by Chung-Yu Hsieh '01
A Chinese immigrant woman faced many physical dangers such as sexual
molestation by sailors and harsh traveling conditions aboard long ship
journeys en route to America (Ling 1998).
Once in America, if she was able to gain entry, she faced discrimination
and anti-Chinese violence. In fact, in the US "a typical description
of Chinese women referred to them as "queer and diminutive specimens
of the human family . . . walking through the streets with as much delicacy
as a turkey treading on hot ashes" (Yung 1986:15).
Why then did the flow of Chinese immigrant women to the US gradually
increase in the second half of the nineteenth century?
"Chinese immigrant women were "pushed" by forces in China and "pulled"
by attractions in the United States" (Ling 1998:20).
In the 1840s and 1850s, China was hit with a series of natural disasters.
For example, in 1847, Henen suffered a massive draught. Then two years
later, a famine struck Guangxi. The provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu,
and Zhejiang were flooded by the Yangtze River . The Taiping Revolution
from 1850 to 1864, set off by flood and famine in Guangdong, disrupted
the land and the peasantry politically and economically. (Ling 1998)
Economic disasters also ravaged the nation. The Opium Wars increased
the import of opium from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 52,929 chests in 1850.
The outflow of more than ten million teals of silver in 1848 exacerbated
the copper-silver exchange rate. The influx of foreign goods caused
the collapse of local household industries and the self-sufficient agrarian
economy. All those affected by these "push" factors became potential
emigrants. Ling 1998)
What pulled Chinese women to come to America? One of the more predominant
reasons was the desire to reunite with their families. According to
immigration records, more than ninety percent of the thousands of women
granted entry into the United States between 1898 and 1908 were coming
to join husbands or fathers already in America.
Many Chinese women also came to America to marry Chinese merchants
settled in America. The women, however, were first raised in China,
and then brought over to the US when they were ready to marry. This
practice stemmed from the belief that it was safer and cheaper this
way. After all, the anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast was increasing
and as it was, many Chinese in the US had financial difficulties. (Ling
Another motive to immigrate to the US was more economical. The lure
of the "land of gold" was too great. Unfortunately, often times, the
women found themselves tricked into slavery and prostitution. For example,
one of the early prostitutes of San Francisco recounted how she came
to be a prostitute. She describes a laundryman who came to her home
and told her mother and her stories of making much money in the US and
how he needed a wife. Both mother and daughter were delighted that he
chose the daughter for marriage, but when she arrived in San Francisco,
she learned that she was brought over as a "slave" and would be forced
into prostitution. Her tale was an all too common one told. (Ling 1998)
However, not all motives for immigration were economical or due to
a sense of family. Many women came for personal fulfillment. The number
of Chinese female students immigrating to the US increased between 1910
and 1930. In fact, Chinese female students arrived as early as 1881.
(Ling 1998) The motives of Chinese women immigrating to the US ranged
from factors in homeland China to lures of "the land of gold". These
push and pull factors caused an increase in the population of Chinese
women in the US that changed the face of America's Chinese communities,
or "bachelor societies" as they were often called, forever.
Why did I choose the topic "Chinese immigrant women's motives for coming
to the US"? I chose early Chinese immigrant women because I am a modern
Chinese immigrant woman. My twelve years of history education at school
never ever once mentioned Chinese women in history. I recall vague references
to Chinese immigrants when my teachers were talking about immigration
patterns in the early twentieth century, but that was about it.
From readings in college history classes and common sense, I already
figured that two main motives of Chinese women coming to the US were
(1) to reunite with their husbands and / or fathers and (2) economic
reasons. The motive of personal fulfillment, which for some was to obtain
an education, surprised me somewhat, especially since women's suffrage
in the US was just barely beginning to grow.
The push factors surprised me as well because of my ignorance of China's
history, also due to a sadly lacking education in world history. After
doing my paper, I can relate more to early Chinese immigrant women.
Before, it was difficult for me to find much in common with them. I
say this because I had no ancestors among the immigrants. In fact, my
father and his brothers were the first in my whole family to ever set
foot on American soil and then, not until the early eighties. I have
no family members living in China. We are from Taiwan and were already
there before 1949 and before Chiang Kai-shek.
How is it then that the motives of Chinese immigrant women can make
me feel a connection I barely felt before? Because my mom had the same
motives when she packed up her three young daughters and came to America
fourteen years ago. My father had come to the US a year and a half before
to see if there was a better life to be had here. His brother, educated
and married in America, persuaded him to leave his young family at home
and come find new opportunities. Almost two years later, my mom decided
to join him.
In the US, my parents hoped to fare better economically for the family
and give their three daughters the education they (my parents) never
had. Now fourteen years later, I sit here as a student of a prestigious
college and the younger sister of two women with college degrees and
rising careers. I feel like my life, in a way, was what those immigrant
women desired and what many of them were prevented from having because
of gross injustice.
Ling, Huping. (1998) Surviving on the Gold Mountain. Albany, NY. State
University of New York Press.
Yung, Judy. (1986) Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle,
WA. University of Washington Press.