previous chapter
2 Chinese Livelihood in Rural California The Impact of Economic Change, 1860-1880
next sub-section

Editor's Introduction

The first Chinese immigrants came to California shortly after the discovery of gold. At the end of 1849, only a few hundred Chinese people lived in the state, but in the early 1850s the rate of Chinese immigration accelerated dramatically, with 20,000 people arriving in 1852 alone.

By 1860, the Chinese constituted by far the largest component of the foreign-born population of California. The 1860 census counted 35,000 Chinese people in California, almost one-tenth of the state's population. Chinese immigration continued at a steady rate during the 1860s and 1870s. All told, 322,000 Chinese people entered the United States between 1850 and 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion law was passed. Approximately three-quarters of them settled in California, and in 1880 they made up 9 percent of the state's population and 16 percent of San Francisco's inhabitants. The young age of most Chinese immigrants meant that their participation rate in the California labor force was very high.

Beginning with the Foreign Miners' Tax in 1850, the Chinese were frequently the victims of white vigilante and even quasi-"legal" violence. During the 1850s, efforts were made in the state legislature to halt Chinese immigration. At the local level, "pigtail ordinances" and measures excluding the Chinese from public schools were passed. Anti-Chinese sentiment reached fever pitch in the mid-1870s in the context of one of the most severe economic depressions in the state's history. By the late 1870s, all major political parties were taking strong anti-Chinese positions, and pressure from California congressmen, in particular, resulted in passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


Most studies of the Chinese in California have focused on the virulent anti-Chinese movement, with only passing reference to how Chinese people obtained their livelihood. To the extent that this question of livelihood has attracted the interest of historians, attention has been concentrated on the Chinese occupational structure in urban settings, especially San Francisco. But as Sucheng Chan points out in the following article, up until 1880 a majority of California Chinese lived outside San Francisco, many of them in rural areas of the state.

Chan meticulously reconstructs the occupational structure of the Chinese in three of California's more rural counties between 1860 and 1880. Her work shows that the Chinese labor force in California was both diverse and dynamic. Until the 1860s, most rural Chinese worked as independent miners, entrepreneurs, professionals, and artisans. By the late 1860s, discriminatory practices and changing socioeconomic conditions began to proletarianize the Chinese, forcing them to become wage laborers who increasingly had to take the most menial and low-paying jobs.

By 1880, an increasing number of Chinese were working as tenant farmers, common laborers, and factory hands. Chan paints a particularly detailed portrait of the Chinese involvement in agriculture, which contributed dramatically to the transformation of California agriculture in the late nineteenth century from cattle and wheat farming to an agricultural economy based more on the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. In his book Factories in the Field , Carey McWilliams concluded that if it had not been for the contribution of Chinese agricultural labor, this transition would have been delayed by twenty-five years.

The historical literature on Chinese Americans is quite uneven in the topics covered, in the geographic focus of the studies, and in scholarly quality. Since American reaction to Chinese immigration was negative, much scholarly effort has been devoted to explaining the causes of the anti-Chinese movement, which culminated in Chinese exclusion in 1882. Major monographs by Mary Roberts Coolidge, Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, Gunther Barth, Stuart Creighton Miller, Robert McClellan, and Alexander Saxton have offered different explanations for the anti-Chinese movement.[1] Delber L. McKee investigated how the federal government implemented the exclusionary legislation and the reaction of China and Chinese Americans to it, while Fred W. Riggs traced the political process


which led to the repeal of the various exclusion laws in 1943.[2] These works necessarily focus on those whom Roger Daniels has called the "excluders" rather than on the "excluded," so even though they illuminate the temper of the times, they provide little insight into the attitudes of the Chinese themselves—why they came, how they perceived the United States, and what their communities were like.

Available studies of Chinese immigrant communities fall into two categories: those that treat Chinatowns as a special type of community with features distinct from Anglo-American ones and those that describe facets of particular communities. In both instances, communities are analyzed mainly in terms of their institutional structure. The works of Rose Hum Lee, Stanford M. Lyman, S. W. Kung, Betty Lee Sung, Francis L. K. Hsu, and Jack Chen—though differing vastly in scholarly sophistication and tone—share the common characteristic of being general surveys of Chinese American life.[3] Chinatowns are treated as a distinct type of community, so that regardless of where a Chinatown is located, its social structure is implied to be similar to that of any other Chinatown. Studies of individual Chinatowns, in contrast, have greater temporal and geographic specificity. Some of the early writings portrayed the more exotic or lurid aspects of San Francisco's Chinatown.[4] More recent studies describe either San Francisco's Chinatown or analyze certain aspects of New York's Chinatown.[5] Two exceptions to the typological approach and the heavy emphasis on San Francisco or New York are James W. Loewen's investigation of the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta and Melford Weiss's analysis of the Chinese in "Valley City," California.[6] Loewen's work is unique because, unlike other authors who elucidate the social structure of Chinese American communities in terms of institutional patterns brought over from China, he considers the pattern of racial segregation peculiar to the South to be a more important influence than Chinese cultural and social heritage on the Delta Chinese community.

The reliance on San Francisco data by so many authors has created a false impression that all Chinese communities in America are merely smaller replicas of the one in San Francisco and that the Chinese American historical experience is quite homogeneous. Although the importance of San Francisco as the cultural, social, political, and economic center of "Chinese America" is beyond dispute, the city and county of San Francisco never contained the majority of the Chinese-ancestry population in California, much less in the United States. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the largest proportion of Chinese immigrants lived


in the rural counties of California. During the first two decades of Chinese immigration, an overwhelming proportion of the Chinese population located in the mining counties, first in the southern mines, and after the mid-1860s in the northern mines. From the 1870s through the 1890s, quite a large contingent worked in the Trinity and Klamath mining regions.

As a settlement center, San Francisco achieved genuine demographic preeminence only in the 1880s and 1890s when two factors fostered the city's emergence as the premier city of "Chinese America": 1) the development of manufacturing industries, which provided employment for Chinese; and 2) the anti-Chinese movement, which caused many Chinese to flock to the city's segregated Chinatown in search of security. Even in 1880 and 1890, only 20.6 percent and 24.0 percent, respectively, of the total Chinese population in the United States lived in San Francisco, while 50.6 percent and 43.4 percent, respectively, lived in California outside of San Francisco.[7] For that reason, a balanced view of the Chinese American historical experience cannot overlook the rural segment of the Chinese immigrant population.

Although more Chinese lived in rural California than in any other part of the country throughout the nineteenth century, there has been no overall study of the Chinese in rural America. Glimpses of rural life are available only in travellers' accounts[8] and in a few studies of Chinese labor, such as those by George Seward and Ping Chiu.[9] The paucity of primary sources is one reason for the lack of studies of the Chinese in rural America. Newspapers published in the rural counties seldom mentioned the Chinese, and when they did, the news was of the sensational sort or dealt with the pros and cons of continued Chinese immigration.[10] Some documents in Chinese have been salvaged, but these provide only episodic evidence on Chinese economic and social life in rural California, and it is difficult to judge how representative the individual cases may be.[11] The dearth of written sources cannot be remedied by the use of oral history interviews, since no persons who could tell us something about life in the nineteenth century are still alive.

For systematic information, the two most useful archival sources are the U.S. manuscript population census and the county archival documents, which are available in the office of the county recorder in every county in California.[12] These sources provide information on the demographic composition and occupational structure of Chinese communities in rural California, even though they tell nothing about the subjective aspects of the Chinese experience. This study of the Chinese occupational structure in


three rural California counties is based on such census and county archival records.

Sacramento, Yuba, and San Joaquin counties were chosen for study because they contained three of the most important Chinatowns outside of San Francisco in the nineteenth century—Sacramento, Marysville, and Stockton. Only the Chinatown in Oroville, Butte County, was of equal importance. However, since conditions in Butte and Yuba counties were quite similar, the inclusion of Butte County in this study would have been redundant.[13] In looking at Sacramento, Yuba, and San Joaquin counties, it is possible to shed new light on the Chinese clustered in the larger rural Chinatowns as well as those scattered throughout the countryside.

The historical importance of Sacramento and Marysville has been imprinted upon the collective memory of Chinese Americans through the language they use. To this day, Chinese Americans call San Francisco "Dai Fou" (Big City), Sacramento "Yee Fou" (Second City), and Marysville "Sam Fou" (Third City). Stockton has not been deemed significant enough for inclusion in this terminological ranking, but it and San Joaquin County are part of this study because initial large-scale Chinese entry there was due to the development of agriculture, and not to mining and trading as in Sacramento and Yuba counties. An examination of developments in San Joaquin County makes it possible to determine whetossible to determine whet magnet attracting Chinese to a locality had any impact on the subsequent development of the pattern of Chinese livelihood there.

The years 1860-1880 have been chosen for analysis because they represent a period of significant change and development for the Chinese population in California. In the first two decades of Chinese immigration, the majority of the Chinese in rural California worked as independent miners and entrepreneurs. Only from the late 1860s onward did an increasing number begin to earn their living as wage laborers. This fact is worth emphasizing because the Chinese have been depicted all too frequently as "cheap labor" and little more. Such a depiction distorts historical reality. The Chinese in rural California initially engaged in a wide range of occupations, many of which did not involve wage labor. Changing socioeconomic conditions in the American West, along with racial discrimination—rather than Chinese "willingness" to be cheap labor—were responsible for proletarianizing the Chinese population.

In this study, occupations have been grouped under four categories on the basis of function: primary extraction and production, which includes farming, fishing, and mining; manual labor, which includes agricultural as


well as nonagricultural labor; personal service, which includes employment as servants, cooks, and prostitutes; and entrepreneurs, professionals, and artisans, which includes all persons earning a living through the sale of merchandise or the practice of a trade or profession.

Between 1860 and 1880, tenant farming, paid farm labor, nonagricultural labor, and personal services replaced gold mining and independent entrepreneurship as the foundation of economic life for the Chinese in rural California. In the process, more and more Chinese became dependent on white employers for their livelihood, both in the towns and in the rural areas. In 1860, artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs made up the largest proportion of the Chinese population in the rural Chinatowns, while miners—who represented almost all of the persons in the category "primary extraction and production"—were numerically dominant in the hinterland. A decade later, the absolute number as well as relative percentage of persons engaged in primary extraction and production had declined because of the exodus from the mines, while the number in nonagricultural labor and personal services had increased greatly. The number of artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs remained about the same. In 1880, though mining occupied even fewer persons, an increasing number of Chinese farmers accounts for the rise in the absolute number of persons in primary extraction and production, particularly in Sacramento County. The number of persons in agricultural and nonagricultural labor increased, while the number in personal services and in independent enterprises remained about the same.

These longitudinal changes show that the Chinese communities were able to support a fairly consistent number of entrepreneurs throughout this period, but the economic opportunities open to the rest of the Chinese population depended on changes in the larger economy. Discriminatory actions and legislation also increasingly restricted the range of Chinese economic activities, as a hierarchical division of labor along racial lines became firmly institutionalized on the Pacific Coast. Unlike the American South, where the line of cleavage was drawn between black and white, in California the dichotomy was between Chinese and white. As the nineteenth century progressed, Chinese were relegated in increasing numbers to menial, low-paid, and low-status jobs,

Occupational Structure, 1860

The gold rush had a greater impact on the Chinese population in California than it did on other ethnic groups in the state. Throughout the mining


era, a larger proportion of the Chinese engaged in mining than did their counterparts among other ethnic groups. In 1860, 70.4 percent of all gainfully employed Chinese above the age of fifteen were miners, compared to 31.6 percent among non-Chinese gainfully employed persons.[14] Moreover, the Chinese remained in mining longer than the non-Chinese population. White miners had begun their exodus from the mines by the mid-1850s, but Chinese miners began to drift out only after 1863.[15] As late as 1900, small clusters of aging Chinese miners were still listed in the manuscript population census.

Chinese miners worked mainly placer claims, so they were found primarily along streams and rivers. An analysis of the locational distribution of Chinese miners in Yuba County indicates that in 1860, Chinese miners were concentrated most heavily along the Yuba River and its tributaries. The number of Chinese miners was largest in Long Bar, North-east, Foster Bar, and Slate Range townships—townships through which the Yuba, Middle Yuba, and North Yuba rivers flow. In contrast, few Chinese miners were found in Rose Bar, Parks Bar, and New York townships, where a range of mountains is located. There were gold deposits in these latter townships, however, for the number of white miners in them was large.[16] In these mountainous areas, the gold deposits were in hardrock quartz claims, and Chinese miners did not have the capital to purchase the necessary heavy equipment to work such deposits, nor did they feel secure enough to invest in expensive machinery that they might be forced to abandon.

In the 1860s, most of the Chinese miners along the Yuba River and its tributaries were independent prospectors and not laborers for mining companies. They frequently formed their own companies consisting of up to forty partners.[17] Many Chinese miners in Yuba County obtained their claims through preemption rather than through purchase. Preemption claims did not have to be bought; the claimants only had to file the necessary documents in the county recorder's office and put up markers to show the boundaries of their claims. The ability of Chinese miners to file preemption claims is worth noting, for it has been commonly assumed that because of anti-Chinese sentiment in the mines, Chinese immigrants had to resort to buying worked-over claims abandoned by white miners.[18]

The earliest Chinese preemption claims appeared in Yuba County records in 1856. Ah Louie and Company claimed 240 feet at Buckeye Bar along the Yuba River, while Sham Kee claimed 4,200 feet eight miles outside of Marysville City, also along the Yuba River.[19] Records of prices paid by Chinese miners for claims they purchased indicate the approximate amount


of money that they saved when they were able to obtain claims through preemption. In 1856, Ah Chung and Company purchased two claims of sixty feet each from Frederick Antenheimer (the Yuba County tax collector) and John Lawrence for $620. The purchase price included two wheelbarrows and running planks.[20] In the following year, Antenheimer and Ferdinand Furning sold two claims measuring ninety feet each to Ah Locke and Thin Shue for $695, and threw into the bargain two frame houses, two pumps, and miscellaneous mining tools.[21] Those Chinese who were able to obtain claims through preemption therefore saved hundreds and perhaps even thousands of dollars.

Contrary to thlars.

Contrary to thies where Chinese miners were driven away from good claims that they had located, quite a number of Chinese miners along the Yuba River in both Yuba and Sierra counties were allowed to work the same locations year after year. In January 1869, four different Chinese companies filed multiple preemption claims at Missouri Bar on the Yuba River. Hong Fook Kong and Company, with ten partners, filed ten claims of 100 feet each, which they renewed annually between 1870 and 1874. Then they disappeared from the county records until March 1878, when they filed thirty-two claims with thirty-two partners. By 1879, however, the larger group had splintered, and Hong Fook Kong and Company was once again composed of ten partners filing ten claims. These claims were renewed in 1880 and 1881.[22]

Three other groups also worked the same stretch of the Yuba River during the twelve-year period between 1869 and 1881. In Key and Company, with six partners, filed six claims contiguous to Hong Fook Kong and Company's claims, stretching upriver for 600 feet.[23] Jim and Company, with four partners, filed four claims upriver from In Key and Company's claims.[24] Both companies followed the same pattern of claims renewal as Hong Fook Kong and Company. The fourth group, Ah King and Company, had six partners who filed claims which were not contiguous to the other three companies during the same period of time. Perhaps that is why in 1878, when they filed thirty-two claims with thirty-two partners (a different group of persons from the thirty-two in the Hong Fook Kong Company), three of the partners were not individuals but corporate entities: Hong Fook Kong and Company, In Key and Company, and a fifth group called Ah Kong and Company.[25] It may be surmised that certain Chinese miners were buying shares in other people's claims in different localities. This second example of a company enlarging its membership also showed that such larger groupings had a tendency to splinter, for by 1879 Ah King and Company was back to six partners.


Mining was an extremely important source of livelihood for the Chinese in Yuba County. Almost 80 percent of the Chinese there in 1860 were miners, whereas only 21.4 percent of the non-Chinese population were miners. The Chinese constituted 35.9 percent of all the miners in the county, but they made up only 13 percent of the total population. In California as a whole, 29.4 percent of all miners in 1860 were Chinese, while 9.2 percent of the total population were Chinese.

The economic and social importance of gold mining in 1860 led to a bifurcated social structure in rural Chinese immigrant communities. There were a large number of miners who did not grow their own food except for fresh produce cultivated in some corner of their mining grounds. To supply the needs of these miners for food and personal services, there appeared a small group of Chinese entrepreneurs, most of whom lived in the towns in the mining counties, or in cities such as Sacramento, Marysville, and Stockton—the three major supply posts and transportation nodes of the entire mining region.

The occupational structure of the Chinese population in the three cities differed sharply from that found among the Chinese in the hinterlands. In each of the three cities, persons engaged in merchandising and various trades made up the largest portion of the Chinese population. Sacramento City, being the largest of the three with a Chinese population of 980, had the greatest range of occupations, with artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs constituting 49.4 percent of the city's Chinese population. Marysville, second in importance as an urban center in the Sacramento Valley with a Chinese population of 227, had 34.8 percent of its Chinese population earning a living as merchants, professionals, and artisans. Stockton, located at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley, being relatively farther away from the center of activities in the southern mines, was less crucial as a supply post and consequently had the least differentiated occupational structure, the bulk of its Chinese population of 115 persons being laundrymen.[26]

Next in importance to the urban entrepreneurs, artisans, and professionals were persons engaged in personal service, which included cooks, servants, waiters and dishwashers, and prostitutes.[27] So employed were 20.8 percent of the Chinese population in Sacramento, 41.4 percent in Marysville, and 29.6 percent in Stockton. By far the largest number of persons in this grouping were prostitutes, with 113 in Sacramento, 75 in Marysville, and 18 in Stockton. In 1860, there were as yet few Chinese servants.

The remaining occupational categories were relatively unimportant. Individuals engaged in mining, truck gardening, and fishing ranged from


8.7 percent of the Chinese population in Stockton to 11.9 percent in Marysville and 16.3 percent in Sacramento. Manual laborers ranged from half a percent in Stockton to 5 percent in Sacramento. Finally, approximately 10 percent of the Chinese population in each city was unemployed in 1860.[28]

Chinese living outside city limits in Sacramento and Yuba counties were almost all miners. (There were only nine Chinese living outside of Stockton in San Joaquin County in 1860.) Chinese farm laborers had not yet become an important element in the rural landscape in 1860. Varden Fuller and Carey McWilliams have stated that Chinese had entered the harvest labor market to work as migratory farm laborers in significant numbers by the late 1850s,[29] but census data do not support their assertions. Even though the 1860 census was taken between June and August, and both Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, in particular, had thriving wheat-growing areas, no Chinese farm laborers were enumerated in the census of the three counties. Census data indicate that the Chinese who first worked on farms were cooks, with 18 in Sacramento County, 35 in Yuba County, and 8 in San Joaquin County.

In terms of the integration of the Chinese immigrant population into the larger society, the miners were certainly very much a part of the mining economy, although contemporaneous accounts indicate that, for the most part, the Chinese miners kept to themselves for the sake of safety.[30] Other than miners, the only Chinese who interacted with whites were cooks, servants, and laundrymen, because they were dependent on white employers for their livelihood. Some prostitutes also served white customers, but it is not known how many did so.[31] Mining and personal service, then, were the two main avenues for sporadic social interaction between Chinese and whites in the 1860s.

Occupational Structure, 1870

In the decade between 1860 and 1870, four significant developments in the larger California economy influenced the occupational structure of the rural Chinese immigrant population: the decline of mining, the emergence of San Francisco as a manufacturing center, the growth of intensive agriculture, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Through immigration, the Chinese population had increased during the decade. Mining absorbed a far smaller absolute number as well as percentage of the Chinese population, but othinese population, but othing a living in light manufacturing, agriculture, and common labor became available.

Gold mining declined enormously in importance as a source of livelihood for the rural Chinese population in California between 1860 and


1870. In 1860, there had been 24,282 Chinese among a total of 82,573 miners in the state, but by 1870, of the some 43,000 miners left in California, about 16,000 were Chinese. Compared to a decade earlier when miners made up over 70 percent of the Chinese population in California, they now constituted only about a third.[32]

A significant divergence had developed between the economy of San Francisco and the rest of the state by 1870. Such a trend was clearly observable as it affected the Chinese immigrant population. In San Francisco, 27.2 percent of the gainfully employed Chinese worked in light manufacturing. Four industries—cigar and tobacco manufacturing, the boot and shoe industry, woolen mills, and the sewing trades—employed over 2,300 Chinese workers. In contrast, in all of rural California, only 174 persons, or only 0.7 percent of the gainfully employed Chinese adults, worked in light manufacturing, 96 of whom were in the shoe industry, 48 in the cigar industry, 28 in the sewing trades, with 1 each in a woolen mill and in an iron foundry.[33] Fifteen of the shoemakers lived in Sacramento City, 6 in Marysville, and 1 in Stockton. Of the cigar makers, 35 worked in Sacramento City and 3 in Marysville. Eleven of the individuals engaged in the sewing trades lived in Sacramento, while 8 lived in Yuba County.[34] Thus, although Sacramento and Marysville also had nascent light manufacturing industries, the number of Chinese employed in this sector was miniscule compared to San Francisco.

After manufacturing, independent businesses and various professions absorbed the largest number of Chinese in San Francisco. These trades provided a livelihood to 25.8 percent of the gainfully employed Chinese in the city. Nonagricultural manual laborers made up 24.8 percent of the gainfully employed, while those in personal service constituted I4.8 percent. Only 6 percent of the San Francisco Chinese population were in primary extraction and production, and over three-fifths of them were miners visiting the city. The only important resident group in primary production was 145 fishermen.[35]

In rural California, on the other hand, over 17,000 of the 37,000 Chinese remained in primary extraction and production—a sector that supported 46 percent of them. Miners numbered some 16,000; truck gardeners and farmers some 1,000; while 151 fishermen made up the rest of this group. Next in numerical importance were almost 6,000 nonagricultural laborers; slightly over 3,000 providers of personal service; and almost 3,000 artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs. Even though labor-intensive agriculture was developing, in 1870 only a little over 2,000 Chinese in rural California as a whole worked as agricultural laborers.[36]


The three counties in this study differ from rural California seen as a whole: a much larger percentage of their Chinese population had entered agriculture by 1870. Sacramento County led the state in the transformation of its agriculture from extensive grain cultivation to intensive fruit and hop growing. In 1870, Sacramento County ranked first in the state in the value of its orchard products, and fifth in the value of its market garden products. Truck gardening had been an important means of livelihood for the Sacramento Chinese as far back as the 1850s. By 1870, although truck gardening continued to be important, Chinese agriculturalists had begun to move out of small-scale truck gardening inside the city of Sacramento into large-scale tenant farming in the Sacramento Delta. While 35 Chinese truck gardeners and 4 farmers resided within city limits (compared to 110 truck gardeners cultivating plots within city limits a decade earlier), 37 truck gardeners and 26 farmers now tilled the soil in the Sacramento Delta.

The presence of Chinese farmers in the Sacramento Delta was first documented narratively in a newspaper account in 1869 and statistically in the 1870 manuscript agriculture census.[37] In 1873, the first lease was officially recorded between two Chinese tenants, Chou Ying and Wee Ying, and George D. Roberts, president of the Tide Land Reclamation Company, which had employed many Chinese to drain the peat islands of the delta. Chou Ying and Wee Ying leased 551 acres in three tracts on a mixed cash-rent and share-crop basis. On one tract, they paid eight dollars per acre, while on the other two tracts, they were to give the landlord a fourth of the crops. However, the lease stipulated that if the tenants chose to grow Chinese vegetables, then the landlord did not wish to have any of the crops; instead, a cash rent of ten dollars per acre would be paid.[38]

In the late 1870s, other Chinese tenants leased plots ranging from 160 acres to 200 acres for rents ranging from fifteen dollars per acre for unimproved land to eighty dollars per acre for land with growing orchards. Most of these leased farms were in the so-called backswamps of the peat islands, where the danger of floods was much greater. White owner-operators usually retained farms along the elevated natural levees for their own cultivation.[39] It is difficult to compare the rent paid by Chinese tenants to that paid by white tenants, for the former usually leased farms on a cash rental basis, while almost all the latter leased them on a share-cropping basis.

Chinese had also begun to work as farm laborers by 1870, but they were found in significant numbers only in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, with 567 and 224 persons, respectively. The largest concentration


of Chinese farm laborers in Sacramento County was in Sutter, Franklin, and Georgiana townships—the three townships along the Sacramento River in the delta portion of the county. The only other cluster of Chinese farmworkers was in the hopfields of American and Center townships, along the American River. In these areas, approximately a third of them lived in the households of white farmers, while the remainder lived in their own households. Since the number of Chinese farmers was still relatively small, it can be assumed that almost all the Chinese agricultural laborers worked for white farmers in 1870.[40] In San Joaquin County, the Chinese farm laborers were also in the delta region. No Chinese farm laborers were enumerated in Yuba County, but Marysville had sixty Chinese truck gardeners.[41]

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 disgorged thousands of Chinese workers into the labor market all over the western states. Many of these discharged workers returned to California, where most of them sought work as nonagricultural common laborers. Their presence was especially noticeable in Marysville and Stockton. In the former city, common laborers made up 45.6 percent of the Chinese population, while in the latter, the figure was 44.3 percent.[42] Levee building and maintenance, road-building, and other road-building, and otherrobably engaged most of these persons. If this was indeed the case, then Chinese laborers were responsible for building many of the roads, ditches, levees, and bridges in these areas.

By 1870, a tripartite division of labor had emerged within the Chinese immigrant population: independent miners and agriculturalists, independent urban entrepreneurs earning their living largely within ethnic enclaves, and a numerically growing group of wage-earners who depended on employment from the larger society for their livelihood.

The number of persons in primary extraction and production varied according to locality. This group represented less than 5 percent of the total Chinese population in the three cities. In the countryside, there were no Chinese miners or farmers in San Joaquin County, while in Sacramento County outside of Sacramento City, miners, farmers, truck gardeners, and fishermen made up 43.7 percent of the Chinese population, and in Yuba County outside of Marysville, 64.8 percent of the Chinese were in agriculture or mining.

Proportionately (but not in absolute numbers), artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs had declined in importance in the three cities by 1870. Moreover, within this grouping, some subtle but significant changes had occurred during the 1860-1870 decade. Practitioners of certain skilled


trades, such as bakers, cabinetmakers, and carpenters, had all but disappeared, most probably because better organization by whites had driven the handful of Chinese in these occupations in the 1860s out of them. On the other hand, occupations requiring a small amount of capital investment had grown in importance. The number of boardinghouse keepers increased, reflecting the emergence of Sacramento, Marysville, and Stockton as important stopping places for transient Chinese migrant laborers. The number of professional gamblers had also increased dramatically, perhaps indicating that some individuals had discovered a profitable way to earn a living by exploiting their fellowmen's need for recreation. Chinese had also carved a niche for themselves as vegetable vendors manning stationary stalls (in contrast to peripatetic Chinese vegetable peddlers, long a familiar sight on the California scene). Lastly, Chinese appeared for the first time in 1870 in a number of semiskilled trades, such as brick, barrel, and candle making.

Persons dependent on white employers for their livelihood had increased greatly in number. They included farm laborers, nonagricultural common laborers, wage-earners in light manufacturing, and a growing number of persons providing personal service.[43] Together with laundry-men whose customers were mainly white, this group embraced the majority of the Chinese population in all three cities and in rural Sacramento County. In rural Yuba County, they made up a third of the Chinese population, while in rural San Joaquin County, they included almost the entire Chinese population.

If employment by whites is viewed as a channel for interaction with the larger society, then the Chinese population in rural California in 1870 was in more frequent interaction with the white population than a decade earlier. Although such interaction was mainly in the form of employer-employee relations, and even though such social relations were hardly a good basis for providing genuine understanding between the two groups, it nonetheless cannot be said that the Chinese lived only in their own segregated world by the beginning of their third decade of settlement in California.

Occupational Structure, 1880

Between 1870 and 1880, two major trends and one minor one can be detected in the evolution of the occupational structure of Chinese communities in rural California. First, while the relative percentage of persons engaged in primary extraction and production remained about the same as


ten years earlier, the composition of this group changed. The absolute number of miners in Sacramento and Yuba counties remained more or less constant, but because the overall Chinese population had increased considerably, the percentage of miners in the total population declined. An increasing number of farmers, particularly in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, compensated for the decrease in the number of miners. Agriculture had become a very important source of livelihood as well as a channel for upward social mobility for the rural Chinese population.

Second, both the absolute number as well as the percentage of common laborers fell significantly in Marysville and Stockton. This was probably because a large number of the discharged railroad workers had by now found employment in other lines of work. Some no doubt had returned to China, while others had become farm laborers.

Third, a small number of Chinese had begun to work in factories in Sacramento, Yuba, and San Joaquin counties. The majority of them worked in woolen mills in the cities of Sacramento, Marysville, and Stockton. In the latter city, a handful of Chinese also worked in a paper mill. But these numbers are so small that it cannot be argued that a trend was developing. Sacramento City was the only place in rural California where Chinese entry into manufacturing and factory production was clearly visible—there, thirty-four Chinese cigar makers and twenty-eight woolen mill workers resided. There were also forty-four persons engaged in the sewing trades, but it is not clear how many worked as independent artisans and how many worked in sewing factories.[44]

By 1880, Chinese immigrants were working in agriculture as owner-operators, small-scale tenants, large-scale tenants, farm laborers, fruit and vegetable peddlers, commission merchants, and farm cooks. (The small-scale tenants are differentiated from the large-scale ones because the scale of operations made a great difference in the mode of operation: the former usually cultivated vegetables and berries, employing few, if any, hired hands; while the latter most commonly grew potatoes, onions, beans, and deciduous fruit, employing large numbers of seasonal laborers.) In the 1880s, tenant farmers and farm laborers became the two most numerous groups of Chinese immigrant agriculturalists.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the bottomlands along the Sacramento and Feather rivers were the two regions where Chinese settlers first farmed in California on a large scale. The patterns of agriculture undertaken in these two areas contrast strikingly with each other. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Chinese tenant farmers cultivated both Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, and beans. (Asparagus, the crop which


made the delta world-famous, did not become important commercially until the turn of the century.) These crops were grown because they were most suitable for the soil and climatic conditions of the delta and not because they required a lot of hand labor. Thus, it was the availability of fertile land, and not because the Chinese were allegedly willing to provide "cheap labor," which drew Chinese immigrants into agriculture in the delta. In 1880, there were 537 Chinese farmers in that part of the delta which lies within the boundaries of Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. A smaller number were found in the section of the delta located in Contra Costa, Yolo, and Solano counties. They had been drawn there because the peat soil was so fertile that three crops could be grown each year. In short, the delta was a popular area because the potential profit to be made was great, but it was also a high-risk area because of periodic floods.[45] Chinese who were willing to take those risks were entrepreneurs in the true sense of the word.

Along the bottomlands of the middle stretch of the Sacramento River and along the Feather River, a different pattern of agriculture evolved with Chinese participation. There, labor-intensive fruit growing was undertaken alongside the cultivation of vegetables on a field (rather than market garden) scale. White landowners had already planted orchards in the area around Marysville prior to the Chinese entry into agriculture. However, many new orchards were planted with Chinese labor beginning in the mid-1870s.

The Chinese developed a symbiotic relationship with the landowners. Those Chinese who planted orchards for their landlords were employed not as farm laborers but as tenant farmers. Landowners leased several hundred acres at a time to Chinese tenants who were then required to prepare the ground for planting, and sometimes even to supply the saplings needed. These tenants, in turn, had responsibility for recruiting the requisite labor supply during the planting, thinning, weeding, and harvesting seasons. While the orchards were growing, the Chinese de facto were renting the land between the growing saplings for their own use. They grew berries and vegetables between the rows of trees. In some instances, a graduated rental payment calibrated to the life cycle of the fruit trees was set up. When the trees were young, and their roots had not yet spread, the tenants paid a relatively high rent for use of the land between the trees. Then by the third and fourth years, when the trees' roots had spread out far enough to be injured if the land in between were plowed for other crops, the rent would be decreased because the land could no longer be used for other crops. At the same time the trees had not yet begun to bear


fruit so no income could be obtained from the land. By the fifth and sixth years, when the trees began to bear and the Chinese tenants could sell the fruit, their rent increased again. In this manner, the Chinese acted simultaneously as tenants who leased land to grow crops of their own and as caretakers for the growing orchards.[46]

By 1880, agriculture had become economically important to the state and to the rural Chinese immigrant communities. In rural Sacramento County, 1,123 out of a population of 3,278 Chinese (over a third of the population) depended on agriculture for their livelihood. The only other occupations of almost equal numerical importance were mining, with 1,070 persons, and nonagricultural manual labor, with 711 persons. In rural San Joaquin County, 723 persons (three-fifths of the total population) depended on agriculture for a living.[47]

Chinese involvement in California agriculture in both the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the bottomlands along the Sacramento and Feather rivers was also important in the 1880s because the nature of Chinese tenancy helped to determine the pattern of Chinese interaction with the larger society. Chinese large-scale tenants always needed seasonal help, which they recruited from the rural Chinatowns. The white landowners usually had no direct dealing with these seasonal laborers. The tenants made the decision on how many workers to hire, how much to pay them, and how long to keep them. In other words, the tenants assumed all the managerial responsibility for cultivating the land. In some instances, landlords continued to live on their farms, while in other cases, they were absentee. The tenant farmers acted as middlemen who funneled jobs to their compatriots, on the one hand, and labor and managerial expertise to white landowners, on the other hand. County archival records indicate that many of these Chinese tenants operated hundreds and sometimes even thousands of acres[48] —a scale of agriculture undreamed of in the Pearl River Delta of Kwangtung Province from which most of them had emigrated. Agriculture was one of the most important channels for upward social mobility among rural Chinese immigrants in nineteenth-century California.

The tenant farmers were not the only ones to use their position for upward social mobility. Those who worked for them also hoped that their association with the tenants would eventually give them a share of the agricultural dividends. The mechanism for accomplishing this was the partnership system used by Chinese immigrants in urban enterprises as well as in agriculture. County archival records provide the names of many agricultural companies known as "yuen" (garden) in Chinese. Individuals'


names were frequently listed alongside the companies' names, so that we know the number of partners in each outfit. Each partner signed his own name in Chinese characters on the county documents. The manuscript population census provides corroborating evidence on the emerging practice of forming partnerships: in the 1870 census, the majority of Chinese farm laborers lived in their own households, but by 1880 in the two areas under examination, the majority of Chinese farmworkers lived in the households of Chinese tenant farmers, where some members were explicitly listed as partners, while others were designated laborers. The farm laborers were taken into the tenant farmers' households not only as workers, but also as potential partners. The practice was still discernible in the 1900 manuscript census.[49]

Next to agriculture in attracting Chinese came nonagricultural common labor, followed by personal service occupations. In the three cities, entrepreneurs, artisans, and professionals were still important, ranging from 26.4 percent of the Chinese population in Marysville to 36 percent of the population in Sacramento.[50]

In terms of interaction with white employers, a portion of the farm laborers, all the nonagricultural common laborers, most of those in personal service, factory workers, and laundrymen were the most important groups. In Sacramento City in 1880, 70 percent of the Chinese were dependent on white employers for their livelihood. In the rest of Sacramento County, the proportion was 44 percent. In Marysville, 67 percent of the total Chinese population depended on white employment, while 31 percent did so in the rest of Yuba County. In Stockton and the rest of San Joaquin County, the proportions were 29 percent and 78 percent, respectively. Thus, by 1880, the rural Chinese population was highly dependent on the economy outside their own ethnic communities for subsistence. Moreover, they had made a full transition from being independent producers to wage-earners.

By way of conclusion, a number of propositions may be advanced. Generally speaking, structural changes within the California economy were the major determinants of change in the occupational structure of the Chinese population in rural California. Although racism also had a great effect because it restricted the range of occupations open to the Chinese, its impact is more difficult to measure. At a more refined level of analysis, regional variations are discernible. By comparing San Francisco with interior cities such as Sacramento and Marysville on the one hand and with the rural hinterland on the other hand, it appears that the degree and pattern of integration of the Chinese labor force into the overall economy


depended on several factors: a region's initial economic base, its degree of urbanization, and its degree of industrialization. One pattern emerged in localities where the initial economy was based on mining but which soon turned to agriculture: in the countryside, few Chinese became wage-earners until the 1870s, while in the towns, as time passed, the larger and more urban the setting, the greater was the number of Chinese dependent on white employment. A second pattern was found in localities such as San Joaquin County where there had been no mining. There, the rural Chinese depended almost entirely on white landowners and other employers for their livelihood from the beginning of their settlement in the region. San Francisco showed yet another pattern of development. In this city, the industrial center of the state, small-scale Chinese manufacturers competed with whites to employ the community's Chinese residents.

Finally, it is clear that at no time in the 1860-1880 period was the Chinese population completely segregated into ethnic enclaves, but neither was it fully integrated into the larger economy and society. Consequently, the Chinese fitted into two social stratification systems, which overlapped but were not coincidental with each other. However, given the nature of the data presented here, it is not possible to specify exactly how these two systems affected each other because occupational divisions and rankings represent only one aspect of society. A full understanding of any society's social structure must take into account the perceptions, attitudes, and patterns of noneconomic social interaction of many different persons and groups. Thus, to provide a broader understanding of the historical evolution of race relations in rural California, theories about the process of labor differentiation during different stages of economic development must be combined with theories about how human consciousness is molded.

previous chapter
2 Chinese Livelihood in Rural California The Impact of Economic Change, 1860-1880
next sub-section