in connection with the Devil' Cheng observes, noting that journalism of the day often referred to 'the Yellow Curse' and 'pig-tailed Satans.'

Chinese cures were often labeled 'the Devil's magic.' More than one healer had to leave his home and practice to avoid persecution, even when his administrations had proved successful. (Although, as David G. Thomas noted in The Annals of Wyoming, these purges sometimes had more to do with supposed caches of wealth than with cures or personalities.)

Immigrant workmen often fell victim to schemes involving relatives in the old country. George Ah Key, a wizened but cheerfully bright-eyed patriarch who died in Sacramento at the age of 104, remembered that many of his friends purchased passage from traveling brokers for brothers, cousins and nephews who never arrived.

Some of the brokers devised elaborate tales to explain why the missing immigrants didn't appear: Their ship had been diverted to Portland (or Eureka or Seattle or Monterey); they had arrived under false names and were working in Montana Territory (or Oregon or Michigan); they had been delayed in the old country by the death of a parents (or cousin or son or king). Others did arrive, but only after their passage had been paid by friends or relatives in China as well as those in the United States.

As the mining camps played out, and anti-Chinese sentiments drove many immigrants out of the smaller towns in the West, the Chinese migrated toward the coastal cities. Even in towns like Chico, Calif., which once had an extensive Chinatown, and Folsom, Calif., home to over 3,500 Chinese in the latter part of the 19th century, only the most durable and devoted patriarchs remained. Chan Oak Chin, the unofficial mayor of Folsom's Chinatown, took in miners who no longer could work, feeding them and giving them little jobs to do around his restaurant and hotel.

Fires destroyed Folsom's Chinatown in 1908, and many of the town's Chinese residents left. Although his businesses had burned, Chan Oak Chin stayed. He became a meat peddler and cared for Folsom's Chinese cemeteries until his death in 1924. The cemeteries later were vandalized and little remains of Folsom's once extensive Chinese community. Even the town's historical museum offers only a few grave markers and some porcelain figurines.

The former Chinese communities in towns throughout the West encountered similar fates. Buildings were destroyed by fire, residents driven out and the business sold or closed. 'Chinese history lacks community support' Chan Oak Chin's granddaughter June Chan told a San Francisco Examiner feature writer a few years ago. Despite the roles they played during the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese contributions were overshadowed by more glamorous accounts of Indian fights, range wars and instantaneous wealth. 'There is so much Chinese history and it has been totally ignored' June Chan complained.

Except, perhaps, for the stories that are still being told.



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8 Responses to “Chinese Immigrants on America's Western Frontier”


  1. 1
    C Baku says:

    I'm astounded at the cavalier description of the plight of the Chinese slave prostitutes. By neglecting to acknowledge the fact that these women were usually held against their wills and suffered horrendously under the circumstances, historynet contributes an unarticulated but implicit condoning of the practices mentioned.

  2. 2
    Jimenna says:

    Is History.net a blog?

  3. 3
    Kiki says:

    Lol, rock on, John John! What a smart guy. He totally deserves a monument.

  4. 4
    alison says:

    This is an entertaining if fairly ignorant description of Chinese life in the West. Okay for an editorial but hardly of a factual level I would assume for a site that looks like it is somewhat legit.

  5. 5
    Mahorian Laud says:

    Nice! Thnx I got everything I need for a project.

  6. 6
    bob smith says:

    this has soooo many grammer errors that i am having to read teach page twice just undertand it. also, there are different stories and their is no transitions to the stories. I am reading them and thinking that they are one and i am trying to make a connection, but their isnt one

    • 6.1
      Billy says:

      You are talking about grammatical errors, yet you yourself wrote "Read teach page twice". When you meant, "Read each page twice". Also you spelled grammar wrong. Sorry, but if you are going to complain about grammar you should make sure yours is correct as well.

  7. 7


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