How the SF earthquake made Moon Chin a citizen, Part II

Continued from yesterday.

Predictably, the Chinese suffered a backlash. Working-class whites felt that disciplined Chinese toil forced them to work harder for less pay. In 1871, a dozen Chinese were killed in a Los Angeles race riot – including a 12 year-old boy hanged by a Caucasian mob; in 1877, ten thousand disgruntled whites laid siege to San Francisco’s Chinatown in a three-day orgy of hatred, arson, looting, and assault. Fear of the “Yellow Peril” led President Arthur to sign the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which imposed a ten-year ban on the immigration of Chinese laborers and denied Chinese persons the right to naturalize as U.S. citizens. Congress made the Exclusion Act even more onerous in 1884, amending it to allow only those Chinese persons who had been in the United States prior to 1880 the right to travel freely between the two countries. The legislation seemed to legitimize anti-Chinese pogroms. Twenty-eight Chinese were murdered in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885. An indemnity was paid, but there were no prosecutions – the Federal government told Chinese diplomats that it wasn’t responsible for crimes committed in a territory that wasn’t yet a state. In February, 1886, President Grover Cleveland declared martial law and sent Federal troops to Seattle to quell a series of anti-Chinese riots. The following year, 31 Chinese miners were murdered and robbed in Hell’s Canyon, Oregon. The Chinese Exclusion Act expired in 1892, but Congress passed the Geary Act to extend the ban for another ten years. When the Geary Act expired, Congress made the ban permanent.[1]

Despite the egregious persecution, the Chinese in America continued to work hard at difficult, low-paying jobs, saving money and improving their lives. They formed legal associations to protect themselves and seek redress from some of the systemic ills. In 1895, U.S. immigration officials detained Wong Kim Ark, a 21-year old man who had been born in San Francisco, and denied him the right to reenter the United States on the grounds that he was an unwanted person of Chinese blood. Wong Kim Ark counter-claimed that his birth on U.S. soil granted him the full rights of American citizenship, regardless of his racial ancestry. United States v. Wong Kim Ark went to the United States Supreme Court, and on March 28, 1898, the court ruled in Mr. Wong’s favor. Article I of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, was quite explicit on the subject – “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”[2] The decision would have far-reaching consequences in the lives of Joe Chin and that of his son.

Joe Chin came to the United States at a time when immigration policy made it very difficult for Chinese laborers to enter the country. In 1903, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rejected one-quarter of the Chinese trying to enter the United States.[3] But somehow, it isn’t known how, Joe Chin did manage to enter. He might have succeeded in classifying himself as a merchant or a student and thereby eluded the Chinese labor ban. He may have bribed a corrupt immigration official, of which there were many. He might have slipped into the United States surreptitiously. Possibly, he was accepted through proper channels. Once on American soil, like many other Chinese immigrants, Joe Chin gravitated to San Francisco. He took lodgings in Chinatown, found a job, and began sending money home to his family. Three years after Joe Chin’s arrival, the San Francisco earthquake made him an American citizen.

Part two of three, continued tomorrow… Part III

[1] Los Angeles riot of 1871: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 121; pillage of Chinatown in 1877: Ibid., pp. 127; Chinese Exclusion Laws: Ibid., pp. 132-156; Rock Springs massacre: Ibid. , pp. 133-134; Seattle anti-Chinese pogram: Ibid., pp. 133; Hell’s Canyon massacre: Ibid., pp. 134-135; the Geary Act, its expiration, and the extension of the ban on Chinese immigration: Ibid. , pp. 136.

[2]United States V. Wong Kim Ark, one of the great civil rights decisions.

[3] The one-quarter rejection rate is the statistic for 1903: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 142.



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