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The History of Chinese Immigrants in America

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America is a country that was founded and built by immigrants. Diversity has been the character that we are proud of our country for. It is known as a melting pot of different cultures and identities; or, at least, that is what we are led to believe. It brings people from all over the world who are longing for acceptance and a piece of the American dream to its shores to build a better life. However, since Trump took over the House, the images of acceptance and hope that have compelled so many people to come to the US are being replaced by ‘get out’ and ‘go back’ signs. Immigration policies change so frequently and dramatically nowadays thanks to the president with the most unstable mental state; it seems that the American Dream is becoming more and more unreachable, especially to Chinese immigrants.

How Did Chinese Immigrants Come to America?

Beginning in the 19th century, immigrants from China have been continuously making their ways to come and settle down here in the United States of America. There are three major waves of Chinese immigration to the United States in the history of Chinese Americans.

The very first Chinese people arrived in the United States in around 1815 for Sino-US maritime trade, and the first wave started from there. At first, there were only a handful of Chinese came, mainly as merchants and former sailors. Since then, Chinese people kept coming to the US, and the number of people each year was higher than the previous one. By 1880, there were over 300,000 Chinese people in the US: a tenth of the Californian population back then—mostly from Canton (Guangdong) province—who wanted to make their fortune in the 1849-era California Gold Rush.

The second wave started during World War II. The Magnuson Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, was proposed by US Representative (later Senator) Warren G. Magnuson of Washington and signed into law on December 17, 1943. It was mostly because back then, China became a welcome ally to the United States. In the late 1960s and early and mid-1970, Chinese immigration into the United States came almost exclusively from Hong Kong and Taiwan creating the Hong Kong American and Taiwanese American subgroups. Immigration from Mainland China was almost non-existent until 1977 when the PRC removed restrictions on emigration leading to immigration of college students and professionals. These recent groups of Chinese tended to cluster in suburban areas and to avoid urban Chinatowns.

The third wave started in the early 1980s and is still ongoing up to today. In addition to students and professionals, the third wave of recent immigrants consisted of undocumented aliens, who went to the United States in search of lower-status manual jobs. These aliens tend to concentrate in heavily urban areas, particularly in New York City and Los Angeles area; and there is often very little contact between these Chinese and those higher-educated Chinese professionals. Starting from the 1990s, the demographics of the Chinese American community have shifted in favor of immigrants with roots in mainland China, rather than from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Up until 2016, the major class of admission for those Chinese immigrants entering the US is through Immediate Relatives of US citizens. Just over a third (30 456) of those immigrants gained entry via this means. As legislation in the US is seen to favor this point of entry. Furthermore, employment-based preferences are seen to be the third-largest. This means of entry accounts for 23% of the total. The HB-1 visa is seen to be a main point of entry for Chinese immigrants. “Chinese immigrants now make up the largest single group of arrivals a year into this country. The Census Bureau says China replaced Mexico as the top country of origin for legal immigrants to the US since 2013.” 

Since China nowadays has grown into the second largest economy, why do some people still try to come to America, no matter what it costs? Because ‘many of the familiar tropes of the American idea and experience—continually rising expectations (that tomorrow will be better than today), the entrepreneurial spirit, the sacredness of home, the seductiveness of wealth, the pressure to succeed, our perverse fascination with ‘hope’ and ‘change’, and the belief that ‘anything is possible’—are all embedded in the Dream’, and that’s what many people in China believe. As Freud said “We are so constituted that we can gain intense pleasure only from the contrast, and only very little from the condition itself.” 

The Contribution Made By Chinese Immigrants 

Since the first wave of Chinese people arrived in the US, Chinese immigrants have been making huge contributions to help build America, generation after generation, “FOB”s (“Fresh-off-the-boat”, referring to the first-generation immigrants) and “ABC”s (“America-born-Chinese”, referring to American citizens who are born in the US with Chinese ethnic background).

After the gold rush wound down in the 1860s, the majority of the workforce found jobs in the railroad industry. Chinese labor was integral to the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which linked the railway network of the Eastern United States with California on the Pacific coast. Construction began in 1863 at the terminal points of Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California, and the two sections were merged and ceremonially completed on May 10, 1869, at the famous ‘golden spike’ event at Promontory Summit, Utah. It created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. This network caused the wagon trains of previous decades to become obsolete, exchanging it for a modern transportation system. The building of the railway required enormous labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, the two privately chartered federally backed enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively. Since there was a lack of white European construction workers, in 1865 a large number of Chinese workers were recruited from the silver mines, as well as later contract workers from China. On May 10, 1869, Chinese employed by the Central Pacific Railroad laid the final rails of the first transcontinental railroad line. The Chinese contributed not just brawn but also brains and skill. “The journal noted that the Chinese were especially clever in aligning roads and could ‘strike a truer line for a longer distance with the unassisted eye than most white men can with the aid of instruments.’ Chinese supervisors, who spoke English, were ‘very intelligent men’ and showed ‘an extensive acquaintance with railroad matters.’ Thousands of Chinese immigrants had made it possible.

Following the first wave, more Chinese kept immigrating to the US as the second and the third wave; Chinese immigrants have been continuously making contributions to the US; big or small, they all help make the US a great country. Especially the first-generation immigrants, they usually make the biggest sacrifices for their American Dreams.

The First Generation Chinese Immigrants’ Hopes, Sacrifices and Struggles

Chinese Americans’ American Dreams are just the same ones that you have, yet a version that is harder to achieve, especially for first-generation immigrants.

Usually, the first-generation Chinese immigrants are the most willing and motivated to make efforts, and oftentimes, sacrifice to achieve their American Dreams. They believe in the fair outcomes of hard work, they believe in the power of education. They left their hometowns and everything behind to come here for the belief of what are promised by the American Dream “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man”; they push themselves very hard in order to build a better life and provide their next generation a better environment to grow up in, better education to ensure a brighter future. That’s their hope, they are firm believers of the traditional American Dreams. But the discrimination against them for being ‘FOB’, the cultural differences, their English skills, and overall being Chinese is deeply embedded into the mainstream society. On the other hand, the American Dream seems to be especially harder for the first-generation Chinese immigrants to achieve also because the immigration process itself is hard enough. After figure out “How to get here” and “How to stay”, they still need to find answers for questions like “How to settle down and establish” as well as “How to prosper and thrive”. They hold on to their hope and belief to carry through all these struggles.

Trump As an American Dream Blocker

Although things have improved tremendously for Chinese immigrants since the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th century got revoked, now it seems to be another rough time, and it’s getting worse, all thanks to Donald Trump. It is not a secret to anyone anymore that Donald Trump is very racist and anti-immigration. America’s strict but once reasonable-ish immigration policies have shifted dramatically under Trump. Now, as a Chinese-American, one’s individual history, background or nationality make no difference. If one looks Chinese, he or she will be inextricably linked to the People’s Republic of China. And, as the American leadership has made so painfully clear, Chinese people are now considered potential enemies.

For many people in the US, the Chinese people are being seen as synonymous with the Chinese government. It is an odd sentiment coming from a country where the public, media and other government officials outwardly and loudly contradict and disagree with official policy. And the Trade War with China which was started by Donald Trump has made this complexed situation worse. Along with the Trade War, Chinese students, scholars, and entrepreneurs in the U.S. are targetted and wrongfully treated just recently. Even in China, nowadays, getting a visa to come to America has become way harder for ordinary Chinses people than it used to be, no matter what the purpose of the visit is.

“Hate and prejudice have now seeped into the mainstream. After all, when the president acts that way, why should others show restraint?”  Many people can’t help but fear that damage has already been done and will continue to resonate for years to come.


Although Chinese Americans have been recognized as the model minority by the majority of America society, and Chinese immigrants have been making so many undeniable contributions to this country, the entire society’s atmosphere has changed, the federal government’s policies on immigration have changed as well; all these just made seeking and achieving the American Dream harder for Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants are no longer welcomed by Trump’s government. Some may agree with what Freud said “the time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectation”; but just hang on there——no one is going to be the president forever, time for things to get better is coming close, so why not just keep the hope of the American Dream?

Works Cited

  • Lee, Erika. “Chinese Immigrants: Now the Largest Group of New Arrivals to the U.S.” 
  • Wang, Chi. “No Longer Welcome: How, under Trump, the American Dream Is Now out of Reach for Chinese Immigrants.” South China Morning Post, 18 Oct. 2018
  • “Chinese Immigration to the United States.” Chinese Immigration
  • Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. General Press, 2018.
  • Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: a Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. Oxford University Press, 2006.

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