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2 Chinese Livelihood in Rural California The Impact of Economic Change, 1860-1880
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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.

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2 Chinese Livelihood in Rural California The Impact of Economic Change, 1860-1880
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