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A Clear and Present Danger: The Chinese Exclusion Act

The San Francisco Building Trades Council (BTC), organized in 1898, actively participated in the anti-Asian agitation that characterized California politics, particularly labor politics, in the late-19th century. The BTC, like the national American Federation of Labor (AFL), argued that the very presence of Chinese (and, after 1900, Japanese and Korean immigrants as well) dragged down the living standards of white workers. The following excerpt is from a 1902 AFL pamphlet entitled Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice, which called for a second extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Despite the pamphlet’s disclaimer that it was not prejudiced, arguments were riddled with racist statements about the employment history and “Social Habits” of “John Chinaman.” The selections from the pamphlet reprinted here reflected the abiding beliefs of many white workers, especially skilled workers who belonged to the San Francisco BTC.

In view of the near expiration of the present law excluding Chinese laborers from coming to the United States and the recognized necessity of either reenacting the present or adopting a similar law, the American Federation of Labor has determined to present its reasons and solicit the cooperation of not only all of its affiliated organizations, but also of all citizens who may consider the preservation of American institutions and the welfare of a majority of our people of sufficient importance to assist in this work.

To those anxious or willing to familiarize themselves with the actual conditions and with the causes which prompt us at this time to present our case, a careful perusal of this little pamphlet is recommended.

We have been to some trouble in obtaining the data herein contained, but were extremely careful in presenting only such as is entirely reliable and obtained through official sources. We furthermore desire to assure our readers that in maintaining our position we are not inspired by a scintilla of prejudice of any kind, but with the best interests of our country uppermost in our mind simply request fair consideration.


Beginning with the most menial avocations they gradually invaded our industry they gradually invaded one industry after another until they not merely took the places of our girls as domestics and cooks, the laundry of our poorer white women, but the places of the men and boys, as boot and shoemakers, cigarmakers, bagmakers, miners, farm laborers, brickmakers, tailors, slippermakers, etc. In the ladies' furnishing line they have absolute control, displacing hundreds of our girls, who would otherwise find profitable employment. Whatever business or trade they enter is doomed for the white laborer, as competition is surely impossible. Not that the Chinese would not rather work for high wages than low, but in order to gain control he will work so cheaply as to bar all efforts of his competitor. But not only has the workingman gained this bitter experience, but the manufacturers and merchants have equally been the sufferers. The Chinese laborer will work cheaper for a Chinese employer than he will for a white man, as has been invariably proven, and, as a rule, he boards with his Chinese employer. The Chinese merchant or manufacturer will undersell his white confrere, and if uninterrupted will finally gain possession of the entire field. Such is the history of the race wherever they have come in contact with other peoples. None can understand their silent and irresistible flow, and their millions already populate and command labor and the trade of the islands and nations of the Pacific. . . .


The people of the Pacific coast, who by reason of their long enforced contact and bitter experience ought to be credited with some knowledge on the subject, almost unanimously declare that it does.

It is a most serious mistake for the citizens of the Eastern States to believe that anti-Chinese sentiment is limited to any particular class or faction, creed or nationality.

The sentiment is general; there is practically no division of opinion on that subject. At an election held in 1879 the question of Chinese immigration was submitted to the voters of the State of California as a test of sentiment, and resulted in 154,638 votes being cast against immigration and only 883 votes in favor. In other words, the people of California in proportion of 175 to 1 voted for the protection of the Federal Government from Chinese immigration. Surely it can not be held that this almost unanimous vote of the electors of an entire State was cast without good and sufficient cause, and not as a result of demagogic or irresponsible agitation.

There is no good reason to believe that this sentiment has undergone the slightest change. On the contrary, there is a great cause for stricter exclusion. Our recently acquired possessions of the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands have added hundreds of thousands of Asiatic coolies to our population, the correct disposal of which already causes serious apprehension to our American statesmen.

But since it is always considered good policy to speak of people as we find them, it may be well to give the result of several official investigations carried on by the State and municipal authorities of California and San Francisco, respectively. . . .

What need of more figures? The reports of the bureau of labor statistics of California of the years 1883–4, 1886, 1890, and 1900 furnish ample proof of the utter impossibility of our race to compete with the Mongolian. Their ability to subsist and thrive under conditions which would mean starvation and suicide to the cheapest laborer of Europe secures to them an advantage which baffles the statesman and economist to overcome, how much less the chances of the laborers pitted in competition against them.

For many years it was impossible to get white persons to do the menial labor usually performed by Chinese. It was Chinaman’s labor, and not fit for white. In the agricultural districts a species of tramp has been created, known as the blanket man. White agricultural laborers seldom find permanent employment; the Chinese are preferred. During harvest time the white man is forced to wander from ranch to ranch and find employment here and there for short periods of time, with the privilege of sleeping in barns or haystacks. He is looked upon as a vagabond, unfit to associate with his employer of to eat from the same table with him. The negro slave of the South was housed and fed, but the white trash of California is placed beneath the Chinese.

The white domestic servant was expected to live in the room originally built for John, generally situated in the cellar and void of all comforts, frequently unpainted or unpapered, containing a bedstead and a chair. Anything was good enough for John, and the white girl had to be satisfied as well. Is it any wonder that self-respecting girls refused to take service under those conditions? And what is true of agricultural laborers and domestics equally applies to the trades in which Chinese were largely employed. Absolute servility was expected from those who took the place of the Chinaman, and it will take years to obliterate these traces of inferiority and reestablish the proper relations of employer and employee. . . .


Of their social habits, none can form a proper conception unless personally familiar therewith.

From the report of the special committee of the board of supervisors of the city and county of San Francisco, appointed to investigate and report upon Chinatown July, 1885: [Appendix Municipal Reports, 1884–85, page 174.]

In a sanitary point of view Chinatown presents a singular anomaly. With the habits, manners, customs, and whole economy of life violating every accepted rule of hygiene; with open cesspools, exhalations from water-closets, sinks, urinals, and sewers tainting the atmosphere with noxious vapors and stifling odors; with people herded and packed in damp cellars, living literally the life of vermin, badly fed and clothed, addicted to the daily use of opium to the extent that many hours of each day or night are passed in the delirious stupefaction of its influence, it is not to be denied that, as a whole, the general health of this locality compares more than favorably with other sections of the city which are surrounded by far more favorable conditions. . . .

The frequent custom with these people is to have the brick and mortar bench where cooking is carried on, the sink, always more or less filthy, and an open, filthy, bad-smelling water-closet, all adjoining each other in the same room, or under the same cover. Frequently a space at the end of this cooking range—if we may call it so—is used as a urinal, the only outlet from which is the absorption of and seepage through some earth placed there for that purpose, while the intermingling odors of cooking, sink, water-closet, and urinal added to fumes of opium and tobacco smoke, and indescribable, unknowable, all pervading atmosphere of the Chinese quarter, make up a perfume which can neither be imagined nor described. This is no exaggeration, nor is it a fancy sketch. It is one of the common features of life in Chinatown.


As an evidence that the American Federation of Labor is by no means a latter-day convert to Chinese exclusion, we herewith present the following preamble and resolution, adopted at the convention of the Federation in 1881:

Whereas the experience of the last thirty years in California and on the Pacific coast having proved conclusively that the presence of Chinese and their competition with free white labor is one of the greatest evils with which any country can be afflicted: Therefore be it

Resolved, That we use our best efforts to get rid of this monstrous evil (which threatens, unless checked, to extend to other parts of the Union) by the dissemination of information respecting its true character, and by urging upon our Representatives in the United States Congress the absolute necessity of passing laws entirely prohibiting the immigration of Chinese into the United States.


The position then taken by the American Federation of Labor has been constantly maintained, and at the convention of Louisville, Kentucky, December, 1900, the following preamble and resolutions were adopted:

Whereas recent events have increased the danger threatening the American workers from Mongolian labor; and

Whereas the Chinese-exclusion law expires in 1902; and

Whereas the Pacific Coast and intermountain States are suffering severely from Chinese and Japanese cheap coolie labor:

Therefore be it

Resolved, That Congress strengthen and reenact the Chinese exclusion law, including in its provisions all Mongolian labor.

Source: American Federation of Labor, Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism .Which Shall Survive? Senate Doc. No. 137, 57th Congress, 1st Session (Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1902).

See Also:Eye on the East: Labor Calls for Ban on Chinese Immigration