“We Are Not the Degraded Race You Would Make Us”: Norman Asing Challenges Chinese Immigration Restrictions
California had a few thousand Chinese immigrants in 1850. By 1852, the number swelled to 20,000, constituting almost a quarter of California’s work force. Chinese who toiled in mines and worked as shopkeepers were welcomed, even recruited, at first. But nativist sentiment to curtail Chinese immigration grew as the number of immigrants increased. John Bigler, the state’s third Governor, called for immigration restriction in 1852, citing Chinese immigrants’ inability to assimilate as European immigrants had. Norman Asing, a restaurant owner and leader in San Francisco’s Chinese community, assailed the governor for his anti-Chinese stance and utilized the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution against Bigler’s claims of the danger of Chinese immigration. But Asing’s argument also embraced some of the era’s racist assumptions about African Americans and Native Americans.
TO HIS EXCELLENCY GOV. BIGLER
Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States, and therefore take the liberty of addressing you as the chief of the government of this State. Your official position gives you a great opportunity of good and evil. Your opinions through a message to a legislative body have weight and , and perhaps none more so with the people, for the effect of your late message has been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil. You may not have meant that this should be the case, but you can see what will be the result of your propositions.
I am not much acquainted with your logic, that by excluding population from this State you enhance its wealth. I have always considered that population was wealth; particularly a population of producers, of men who by the labor of their hands or intellect, enrich the warehouses or the granaries of the country with the products of nature and art. You are deeply convinced you say “that to enhance the prosperity and preserve the tranquility of this State, Asiatic immigration must be checked.” This, your Excellency, is but one step towards a retrograde movement of the government, which, on reflection, you will discover; and which the citizens of this country ought never to tolerate. It was one of the principal causes of quarrel between you (when colonies) and England; when the latter pressed laws against emigration, you looked for immigration; it came, and immigration made you what you are— your nation what it is. It transferred you at once from childhood to manhood and made you great and respectable throughout the nations of the earth. I am sure your Excellency cannot, if you would, prevent your being called the descendant of an immigrant, for I am sure you do not boast of being a descendant of the red man. But your further logic is more reprehensible.
You argue that this is a republic of a particular race—that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you.
It is true, you have degraded the Negro because of your holding him in involuntary servitude, and because for the sake of union in some of your states such was tolerated, and amongst this class you would endeavor
to place us; and no doubt it would be pleasing to some would-be freemen to mark the brand of servitude upon us. But we would beg to remind you that when your nation was a wilderness, and the nation from which you sprung barbarous, we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life; that we are possessed of a language and a literature, and that men skilled in science and the arts are numerous among us; that the productions of our manufactories, our sail, and workshops, form no small share of the commerce of the world; and that for centuries, colleges, schools, charitable institutions, asylums, and hospitals, have been as common as in your own land. That our people cannot be reproved for their idleness, and that your historians have given them due credit for the variety and richness of their works of art, and for their simplicity of manners, and particularly their industry. And we beg to remark, that so far as the history of our race in California goes, it stamps with the test of truth the fact that we are not the degraded race you would make us. We came amongst you as mechanics or traders, and following every honorable business of life. You do not find us pursuing occupations of degrading character, except you consider labor
degrading, which I am sure you do not; and if our countrymen save the proceeds of their industry from the tavern and the gambling house to spend it on farms or town lots or on their families, surely you will admit that even these are virtues. You say “you desire to see no change in the generous policy of this government as far as regards Europeans.” It is out of your power to say, however, in what way or to whom the doctrines of the Constitution shall apply. You have no more right to propose a measure for checking immigration, than you have the right of sending a message to the Legislature on the subject. As far as regards the color and complexion of our race, we are perfectly aware that our population have been a little more tan than yours.
Your Excellency will discover, however, that we are as much allied to the African race and the red man as you are yourself, and that as far as the aristocracy of skin is concerned, ours might compare with many of the European races; nor do we consider that your Excellency, as a Democrat, will make us believe that the framers of your declaration of rights ever suggested the propriety of establishing an aristocracy of skin. I am a naturalized citizen, your Excellency, of Charleston, South Carolina, and a Christian, too; and so hope you will stand corrected in your assertion “that none of the Asiatic class” as you are pleased to term them, have applied for benefits under our naturalization act. I could point out to you numbers of citizens, all over the whole continent, who have taken advantage of your hospitality and citizenship, and I defy you to say that our race have ever abused that hospitality or forfeited their claim on this or any of the governments of South America, by an infringement on the laws of the countries into which they pass. You find us peculiarly peaceable and orderly. It does not cost your state much for our criminal prosecution. We apply less to your courts for redress, and so far as I know, there are none who are a charge upon the state, as paupers.
You say that “gold, with its talismanic power, has overcome those natural habits of non-intercourse we have exhibited.” I ask you, has not gold had the same effect upon your people, and the people of other countries, who have migrated hither? Why, it was gold that filled your country (formerly a desert) with people, filled your harbours with ships and opened our much-coveted trade to the enterprise of your merchants.
You cannot, in the face of facts that stare you in the face, assert that the cupidity of which you speak is ours alone; so that your Excellency will perceive that in this age a change of cupidity would not tell. Thousands of your own citizens come here to dig gold, with the idea of returning as speedily as they can.
We think you are in error, however, in this respect, as many of us, and many more, will acquire a domicile amongst you.
But, for the present, I shall take leave of your Excellency, and shall resume this question upon another occasion which I hope you will take into consideration in a spirit of candor. Your predecessor pursued a different line of conduct towards us, as will appear by reference to his message.
I have the honor to be your Excellency’s very obedient servant, NORMAN ASING
Fourth of July. Independence Day. Nationalistic pride. A day off to enjoy community parades, picnics in the park, backyard BBQs and a night of fireworks. A day to celebrate one of the documents that is the foundation of the American spirit., the Declaration of Independence
In 1776, July 4 was a declaration of independence from the king of England, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” It was an affirmation of freedom, liberty and freedom of choice.
The second paragraph of that most sacred of documents, the Declaration of Independence, states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yet for the Chinese who came to “the Gold Mountain” in the mid-1800s in pursuit of a better life, this sentiment did not seem to apply to them except for the few early ones whose diligent work ethic and willingness to perform tasks European Americans deemed undesirable made them welcome.
Life for the Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s was absolutely no picnic. They were feared, loathed and stereotyped. Many toiled as inexpensive railroad workers, miners, cooks and laundrymen. For those early Chinese in America, they were certainly not considered equal and their pursuit of happiness, let alone citizenship, was much thwarted.
Then, as now, there is a portion of the American population who feel they and their identity are under siege with the presence of Chinese (then) and other non-Caucasian (now) immigrants.
As a group, Chinese Americans are considered the “model minority” -- self-reliant with good work ethics and strong family values.
Yet, as the timeline shows, the “fortunes” of Chinese Americans parallel the ups and downs of U.S.-Chinese relations. Things improved during WWII, when the two countries became allies. Those Chinese, particularly students, who were stranded in the U.S. at that time became new immigrants. When the Cold War began, Chinese Americans were once again the target of suspicion and potential enemies of the state. Right now, with tensions between the two countries high, Chinese Americans are once again looked upon with distrust by some.
The FBI’s current campaign on economic espionage has China and Chinese Americans in its crosshairs.
In January of this year, the director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas, a naturalized Chinese American award-winning epidemiologist, stepped down after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China. (No charges have been filed against her as we go to press.) Hers is not an isolated incident. A Bloomberg article in June reported “the National Institutes of Health and FBI are targeting ethnic Chinese scientists, including U.S citizens, searching for a cancer cure.” Three other top Chinese American scientists from Houston had left in recent months.
We cannot be too complacent. The constant bombardment of “China rising” may lead to the resurrection of “Yellow Peril” paranoia. Some of the recent political campaign messages are reminiscent of the mid- to late-1800s anti-Chinese rhetoric.
As Chinese Americans, we need to exercise our rights and voice our concerns, just like Norman Asing and Wong Ar Chong.
As Chinese, we’ll never look Caucasian American. So we’ll just have to grin and bear the question, “So, where are you from?” and trust that one day, the 1931 study that concluded Chinese may be “American by birth, but not in fact” will be but a sad past.
So, what’s your Independence Day going to be like? Given the unmentionable hardships the early Chinese in America endured, we should all be celebrating with gusto! But also remember their struggles.
Americans know April 15 as tax day. But 107 years ago, it was a day that shocked the world.
At 2:20 a.m., April 15, 1912, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of the time (and considered “unsinkable” by many because of its compartmentalized hull construction), sank into the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Of the 2,200 people on board, eight were Chinese. Of the 706 who survived, six of the eight Chinese made it.
These six Chinese survivors of the RMS Titanic tragedy disappeared soon after their arrival in New York.
There has been much coverage of the Titanic story by the global media, but nothing was reported of the Chinese passengers. Of the hundreds other survivors who were interviewed by the press for their survival tales, none paid attention to the six Chinese.
By Greg Hugh
At the end of this year, the Chinese Exclusion Act would have been repealed for 75 years. TPT will be broadcasting a series, “The Chinese Exclusion Act: American Experience” that asks “What it means to be American? What makes you American?” Check your local TPT station for dates and times when The Chinese Exclusion Act will be shown.
The Chinese Exclusion Act (Immigration Act of 1882) was a U. S. federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. The act followed the Angell Treaty of 1880, a set of revisions to the U.S.-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868 that allowed the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration. The act was initially intended to last for 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and only law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. It was repealed by the Magnuson Act on Dec. 17, 1943.
From today’s perspective, it is difficult to believe that once upon a time in America, Chinese were considered heathens and subjected to widespread persecution and violence. The earlier hostile attitude toward Chinese is very different from the contemporary esteem for them as a "model minority" to be emulated by others.
By Pat Welsh, contributor
The communist takeover of China in 1949 saw a significant achievement of a comprehensive government. After the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (中國人民共和國) on Oct. 1, 1949, the Communist Party (共產黨) expected fighting for a few more years. To their surprise, once Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (國民黨, KMT) armies were shoved off the mainland, the whole country seemed to accept the communist ascension. Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (人民解放軍) found themselves able to sweep through the south and southwest fairly easily.
Public sentiment in the cities the first year was one of euphoria. The residents of the cities saw a conquering army of seemingly self-disciplined country lads who appeared to be both helpful and polite. This was in stark contrast to the looting and raping activities of both the warlords and all-too-often corrupt KMT troops. The new government was seen as cleaning things up. The streets and drains were cleared of not only the filth and garbage but also of the petty criminals, prostitutes and beggars. The beggars and those who had been involved in criminal and immoral activities were rounded up and sent for reeducation aimed at teaching them how they can and should become productive members of the new society. This activity was the source of the word “brainwashing” (洗腦).
Events in China moved faster than even the Party anticipated. The Communist Party numbered only about 750,000 members but there was a need to fill over 2,000,000 government posts at all levels. For that reason, the Party allowed most of the former KMT government to remain in their positions, receive salaries and continue their functions. While this was being done, the government abolished foreign privileges, stamped out corruption and mobilized the citizenry into people who repaired public works, spread literacy, repair railroads and steamship lines while controlling diseases.
By Pat Welsh, contributor
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything for the foreign interests in China. Foreign concessions in Shanghai ended as Japanese troops arrested and interned all foreigners in China’s cities living under their occupation. They were no longer neutrals; they became enemy aliens.
In February 1942, Japan invaded Burma (now known as Myanmar). At first, Japan had no intention of taking Burma, except Burma seemed to be an easy acquisition as the country was only lightly defended by the British. Then too, seizing Burma would cut off a supply route to China as well as be a real threat against India.
In Washington D.C.. Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell received orders that would, over four years, initiate a very different Chinese relationship with America. Stilwell was to command some Chinese troops operating in Burma. In any case, both General George Marshall in Washington and Chiang both viewed Stilwell operating as Chiang’s junior partner. Under Chiang and his uneasy relationship with Stilwell, Chiang had both the United States and the British Empire as allies against Japan.
By Pat Welsh, contributor
With the seizure of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Nanjing in 1937, the undeclared war with Japan was under way. After the fall of Shanghai, the Japanese high command had not intended to capture Nanjing. Their priorities centered on consolidating their position in northern China, hoping this would put an end to China’s will to resist their future demands. Instead, Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) decision to widen the war by establishing a front in the Yangtze River valley forced Japan to rethink their strategy in China.
In November 1937, Chiang moved his command center to Wuhan. By January 1938, Wuhan seemed vulnerable, causing Chiang to change his military strategy as he recognized that conventional military tactics would be suicidal against Japan.
On Jan. 11, 1938, the Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye (近衞 文麿) gave an ultimatum to Chiang for more concessions that included putting north China under Japanese control and a payment of reparations to Japan. Chiang was expected to agree to this proclamation in 72 hours. Chiang refused these demands and Japan ended its recognition of the Kuomintang government and sought to destroy it.
At the end of January 1938, Chiang summoned a military conference where he outlined a strategy to defend Xuzhou, a railroad terminus located 500 kilometers north of Wuhan. On Feb. 9, 1938, the Japanese seized Bengbu, which was 400 kilometers northeast of Wuhan. This seizure gave Japan control over areas north of the Huai River. This action was followed up with two lines of Japanese troops advancing southward along the Jinpu railway. Until March 1938, north and northeast of Xuzhou the Japanese were unable to scatter Chiang’s defenses.
In late March and early April, the Chinese were able to experience their first victory at Taierzhuang located northeast of Xuzhou where their forces wore down a Japanese attack. This showed the Chinese that Japan was stoppable. Unfortunately, after a few days of celebration, the parochialism of Chiang’s forces once again reared its ugly head and made Chiang’s efforts to resist Japan more difficult.
The Japanese commanders learned from their defeat at Taierzhuang. They reinforced their armies and moved their forces southward to squeeze Xuzhou in a vice. To avoid encirclement and utter destruction, Chiang ordered a retreat from Xuzhou. On May 18, helped by a sandstorm and fog, about 40 KMT divisions managed to slip past the Japanese and regroup to fight another day.
To slow the Japanese advance into central China, Chiang destroyed the flood dykes of the Yellow River at Huayuankou on June 6. He hoped to stop the Japanese army from moving onto Zhengzhou, a rail center whose capture threatened both Xian to the west and Wuhan to the south. This flooding gave Chiang five months to move his main forces from Wuhan toward Chongqing. Unfortunately, by doing this, Chiang had flooded much of central China at the cost of an estimated 500,000 Chinese deaths and family displacements.
No longer able to approach Wuhan from the north, in August 1938, the Japanese navy along with 9,000 soldiers approached Wuhan from the east along the Yangtze River. On Oct. 25, surrounded by Japanese, Wuhan fell. The eastern side of China was lost and Chiang’s idea of “Free China” now meant mostly Sichuan, Hunan and Henan provinces. In the north around Yenan, Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) tactics made it impossible for the Japanese to hold the countryside, but they were unable to defeat the Japanese near the rail lines.
Between late 1938 and December 1941, any appearance of a stalemated situation might be considered deceptive. Both Mao and Chiang settled in for a long war. Mao was strongest in China’s northern countryside. Chiang was strongest in the west and southwest. Japan held the eastern and northeastern provinces. The nature of the warfare became more defensive by all three parties.
The Nationalists settled into Chongqing in 1938. In the spring of 1939 when the winter fogs had lifted from Chongqing, Japanese air raids began. Lacking adequate air-raid defenses, Chiang’s wife Soong Meiling (宋美齡) recruited a retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault to take over the training of China’s tiny air force. Chennault also recruited pilots from the United States to take on the Japanese fighter aircraft and bombers. The official name of this group was the American Volunteer Group but later it became better known as the “Flying Tigers.” The activities of this group raised the morale of the government in Chongqing even though they alone could not stop the Japanese bombing raids.
In the east, the Japanese were poorly prepared for the responsibilities of occupation. Japan had the idea that their conquered territories would pay for themselves and even provide revenue for their efforts. Yet this strategy proved to be more successful in Manchukuo than in eastern China where banditry and small unit resistance broke out in the countryside while criminal activities and various disorders were common in the cities.
On March 28, 1938, the Japanese established the “Great Way Government (大道政府) which lasted only one month. On that same March day, the Japanese established its Reformed Government of China (中華民國維新政府) at the Great Hall of the National Government in Nanjing. It was to be headed by Liang Hongzhi (梁鴻志) who had been prominent in military politics in the 1910s and 1920s but whose role had diminished under the Kuomintang. Once established, Liang and his government returned to the New Asia Hotel in Shanghai where they operated for two years.
Meanwhile the foreign concessions in Shanghai continued to operate but were forced to accommodate thousands of refugees. Problems with food, water and sanitation plagued these concessions until they were closed.
In Yenan, abandoning suicidal positional warfare, Mao’s tactics of small unit mobile guerilla warfare showed some success where he headed a well-disciplined army of soldiers and social work cadres. At the beginning of the war, he had 30,000 men whom he reorganized into the Eighth Route Army (八路軍). This number expanded into three divisions of 80,000 by the end of August 1938. In addition, 12,000 more men were formed into the New Fourth Army that operated in central China.
The loss of China’s major cities in the east to the Japanese strengthened Mao’s argument that the communist movement should move from the countryside into the cities, not vice versa as most of Mao’s challengers had asserted. The result was an immigration of some 100,000 migrants, most were well educated, who believed Mao, not Chiang, had the best ideas for a new China. Mao’s armies grew to over 763, 400 by 1941. With Yenan being outside of the international spotlight, Mao had a better opportunity to create a new social order. Not ready to confiscate and redistribute land, Mao chose to supervise the private economy while imposing rent reductions and the reduction of tax burdens.
On Nov. 26, 1938, Zhou Fohai (周佛海) and his aide Mei Siping (梅思平) called for a secret meeting at the home of Wang Jingwei (汪精衛) in Chongqing. A former rival of Chiang, Wang had been pacified by Chiang who assigned Wang to key defense posts and making him a vice-chairman of the Kuomintang movement. Mei himself had come from secret meetings with senior Japanese military figures in Shanghai. Mei and Zhou urged Wang to defect and establish puppet government in Japanese-occupied eastern China. Wang had been seeking a negotiated peace deal with the Japanese. Fearing the total humiliation and destruction of China by Japan, after a few weeks of wavering, Wang decided to flee and defect. Now he hoped that his position with the Japanese would enable him to act as an intermediary between Chiang and the Japanese military.
Once back in Shanghai, Wang began collaborating and seeking peace terms with the Japanese. On March 30, 1940, Wang established the Nanjing Nationalist Government (南京國民政府), also known as the Reorganized National Government of China, a collaborative government based in Nanjing. There, Wang was named as the president of the Executive Yuan and Chairman of the pro-Japanese Nationalist Government (行政院長兼國民政府). Using terror tactics, Wang had control over the city streets, but otherwise, the legitimacy of his state weakened in the eyes of those around him.
After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Chiang had two mighty Western nations supporting him and there was no longer any real need for a collaborating Chinese government to act as a bridge between Chiang and Tokyo.
About Pat Welsh
In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs. Now fully retired, he currently resides in Georgia where he used to lecture on China to a number of classes at Dunwoody High School.
By Pat Welsh, contributor
In previous articles, I had mentioned that the decentralization of the Qing Dynasty’s military after the Taiping Rebellion had paved the way for the emergence of local warlords throughout China. The Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) of 1911 did put an end to the Qing Dynasty, but it also produced a power vacuum because of a weakly centralized control of China’s military. For example, one reason President Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) could not agree to Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) and the Nationalists’ request to establish his government in Nanjing 1912 was because he depended on the support of his Beiyang military (北洋軍) located in the north.
By 1913, several provincial warlords had already tried to rebel against Yuan. Yuan had made an amendment to the Constitution of 1912 designed strengthen his power and limit the power placed in the hands of the revolutionaries loyal to Sun and the other political parties. In November 1913, Yuan outlawed the Kuomintang (國民黨). Then, to strengthen his Beiyang armies, Yuan borrowed money from Japan.