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A paper trail: The story of Chinese immigration

There are signs that they were here. Although in the blink of an eye you could miss the remains of the decaying mud adobe huts which sit along Pinal Creek. These, and the small Chinese cemetery which sits on the hill just outside of Globe are testament to some of the hundred or more Chinese who lived in the area nearly 80 years ago.

The Chinese began coming to this country in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. Men came to work the gold fields, leaving behind a homeland which was in chaos, and families they hoped to bring over. What they found here was not the land of Milk & Honey but brutal conditions and prejudice. At first they met with curiosity and referred to as “celestials.” 

It was actually their hard work and industriousness that earned them the ire of others. In Iris Changs’ book “The Chinese in America” she states that luck often fell to the industrious. And the Chinese were nothing if not industrious. They were so successful in the gold fields that laws were passed in California excluding Chinese from panning for gold. And so they found other occupations which attracted less attention: laundries and restaurants. It was reported that before the first Chinese laundry was established in 1851 in San Francisco that miners on the West coast paid nearly $12 for a dozen shirts and waited patiently for them while they made the four month round trip between San Francisco and Hong Kong.

In 1863 the Central Pacific Railroad Company was established as part of the grand design for the Transcontinental Railroad and again it was Chinese labor which rescued the project and kept it literally on-track. Beginning in ’63, it was reported that only 50 miles of track was laid in the first two years. At the time, the railroads needed over 5000 employees, yet had on their payroll only 600. It was suggested that the use of Chinese laborers could be used to lay rail. Although originally thought to be too small, and not of sufficient stature for the back breaking work of laying rail, it was Charles Crocker of Central Pacific who pointed out, “the Chinese made the Great Wall didn’t they?”

It was agreed to give the Chinese a trial run and five hundred Chinese laborers were hired to complete one section of the Pacific Line while the Irish & Cornish were put to task on a similar section. The Chinese quickly proved their mettle, finishing the section of track quite ahead of the Cornish-Irish crew even though the Chinese had never seen a railroad before. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, more than five thousand Chinese had been hired to lay track. (But not one Chinese face is among the many present in the famous photograph taken at Promontory Point Utah) .

In Arizona, Chinese came to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which branched off from the transcontinental line and a few Chinese families settled in the area as a result of laying track for the SPR. They went on to establish restaurants and grocery stores.

But the presence of the Chinese…and their industriousness disturbed many. The effects of the Civil War were being felt by the country and jobs were scarce. Immigrants of all nationalities competed for jobs, but the Chinese were at the forefront of scapegoats for the Nation’s ills.

The Chinese cemetery in Globe was established in 1963 when Dea Gin Foo had all Chinese graves gathered in one place.
The Chinese cemetery in Globe was established in 1963 when Dea Gin Foo had all Chinese graves gathered in one place.

Chinese workers had made enemies simply by performing the work others wouldn’t do for less money and better results. By 1882 when the Chinese Exclusionary Act was passed, it had the support of the East Coast Establishment, as well as the California legislation.

For the next 60-plus years the United States specifically targeted the Chinese community for exclusion. In fact, the idea of illegal immigration did not existed before the 1882.

Termed “the longest running racist policy of the United States”, the exclusion of Chinese workers resulted in an intricate underground network of deceit and subterfuge which spanned generations of Chinese families. To get into the United States after the passage of the Act, a Chinese National had to prove he was a family member of someone who was here prior to 1880. The Act stated that only Chinese, who could prove residency in this country before 1880, could immigrate.

In 1906 the Chinese community both here in the United States and in China was rocked by the devastating earthquake in San Francisco which destroyed over half the city and killed thousands. For the Chinese it became a mixed blessing. Since all the records were also destroyed a new “truth” regarding one’s ancestry could be fabricated and used to bring new Chinese immigrants into the country who otherwise did not qualify under the Exclusion laws. It required that new immigrants take on the identities of those Chinese names which would pass inspection. This process involved months of learning crib notes relating to the new identity: details of village life, names of neighbors, family and associates of the assumed identity, and money – to help pave the way. (It was said that it cost $100 for every year of life for an immigrant. Thus, many were brought to this Country when they were only 10, 11, or 12). The phenomena of “Paper Sons” spanned 3 generations from 1907 to 1943 when the exclusion act was officially disbanded.

One of the famous federal court cases of this era included restaurant owner, Dea Gin Foo, who owned the Sang Tai Restaurant and was a well respected citizen and businessman in Globe for nearly 60 years. Accused of harboring a “paper son” to work in his restaurant in 1917, the case was eventually dismissed and no further charges were brought. The case was brought to prominence in 1998, when the grandson of the young man which Dea Gin Foo brought over to this country, included the material in his critically acclaimed one-man show entitled, “Paper Son.”

The remains of a Chinese brothel which existed on the North end of Broad Street can still be seen today.
The remains of a Chinese brothel which existed on the North end of Broad Street can still be seen today.

Today, much of the Chinese community has moved on from the area. Their businesses, once numerous, are gone: Sang Tai Restaurant, The Star Buffet, The Richelieu, The Lodge Restaurant, and the Toastmasters. And, although there are oral histories of Chinese delivering ice, running restaurants, operating bordellos and establishing communities in the far reaches of Ice House and Jesse Hayes Canyon, little is written in the history books.



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About Linda Gross

Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.

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