DCSIMG

Community: Chinese in America

社区—华人在美国

The Friendship Arch welcomes visitors to Chinatown in Washington, D.C., 1986
The Friendship Arch welcomes visitors to Chinatown in Washington, D.C., 1986
Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress
The Friendship Arch welcomes visitors to Chinatown in Washington, D.C., 1986
Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

Over time, Chinese emigrants moved to many countries, including the United States. Some fled war, famine, or persecution; others sought opportunity. During the California gold rush that began in 1849, tens of thousands migrated to America. Chinatowns formed in U.S. cities. Chinese laborers worked on the transcontinental railroad and in agriculture. Others started retail businesses.

In 1882, however, hostility toward Chinese Americans led to a U.S. law that blocked Chinese immigration. Immigration resumed on a small scale in 1943, and flourished after 1965. Mail was a lifeline for immigrants with families in China and for businesses and consumers.

Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King

In this letter from Hawaii (then an independent kingdom), Edward Tailer Austin writes to his cousin about the ugly reality of his role as a plantation overseer of recently arrived Chinese laborers. The letter traveled from Honolulu to San Francisco, then crossed over Panama on its way to New Orleans and Texas.

Transcription of letter »

Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889
Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889
Honolulu water bill postal card,
Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889

So many Chinese workers emigrated to Hawaii by the late 1800s that the water department preprinted late payment notices for them in Chinese.

Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889
Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889
Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889

Chinese prospectors rushed across the Pacific to pan for gold in California, where Chinese immigrants sought a "Gold Mountain" after its 1849 discovery. In 1854, some established the town of Chinese Camp, but later abandoned it; California enacted taxes to discourage Chinese miners, and white miners terrorized them without consequences.

Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
3c Transcontinental Railroad approved die proof, 1944
3c Transcontinental Railroad approved die proof, 1944
Loan courtesy United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection
3c Transcontinental Railroad approved die proof, 1944
Loan courtesy United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection

Central Pacific hired more than 10,000 Chinese laborers for the transcontinental railroad. Workers cut tunnels with hand tools and explosives, prepared the route, and laid track east from Sacramento.

Wells Fargo directory
Wells Fargo directory
Wells Fargo directory

Wells Fargo’s express department served Chinatown in San Francisco with a special “China Route,” hiring three Chinese employees to sort the mail. Courting Chinese business at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, Wells Fargo also published bilingual shipping supplies, a phrasebook, and directories of Chinese merchants.

Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
Sing Fat Co. postcard, early 1900s
Sing Fat Co. postcard, early 1900s
Sing Fat Co. postcard, early 1900s

To provide services to miners, Chinese entrepreneurs opened stores, laundries, and retail businesses. Chinese immigrants in America became increasingly urban, creating Chinatowns. By 1870, San Francisco had 5,000 Chinese businessmen.

San Francisco Chinatown business cover, 1909
San Francisco Chinatown business cover, 1909
San Francisco Chinatown business cover, 1909
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s, reverse
Chinese American merchant family postcard, early 1900s, reverse
Six Companies' Building postcard, 1930s
Six Companies' Building postcard, 1930s
Six Companies' Building postcard, 1930s

Some 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through the U.S. Angel Island immigration facility from 1910 to 1940. Faced with discrimination and corruption, Chinese Americans formed strong organizations. The Six Companies of benevolent societies offered a public voice. Secret societies called tongs were involved in crime, but also provided community welfare services.

Angel Island postmark on card, 1912
Angel Island postmark on card, 1912
Angel Island postmark on card, 1912
Chinese children after San Francisco earthquake postcard, 1906
Chinese children after San Francisco earthquake postcard, 1906
Chinese children after San Francisco earthquake postcard, 1906
Parade of Tongs postcard, early 1900s
Parade of Tongs postcard, early 1900s
Parade of Tongs postcard, early 1900s

As Chinese Americans moved beyond the West to the rest of the U.S., some families opened grocery stores in the South, often living in the backs of the stores. Others created new Chinatowns. Redevelopment in Washington, D.C., relocated the city's Chinatown; by the 1970s, many residents moved to the suburbs.

Chinese American business cover, Charleston SC, 1899
Chinese American business cover, Charleston SC, 1899
Chinese American business cover, Charleston SC, 1899
Chinese American business cover, Anniston AL, 1903
Chinese American business cover, Anniston AL, 1903
Chinese American business cover, Anniston AL, 1903
Chinese restaurant, Washington DC, cover, c. 1916
Chinese restaurant, Washington DC, cover, c. 1916
Chinese restaurant, Washington DC, cover, c. 1916
Chinese Lantern Restaurant, Washington DC, postcard, c. 1940s
Chinese Lantern Restaurant, Washington DC, postcard, c. 1940s
Chinese Lantern Restaurant, Washington DC, postcard, c. 1940s
Chinese World newspaper cover, 1944
Chinese World newspaper cover, 1944
Chinese World newspaper cover, 1944

Like other immigrants, Chinese Americans express their heritage and preserve traditions and ethnic identity with foods, parades, holidays, flags, and language. Chinese American newspapers provide local, national, and homeland news.

Hazel Ying Lee, Women Airforce Service Pilots, 1944
Hazel Ying Lee, Women Airforce Service Pilots, 1944
Courtesy Frances M. Tong, Museum of Chinese in America Collection
Hazel Ying Lee, Women Airforce Service
Pilots, 1944
Courtesy Frances M. Tong, Museum of
Chinese in America Collection

Hazel Ying Lee, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, was the first Chinese American woman pilot to fly for the U.S. military. In 1944, she mailed this envelope to her sister. Lee died in a P-63 crash the same year.

Hazel Ying Lee cover, 1944
Hazel Ying Lee cover, 1944
Loan courtesy Frances M Tong, Museum of Chinese in America Collection
Hazel Ying Lee cover, 1944
Loan courtesy Frances M Tong, Museum of Chinese
in America Collection
Quong Yee Wo grocery with mail slot board, c. 1970
Quong Yee Wo grocery with mail slot board, c. 1970
Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America Collection
Quong Yee Wo grocery with mail slot board, c. 1970
Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America Collection

Sergeant Walter Chin, a World War II Army mechanic, wrote his sister this V-Mail letter addressed to Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, where many local groceries accepted mail. Residents searched for their mail on mail slot boards, like this one in Quong Yee Wo’s grocery store in the 1970s.

V-Mail letter, 1944
V-Mail letter, 1944
Loan courtesy Marcella Dear, Museum of Chinese in America Collection
V-Mail letter, 1944
Loan courtesy Marcella Dear,
Museum of Chinese in America Collection
Richard M. Nixon letter, 1971
Richard M. Nixon letter, 1971
Loan courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America
Richard M. Nixon letter, 1971
Loan courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America

In 1971, President Nixon wrote to thank the Chinese American community for its support of his China initiative as he prepared to meet Mao Zedong in Beijing the next year.

White House cover, 1971
White House cover, 1971
Loan courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America
White House cover, 1971
Loan courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America