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LETTER OF THE CHINAMEN (1852)


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In 1852 the governor of California, in his annual message to the Legislature, proposed curbs on the employment of immigrants from China in the state’s booming gold mines. When the “Chinamen” responded to “His Excellency” with an open letter (in articulate, well-reasoned English, no less), the result was general consternation, followed by support from a number of leading newspapers, and a consequent flurry of articles and editorials.

New-York Times / June 5, 1852

THE CHINESE IN CALIFORNIA.

LETTER OF THE CHINAMEN TO HIS EXCELLENCY, GOV. BIGLER.

San Francisco, Thursday, April 29, 1852.

SIR: -- The Chinamen have learned with sorrow that you have published a letter against them. Although we are Asiatics, some of us have been educated in American schools and have learned your language, which has enabled us to read your message in the newspapers for ourselves, and to explain it to the rest of our countrymen. We have all thought a great deal about it, and, after consultation with one another, we have determined to write you as decent and respectful a letter as we could, pointing out to your Excellency some of the errors you have fallen into about us.

When you speak of the laws of your own country, we shall not presume to contradict you. In ours, all great men are learned men, and a man’s rank is just according to his education. Keying, who made the treaty with Mr. Cushing, was not only a cousin of the emperor, but one of the most learned men in the empire; otherwise he would not have been Governor of Canton. Just so, we doubt not, it is in California and other enlightened countries. But it will not be making little of your attainments to suppose that you do not know as much about our people as you do of your own.

You speak of the Chinamen as “Coolies,” and in one sense the word is applicable to a great many of them; but not in that in which you seem to use it. “Cooly” is not a Chinese word; it has been imported into China from foreign parts, as it has been into this country. What its original signification was, we do not know; but with us it means a common laborer, and nothing more. We have never known it used among us as a designation of a class, such as you have in view -- persons bound to labor under contracts which they can be forcibly compelled to comply with. The Irishmen who are engaged in digging down your hills, the men who unload ships, who clean your streets, or even drive your drays, would, if they were in China, be considered “Coolies”; tradesmen, mechanics of every kind, and professional men would not. If you mean by “Coolies,” laborers, many of our countrymen in the mines are “Coolies,” and many again are not. There are among them tradesmen, mechanics, gentry, (being persons of respectability and who enjoy a certain rank and privilege,) and schoolmasters, who are reckoned with the gentry, and with us considered a respectable class of people. None are “Coolies,” if by that word you mean bound men or contract slaves.

The ship Challenge, of which you speak in your message as bringing over more than five hundred Chinamen, did not bring over one who was under “Cooly” contract to labor. Hab-wa, who came in her as agent for the charterers, one of the signers of this letter, states to your Excellency that they were all passengers, and are going to work in the mines for themselves.

As to our countrymen coming over here to labor for $3 or $4 per month wages, it is unreasonable on the face of it, and it is not true. That strong affection which they have for their own country, which induces them to return with the gold they dig, as you say, would prevent them from leaving their homes for wages so little, if at all, better than they could get there. The Chinamen are indeed remarkable for their love of their country in a domestic way. They gather together in clans, in districts and neighborhoods, and in some villages there are thousands and thousands of the same surname, flocking around the original family home. They honor their parents and age generally with a respect like religion, and have the deepest anxiety to provide for their descendants. To honor his parents is the great duty of the son. A Chinese proverb runs somewhat in this way: “In the morning, when you rise, inquire after your parents’ health, at midday be not far from them, and in the evening comfort them when they go to rest; this it is to be a pious son.” With such feelings as these, it is to be expected that they will return with their gains to their homes, but it is foolish to believe they will leave them for trifling inducements.

To the same cause you must look for the reason why there are no Chinese drunkards in your streets, nor convicts in your prisons, madmen in your hospitals, or others who are a charge to your State. They live orderly, work hard, and take care of themselves, that they may have the means of providing for their homes and living amidst their families. The other matter which you allude to, their leaving their families in pledge as security for the performance of their contract, is still more inconsistent with their character, and absurd. Have you ever inquired what the holder of such a pledge could do with them! If he used any force towards them, he would be guilty of an offence, and be punished by the laws, just as in any other country; and if he treated them well, they would only be a burden and an additional expense to him. Sometimes very rich persons, who have poor men in their employment at home or abroad, support their families through charity, particularly if they are relatives. Sometimes they bind themselves to do it by their contracts, but this gives them no power over them as hostages or pledges.

(Letter continues below)


We will tell you how it is that the Chinese poor come to California. Some have borrowed the small amount necessary, to be returned with unusual interest, on account of the risk; some have been furnished with money without interest by their friends and relations, and some, again, but much the smaller portion, have received advances in money, to be returned out of the profits of the adventure. The usual apportionment of the profits is about three-tenths to the lender of the money, and rarely, if ever, any more. These arrangements made at home, seldom bring them further than San Francisco, and here the Chinese traders furnish them the means of getting to the mines. A great deal of money is thus lent at a nominal or very low interest, which, to the credit of our countrymen, we are able to say is almost invariably faithfully repaid. The poor Chinaman does not come here as a slave. He comes because of his desire for independence, and he is assisted by the charity of his countrymen, which they bestow on him safely, because he is industrious and honestly repays them. When he gets to the mines he sets to work with patience, industry, temperance and economy. He gives no man any offence, and he is contented with small gains, perhaps only two or three dollars per day. His living costs him something, and he is well pleased if he saves up three or four hundred dollars a year. Like all other nations, and as is particularly to be expected of them, many return home with their money, there to remain, buy rice fields, build houses, and devote themselves to the society of their own households and the increase of the products of their country, of its exports and imports, of its commerce and the general wealth of the world. But not all; others -- full as many as of other nations -- invest their gains in merchandise, and bring it into the country and sell it at your markets. It is possible, sir, that you may not be aware how great this trade is, and how rapidly it is increasing, and how many are now returning to California as merchants who came over originally as miners. We are not able to tell you how much has been paid by Chinese importers at the Custom House, but the sum must be very large. In this city alone there are twenty stores kept by Chinamen, who own the lots and erected the buildings themselves. In these stores a great deal of business is done; all kinds of Chinese goods -- rice, silks, sugar, tea, &c. -- are sold in them, and also a great quantity of American goods, especially boots, of which every Chinaman buys one or more pairs immediately on landing. And then there are the American stores dealing in Chinese articles on a very large scale, and some with the most remarkable success. The emigration of the “Coolies,” as your Excellency rather mistakingly calls us, is attended with the opening of all this Chinese trade, which, if it produces the same results here as elsewhere, will yet be the pride and riches of this city and State. One of the subscribers of this letter is now employed as a clerk in an American store, because of the services he can render them as a broker in business with his countrymen; he has sometimes sold $10,000 a day of Chinese goods. Chy Lung, who arrived a few days since with some $10,000 in China goods, has sold out, and returns for another cargo, in the Challenge. Fei-Chaong, who brought in a cargo about a month ago, has sold out, and also returns in the Challenge. So does the partner of Sam wa of this city, Tuk-Shaong, for the same purpose -- for more than a year he has been continually importing and selling cargoes. A great many others send for goods by the Challenge, and all the other ships, which you speak of as being expected, will bring cargoes of Chinese goods as well as Chinamen. Nor does this by any means give you a full idea of the trade of the Chinamen. They not only freight your ships, but they have bought many of them, and will buy more; and as to the freighting of ships, it may be worthy of your attention to know, that such is our preference for your countrymen, that we employ your ships in preference to any others, even when we could get them cheaper. When a ship arrives, everybody sees how actively and profitably your drays, steamboats, wagons, &c., are employed by us. Some of us read in the papers the other day that the Government of the United States were going to send ships to Japan, to open that country to American trade. That is what we supposed your country wished with China as well as other countries, but it cannot all be on one side, and it is plain that the more advantages we get from your country, the faster you will get the benefits of our trade. The gold we have been allowed to dig in your mines is what has made the China trade grow up so fast, like everything else in this country. If you want to check immigration from Asia, you will have to do it by checking Asiatic commerce, which we supposed, from all that we have ever known of your government, the United States most desired to increase.

What your Excellency has said about passing a law to prevent Coolies, shipped to California under contracts, from laboring in the mines, we do not conceive concerns us, for there are none such here from China, nor do we believe any are coming, except a small number, perhaps, who work on shares, as we have before explained, just as people from all other countries sometimes do. We will not believe it is your intention to pass a law treating us as Coolies whether we are so or not. You say there is no treaty provision for the manner in which Chinese emigrants shall be treated, and that the Chinese government would have no right to complain of any law excluding us from the country, by taxation or otherwise. This may be true of the government, but it would certainly alienate the present remarkably friendly feelings of the Chinese people, and in many ways interfere with the full enjoyments of the commercial privileges guaranteed to the Americans by the treaty of Wang-Hiya.

In what we here say we have most carefully told your Excellency the truth; but we fear you will not believe us, because you have spoken in your message of us as Asiatics, “ignorant of the solemn character of the oath or affirmation in the form prescribed in the Constitution and statutes, or indifferent to the solemn obligation to speak the truth which an oath imposes.” It is truth, nevertheless, and we leave it to time and the proof which our words carry in them to satisfy you of the fact. It has grieved us that you should publish so bad a character of us, and we wish that you could change your opinion and speak well of us to the public. We do not deny that many Chinamen tell lies, and so do many Americans, even in courts of justice. But we have our courts, too, and our forms of oaths, which are as sacredly respected by our countrymen as other nations respect theirs. We do not swear upon so many little occasions as you do, and our forms will seem as ridiculous to you as yours do to us when we first see them. You will smile when we tell you that on ordinary occasions an oath is attested by burning a piece of yellow paper, and on the more important ones by cutting off the head of a cock; yet these are only forms, and cannot be of great importance, we would think. But in the important matters we are good men; we honor our parents; we take care of our children; we are industrious and peaceable; we trade much; we are trusted for small and large sums; we pay our debts and are honest; and, of course, must tell the truth. Good men cannot tell lies and be ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. We do not think much about your politics, but we believe you are mistaken in supposing no Chinaman has ever yet applied to be naturalized, or has acquired a domicil in the United States except here. There is a Chinaman now in San Francisco who is said to be a naturalized citizen, and to have a free white American wife. He wears the American dress, and is considered a man of respectability. And there are, or were lately, we are informed, Chinamen residing in Boston, New York, and New Orleans. If the privileges of your laws are open to us, some of us will, doubtless, acquire your habits, your language, your ideas, your feelings, your morals, your forms, and become citizens of your country; -- many have already adopted your religion in their own; -- and we will be good citizens. There are very good Chinamen now in the country, and a better class, will, if allowed, come hereafter -- men of learning and of wealth, bringing their families with them.

In concluding this letter, we will only beg your Excellency not to be too hasty with us, to find us out and know us well, and then we are certain you will not command your Legislature to make laws driving us out of your country. Let us stay here -- the Americans are doing good to us, and we will do good to them.

Your most humble servants,

HAB-WA, LONG ACHICK; SAM WO & CO., TON WO & CO.

For the Chinamen in California.

 

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