- Historic Sites
‘the Chinese Must Go’
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
One splendid morning during a recent West Coast vacation, I was turning the pages of a San Francisco newspaper over my coffee when I came upon a headline that clouded my cheerful mood: GERMAN POLL FINDS SENTIMENT AGAINST FOREIGNERS RUNS DEEP . According to the story below it, one-quarter of a group of Germans polled in a survey agreed entirely or partly with the slogan “Germany for the Germans,” which right-wing extremists had been chanting during several weeks of rampages against foreign refugees. Included in the atrocities were the rock-throwing attacks on refugee shelters and the torching of foreigners’ homes. “Shades of the 1930s,” I thought with the automatic shudder that any possible neo-Nazi activity sends through me—in Germany or anywhere else.
Then I thought a bit longer. Something tickled my memory, and it flashed a new message: “Shades of the 1870s too. And not in Europe but in San Francisco, California!” I remembered that San Francisco had been seized, in 1877, by a violent spasm of antiforeign, specifically anti-Chinese, feeling that broke into murderous riots against innocents of the “wrong” ancestry. The fever started among working-class whites, but before it ran its full course, it infected the governments of both California and the United States, with long-lasting results.
Please understand that I have no intention of drawing farfetched comparisons, or of calling Americans of the 1870s neo-Nazis—quite the contrary. Nor do I aim to exonerate the 1990s neo-Nazis by trite reminders that they are not the first, last, or only haters to sully history’s pages with brutality. Still, one of the best things about good history is its power to reduce national arrogance and to promote reflection and caution. So this story needs telling.
Xenophobia wasn’t new in the United States a century and a quarter ago. A strong nativist movement before the Civil War had been responsible for discrimination and occasional violence against foreign-born Catholics. In the 1850s the Protestant crusade went political in the shape of the American (or “Know-Nothing”) party and scored some short-term gains. But California’s nativism in 1877 was especially sharp after four years of a bitter depression that had begun in 1873. (Economic pain will do that every time; the 1992 wave of German antiforeignism is strongest in formerly Communist East Germany, where unemployment is high and living standards low.)
America in 1877 was hurting all over, but as is often the case, the situation was special in California, particularly in San Francisco. It was less than thirty years since the gold rush had filled the city with brazen fortune seekers. The giddiness of their expectations was now offset by brutal reality, and most of them were facing the fact that they would spend their lives in a postboom economy. Gold and silver production was down, and unemployment now hovered around 20 percent. Where land had been plentiful, the best acreage was being concentrated into great estates.
Where San Francisco grocers had made fortunes selling infrequent shiploads of coveted goods, they now faced tough competition in a national market created by the newly completed transcontinental railroad line. And that same railroad, once hailed as the salvation of California, had become a monster monopoly that was charged with gouging the state’s shippers and buying exemption from the law by bribing and lobbying.
The Big Four who built and owned the Southern Pacific Railroad—Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford—typified the widening social chasm. Basically storekeepers who had struck it rich by their timely investment in the rails, they and other new millionaires built, on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, gingerbread mansions tended by liveried servants. Thus the social cast of San Francisco included a restless down-at-the-heels population, a class of power-flaunting neoaristocrats, a supervillain in the shape of a railroad monopoly—and, finally, a set of scapegoats in the Chinese.
There were between twelve thousand and twenty-two thousand of them in the city, all recent immigrants and visibly, achingly different in their Manchu pigtails and their “bizarre” customs. They had been run out of the mining camps by discriminatory state laws and vigilante violence and settled in the cities to cook and wash for the Anglo-Saxons. Then the Big Four had discovered that they made wonderful railroad-construction workers—patient, diligent, and, above all, vulnerable and therefore cheap. Crocker imported thousands of them. So did other employers through wholesale contracts with Chinese labor agents. The Chinese composed perhaps only 15 percent of the San Francisco labor force, but they were blamed and hated by apparently every unemployed or underemployed white San Franciscan.