Chinese Immigration in the NorthWest


On http://www.facebook.com/historicalnovelsrus I posted the story of a specific Chinese immigrant to California. In the 1850s and 1860s, lured by the promise of gold, freedom, riches, and land, many Chinese men came to the United States, especially California and the Northwest.

Most initially tried gold mining. They were often chased off claims at gunpoint, or tricked into working for other miners at low wages, with promises of a share of the gold that never materialized. They migrated north, to southern Oregon, but encountered great prejudice. By 1870, there were about 3300 Chinese in southern Oregon, mostly miners, but they began to diversify into other businesses. The number of Chinese in Oregon grew to over 10,000. Persecution intensified. The Oregon Constitution stated: “No Chinaman, not a resident of the state at the adoption of this constitution, shall ever hold any real estate or mining claim, or work any mining claim therein.” Oregon passed laws preventing marriage between Chinese and whites.

Chinese in Oregon migrated north again, to the Portland area, on the west bank of the Willamette River. Anti-Chinese sentiment swept the country, and in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the first laws to curb immigration, and the only one up to that time targeted at a specific ethnic group. Oregon passed laws restricting Chinese to their own communities, allowed out only to serve as domestic servants for European immigrants.
The laws did dampen immigration, and by 1950, the number of Chinese descent people in Oregon had fallen to just over 2000.

Oregon was not alone in its anti-Chinese bias– Washington had laws levying special taxes, preventing Chinese from owning land, marrying whites, and other discriminatory practices. Even after the Chinese Exclusion act, the immigrants stayed – and so the white Washington residents fomented a race riot, the Tacoma Riot of 1885 and the Seattle Riot of 1886. A pipe laying company hired Chinese immigrants for low wages during a period of white unemployment. Dock workers in Seattle had a similar experience, and between the two riots 1000 Chinese were expelled.

In Idaho, we look at the story of a young Chinese girl, Polly Bemis, or Lalu Nathoy. Polly was born in 1853 in China, but in a year of bad harvest, she was sold as slave by her parents for two bags of seed. She was eighteen. A ship’s captain bought her, and sold her again at auction in Portland, Oregon to a Chinese merchant from Warren, Idaho. This was before the 1875 Page Act made it illegal for Chinese women to come to America.

Polly arrived in America at four feet five inches tall, and could speak no English. She spoke only Mandarin, so she couldn’t even understand many other Chinese people from southern China who spoke Cantonese. She was truly alone.

She worked hard, learning English, and the ways of her new country. She was constantly afraid she would be shipped back to China. Finally, she found a way to escape her master. A man named Charlie Bemis, a saloon keeper and owner of a boarding house, befriended her, and gave her a job. She waited tables, and after a time, ran the boarding house for him.

Polly took no crap from the boarding house tenants – once a man complained about the coffee — Polly threatened him with a knife, and suddenly the coffee was fine! Eventually she and Charlie flouted the law and got married, living seventeen miles out of town, to avoid problems.

Polly was quick to help anyone in need, and nursed injured miners back to health. Her compassion and generosity made her a local legend – tourists actually detoured to see her. Polly lived in Warren to sixty-seven years old, when she suffered a stroke.

But not all of Idaho’s history with Chinese immigrants was even that good. In May, 1887, the people of Lewiston began to see bodies floating into town on the Snake River. Thirty-four Chinese miners had been attacked and hacked to death, their bodies thrown into the river. The gold stolen from the miners has never been found, though some of the killers were caught and punished.

The gold in Idaho was never as plentiful as California, and as the mines ran out, the Chinese looked for other work, especially on the railroads.

“Those working on the railroads labored for about a dollar a day, often under horrendous conditions. Many came to North Idaho, later settling around Sandpoint. It was tough work, braving not only the dangers and elements, but also prejudice.
“I will not boss Chinese,” growled one construction superintendent. “I will not be responsible for work done on the road by Chinese labor.” His boss, contractor Charles W. Crocker retorted, “If Chinese built the Great Wall of China, they can build a railroad.” And build it they did.
A Bureau of Land Management report says: “Nine of every 10 men who built the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. Renowned for their reliability and industrious work ethic, they labored…10,000 strong with little more than picks, shovels, and black powder…subsisting on tea, rice, and dried vegetables from China.” – Coer D’Alene Press, May 3, 2015, Syd Albright

In the 1890s, Chinese children began to be allowed to attend public schools – many of these, born in America, were the offspring of Chinese miners and whores in the brothels. Chinese, though not citizens, were also allowed to vote in state elections. They gradually became more integrated and accepted in the Pacific Northwest and Idaho society.

The ban on Chinese immigration lasted until 1943, with the Magnuson Act, which allowed 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The quota system from countries was abolished in 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act. Today there are over 2.3 million people of Chinese origin in the United States, third behind Hispanics and people from India. (US Census Bureau).

Polly Bemis

Chinese miner

Chinese immigrant, looking for gold
Chinese railroad workers

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