1901 100 Years Ago

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On December 21, The Saturday Evening Post published an article about immigration policy titled “The Case Against the Chinaman.” A federal law banning Chinese immits, in effect since 1882, had recently come before Congress for renewal, and the author of the article was vigorously in favor. With the ban in place, he said, “a desirable Caucasian population has flowed naturally into the State [of California].” The Chinese, by contrast, were a “sullen, non-assimilative people” who displaced “the sons and daughters of the pioneers” by working “incessantly… for the lowest wages.”

Under headings like “Why Yellow Citizens Are Undesirable” and “The Mongolian Immigrant a Social Parasite,” the article explained that the Chinese were nothing but “automatons wound up for work,” “mere machines” unsuitable for “a republic of men.” “Having no appreciation of the blessings of liberty,” it went on, “Chinamen can make no contribution to citizenship.”

The author of this article was the mayor of San Francisco, James D. Phelan. Phelan was a prosperous banker, civic leader, and patron of the arts who was widely esteemed for his wisdom and honesty. After being elected in 1897 as a reform candidate, he had transformed one of America’s most notoriously corrupt cities into a model of municipal virtue. He was a regent of the University of California and would later serve a term in the U.S. Senate.

Mayor Phelan was far from alone in opposing Chinese immigration. His opinions reflected those of the great majority of Californians (employers excepted), whose already severe opposition had been further hardened by the troubled economic conditions of the 1890s.

The Chinese exclusion law was made permanent in 1902, but even so, racial hostility continued to increase. California’s nativists came to resent Japanese immigrants even more than Chinese ones, however, because the Japanese tended to bring their families and stay for good, whereas the Chinese generally made their fortunes in America and then went back home. Under the influence of the ban, California’s Chinese population slowly decreased, but Japanese settlers, despite many restrictions, continued to arrive until a 192.4 law sharply cut immigration from all nations and virtually eliminated it from East Asia. Not until 1965 did America reopen its doors to East Asian immigrants.