In Chapter 5 of The Second Promise, Cali Leung overhears a frightening conversation between two white men:
“Did you see them Chinks run? Chased ‘em clear out of the work camp into the bush. Cut off a couple of their queues, too, for souvenirs.” The man chuckled.
“Wish we could’a chased them all the way into the Pacific Ocean,” said the other man. “Damn heathen Chinamen got no business doin’ white men’s jobs.”
Today, most Americans would condemn those men as racists. But to Cali, a Chinese-American girl in 1883, this kind of talk was all too commonplace.
Among the eager gold-seekers who flowed into California from around the world in the 1850’s, some were from China. They arrived, like all the others, intent on making their fortunes. At first they were welcomed by the white residents, praised as hard-working and respectful. But before long, Chinese immigrants were the target of a long and vicious campaign of racial violence and political discrimination by whites. This anti-Chinese fever finally resulted in Congress’ enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only United States law specifically aimed at stopping immigration from a single country.
Of course, Indians were the first Californians to bear the brunt of American racism. Many tribes had already been decimated, displaced, and disrupted by the Spanish and Mexicans even before the United States captured California. Their destruction continued as Americans poured into the state in their frantic search for gold.
Black Americans were also subject to discrimination, but in 19th Century California there were not enough of them to represent a threat that politicians could exploit. The Chinese were different.
Boatload after boatload of “coolies” (the whites’ term for working-class Chinese men) arrived at San Francisco wharves ready to work, speaking their own language, eating their own foods, worshipping in their own “joss houses”, looking and behaving differently from all the European immigrants and American emigrants arriving at the same time. Politicians such as John Bigler, Governor from 1852 – 1856, warned Californians to “check this tide of Asiatic immigration.” California passed law after law discriminating against the Chinese, including a law prohibiting a Chinese person from testifying in court unless a white person corroborated that testimony.
By the early 1870’s the United States was in a long, deep recession. Many men were unemployed. In San Francisco, Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, helped form the “Workingmen’s Party”, focusing its anger on the Chinese, who often worked for lower wages than the whites. Kearney started every speech with the ringing phrase, “The Chinese Must Go!” This phrase was shouted in sand lots and union halls all over California, including Bodie. Even though the Bodie Miners Union only included white men, they tended to blame the Chinese, who kept working their own subsistence jobs even when mines closed and the miners were out of work.
In The Second Promise, Cali can’t forget the nights her Godfather doused the lamps and locked the doors of their little house in Bodie, as the family huddled together listening to the angry men at the Miners Union Hall. Listening to the shout, repeated over and over: “The Chinese Must Go!”