Over time, Chinese emigrants moved to many countries, including the United States. Some fled war, famine, or persecution; others sought opportunity. During the California gold rush that began in 1849, tens of thousands migrated to America. Chinatowns formed in U.S. cities. Chinese laborers worked on the transcontinental railroad and in agriculture. Others started retail businesses.
In 1882, however, hostility toward Chinese Americans led to a U.S. law that blocked Chinese immigration. Immigration resumed on a small scale in 1943, and flourished after 1965. Mail was a lifeline for immigrants with families in China and for businesses and consumers.
Lihue Kauai folded letter, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1852
In this letter from Hawaii (then an independent kingdom), Edward Tailer Austin writes to his cousin about the ugly reality of his role as a plantation overseer of recently arrived Chinese laborers. The letter traveled from Honolulu to San Francisco, then crossed over Panama on its way to New Orleans and Texas.
Loan courtesy Vince and Becky King
Transcription of letter »
Honolulu water bill postal card, Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889
So many Chinese workers emigrated to Hawaii by the late 1800s that the water department preprinted late payment notices for them in Chinese.
Chinese Camp CA covers, c. 1854–60
Chinese prospectors rushed across the Pacific to pan for gold in California, where Chinese immigrants sought a "Gold Mountain" after its 1849 discovery. In 1854, some established the town of Chinese Camp, but later abandoned it; California enacted taxes to discourage Chinese miners, and white miners terrorized them without consequences.
3c Transcontinental Railroad approved die proof, 1944
Central Pacific hired more than 10,000 Chinese laborers for the transcontinental railroad. Workers cut tunnels with hand tools and explosives, prepared the route, and laid track east from Sacramento.
Loan courtesy United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection
Wells Fargo’s express department served Chinatown in San Francisco with a special “China Route,” hiring three Chinese employees to sort the mail. Courting Chinese business at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, Wells Fargo also published bilingual shipping supplies, a phrasebook, and directories of Chinese merchants.
Chinese Camp CA cover, c. 1854–60
To provide services to miners, Chinese entrepreneurs opened stores, laundries, and retail businesses. Chinese immigrants in America became increasingly urban, creating Chinatowns. By 1870, San Francisco had 5,000 Chinese businessmen.
Some 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through the U.S. Angel Island immigration facility from 1910 to 1940. Faced with discrimination and corruption, Chinese Americans formed strong organizations. The Six Companies of benevolent societies offered a public voice. Secret societies called tongs were involved in crime, but also provided community welfare services.
Chinese American business covers
As Chinese Americans moved beyond the West to the rest of the U.S., some families opened grocery stores in the South, often living in the backs of the stores. Others created new Chinatowns. Redevelopment in Washington, D.C., relocated the city's Chinatown; by the 1970s, many residents moved to the suburbs.
Chinese World newspaper cover, 1944
Like other immigrants, Chinese Americans express their heritage and preserve traditions and ethnic identity with foods, parades, holidays, flags, and language. Chinese American newspapers provide local, national, and homeland news.
Hazel Ying Lee, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, was the first Chinese American woman pilot to fly for the U.S. military. In 1944, she mailed this envelope to her sister. Lee died in a P-63 crash the same year.
Sergeant Walter Chin, a World War II Army mechanic, wrote his sister this V-Mail letter addressed to Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, where many local groceries accepted mail. Residents searched for their mail on mail slot boards, like this one in Quong Yee Wo’s grocery store in the 1970s.
In 1971, President Nixon wrote to thank the Chinese American community for its support of his China initiative as he prepared to meet Mao Zedong in Beijing the next year.