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Published: 11-01-2011, 06:01

“Coolie” labor

Definition: Derogatory term used to refer to Chinese immigrant laborers in the United States, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century
Significance: During the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants played a significant role in the economic growth and development of the western part of the country. However, their presence also led to an outpouring of racial prejudice and violence, and to the eventual passage of legislation at both the state and national levels to restrict Chinese immigration.
Chinese workers began immigrating to the United States in significant numbers in the years following the Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860) between China and Great Britain and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Although frequently referred to as “coolies”—a derogatory termused for enslaved Chinese and other Asians taken against their will to various parts of the world—these individuals came to the United States voluntarily because of the extreme poverty existing in their homeland and the economic opportunities offered by the new country. The California gold rush during the late 1840’s provided an initial incentive for some, but in the long run, it was employment as manual laborers that drew the majority of them. The vast majority were men, and those who were married generally left their wives and families in China, planning to remain in the new land only temporarily. By 1882, when the first federal law restricting Chinese immigration was passed, approximately 300,000 Chinese had come to the United States.
These Chinese immigrants provided an important labor source for a number of economic enterprises. Following the gold rush, large numbers were employed during the 1860’s by the Central Pacific Railroad in the building of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad. During the 1870’s, they provided an important source of labor for the construction of the levees of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, helping to create the fertile farmlands of that region. Many also turned to fishing, playing a key role in the development of the coastal fisheries. Others opened small businesses, such as restaurants or laundries, or found work as domestic servants.
“Coolie” labor

Chinese mine workers travel on a railroad handcart. (Asian American Studies Library, University of California at Berkeley)

Very soon after their initial arrival, Chinese immigrants began to experience racial and economic prejudice. In 1862, California passed the Anti- Coolie Act, which established a special tax for Chinese workers. In addition, Chinese were not allowed to own land in that state, and special regulations and taxes were imposed on Chinese fishermen. Violent attacks against Chinese immigrants also took place. Among the most notorious of these was a violent labor dispute in the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, in September of 1885, which left twentyeight Chinese miners dead and seventy-five homes of Chinese in the area destroyed. Reacting to these racial and economic tensions and to the lobbying efforts put forth by western states, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, formally ending Chinese immigration to the United States. This remained in effect until its repeal by the Magnuson Act in 1943.


Further Reading
Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. New York: Random House, 2007.
See also: Asian trade with the United States; Chinese trade with the United States; farm labor; Fishing industry; Japanese trade with the United States; labor history; railroads.

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