Stratified Whiteness and Sexualized Chinese Immigrants in San Francisco: The Report of the California Special Committee on Chinese Immigration in 1876

Article excerpt

In view of all this we inquire, what are the benefits conferred upon us by this isolated and degraded class? The only one ever suggested was "cheap labor." But if cheap labor means white famine it is a fearful benefit.... If cheap labor means servile labor, it is a burlesque on the policy of emancipation. And if this kind of cheap labor brings in its train the demoralization consequent upon the enforced idleness of our own race, the moral degradation attendant upon the presence in our midst of the most disgusting licentiousness, and the absolute certainity [sic] of pestilence arising from the crowded condition and filthy habits of life of those who perform this so-called cheap labor, it were well for all of us that is should be abolished. (1)

--California Special Committee on Chinese Immigration, August 13, 1877

In August 1877, the California legislature's Special Committee on Chinese Immigration presented a report which requested Congress to strictly limit the entrance of Chinese immigrants to the United States. In Congressional discussions, the report warned of the threat of "cheap labor" and was used as a major source to support the Immigration Act of 1882, which denied the entrance of Chinese laborers.(2) However, to assume the issue reflected only labor competition misses the multilayered meanings of this report, and reduces the complex politics of San Francisco to a homogeneous Federal-level immigration problem. Certainly, the Special Committee criticized Chinese immigrants, allying itself with growing anti-Chinese sentiment. But, the Committee also inscribed coded anxieties about the white working class in its report. It did not limit its reasoning to the issue of labor competition, which would have drawn a clear-cut boundary between Chinese less-paid workers and Americans. The Committee report's concern with "cheap labor" intersected with a fear of "pestilence" and "demoralization" of "our own race" caused by "servile labor." (3) A close analysis of the report reveals the Committee's anxiety about the moral degradation of white working-class men and women. While accommodating the Chinese exclusion movement, the Committee also quietly addressed issues of social order among whites in San Francisco. Addressing these multiple struggles around the Special Committee report expands our scope beyond a history of immigration.

It is unknown how the Committee selected its fifty-nine witnesses. Yet remarkably, despite its ostensible concern for the working-class, the Special Committee interviewed only a few white workers during its fifteen days of interviews conducted in San Francisco and Sacramento from April 11 to June 3 of 1876. Instead, it summoned a wide range of middle-upper class witnesses. Public officials of San Francisco and Sacramento, including twelve police officers, composed a third of the witnesses. Six ex-diplomats, politicians, and merchants who had lived in China, six legal professionals, four clergymen, two journalists, and two doctors were also called. The Committee summoned eighteen Chinese men including six representatives of Chinese organizations in San Francisco. No employers of Chinese laborers or women were interviewed. (4) Based on these testimonies, the Committee presented its view on Chinese immigrants in a fifty page Address and a fifteen page Memorial. A 160 page-long Testimony included the record of those interviews. (5)

For these witnesses and the Committee, the meaning of Chinese immigration was not necessarily self-evident. In San Francisco, where four of the seven Special Committee members and the majority of witnesses resided, the Chinese were visible strangers but were not viewed as the only source of problems in the city. (6) It is certainly well known that Chinese immigrants were crowded in an enclave known as Chinatown. (7) Witness John L. Duekee, a fire marshal, singled out the district, testifying that "I never saw a place so dirty and filthy as our Chinese quarter. …