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The long troubling reach of ‘The Chinese Question’

In an Oregon Historical Society lecture, author and historian Mai Ngai traces the legacy of racially motivated mistreatment of Chinese workers in the U.S. and British colonies.


Dr. Mai Ngai’s book “The Chinese Question The Gold Rushes, Chinese Immigration and Global Politics” discusses the experience of Chinese during the gold rushes in North America, Australia and South Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In a fascinating and informative presentation Tuesday evening at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Dr. Mai Ngai, professor of history at Columbia University, focused on Chinese emigration to the gold mines of North America, Australia, and South Africa. This talk was part of the Mark O. Hatfield Lecture Series presented by the Oregon Historical Society

Dr. Ngai’s Bancroft Prize-winning book answered the question of why three areas of the world–North America, Australia and South Africa–were so resistant to Chinese prospectors coming to mine gold (the so-called Chinese Question). As Ngai states: 

The Chinese Question was simply this: were Chinese a racial threat to white, Anglo-American countries, and should Chinese be barred from them? … By the turn of the twentieth century, a global race theory about the dangers of Chinese immigration had emerged.

Dr. Ngai believes that the Chinese Question is tied to an important period in the 19th century that saw the rise of British and American financial power that was influenced by gold production, colonial dispossession, and exploitation by capitalist powers.

In her presentation, Dr. Ngai showed the similarities and differences among California; Victoria, Australia; and the Transvaal, South Africa; and how each area treated the Chinese laborers who went there to mine gold in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. When the Chinese workers arrived in these areas, she said, they discovered they suffered from “… marginalization, violence, and discrimination, but they also adapted and persevered. They struggled to claim their place in the world, in their adopted countries and as part of China.”   

 Ngai notes that the Chinese people who landed in California between 1849 and 1853 mostly came from the county of Xinning in southern China, and voyaged from there to North America. They also emigrated to the gold fields of Canada and New Zealand.  In addition, they emigrated to British Guyana, the British West Indies, Cuba, and Peru between the 1830s and 1870s to work on sugar plantations. What impelled the Chinese to emigrate from Xinning was its poverty, rocky soil, and hilly terrain, along with frequent flooding and droughts, as well as isolated location. After hearing about the economic opportunity to mine gold they traveled to Guangzhou, and from there to the gold fields of North America.

Ngai states about the Chinese diaspora: “… Chinese emigration started with the global rush for gold to the Anglo-American settler colonies of North America and Australasia, about 325,000 between 1850 and 1900.” Another reason for Chinese emigration to North American and Australasia, she said, was that in China only the oldest son could inherit property from their parents. This resulted in second and third sons, wives and concubines having to seek their fortune elsewhere. When the Chinese emigrated, they formed “tongs” that controlled the vice trades (such as gambling, opium, prostitution) and higuan that provided new emigrants with a place to sleep, a hot meal, and information about mining, other job prospects, and where to find family members and fellow villagers.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

When Chinese laborers first emigrated to California, they worked primarily in the gold fields, and on construction of the transcontinental railroad. Beginning in the 1850s, though, California began enacting racist laws against Chinese and other people of color. When unemployment began rising in 1867 in California (especially San Francisco) due to the recession after the Civil War, an anti-“coolie” movement began against the Chinese emigrants. The attacks against Chinese workers involved burning their shanties and places of employment, such as the Mission woolen mill and the ropewalk. The belief by whites at the time was that employing Chinese would lower everyone’s wages, and that Chinese immigrants would never be assimilated into American society. 

Common stereotypes in the day about Chinese were the following: “… they were filthy, treacherous, completely ignorant of Christian values and American political institutions.” The philosopher and political economist Henry George believed that Chinese emigrants would flood the Pacific Coast and spread across the rest of the United States, and the country would be transformed into something more like British India than New England. 

The result of white protests and agitation against Chinese emigration was that Congress passed legislation signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882 that suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. In addition, discrimination against Black people in the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) also was used to justify Chinese exclusion in the United States.

In contrast to the United States, the Chinese who first emigrated to Victoria, Australia, in 1853 saw their numbers rise to more than two thousand workers (and ten thousand in the entire colony) by 1854, and their presence created controversy. Australia did not have coolieism or exclusion of Chinese workers. By 1859 there were 42,000 Chinese workers in the colony, which constituted 20 percent of all adult males. Europeans had the following belief about Chinese emigrants to Australia: “…the increase itself became the focus of concern among Europeans who now imagined a heathen race flooding the colonies.” Australia believed that immigration of Chinese needed to be restricted because they “…threatened to overrun the country like ‘locusts’; that they were not assimilable…”

In South Australia, white officials in 1881 announced that Chinese people would have to pay a fee to migrate beyond 200 miles outside of the city of Darwin. West Australia barred Chinese from having boat licenses and pearl licenses. In Melbourne and Sydney, Chinese people were prevented from being employed in the furniture-making business, because it competed with whites. In Sydney, Chinese were forbidden to be employed aboard Australian-owned ships. 

In the late 1880s Australia successfully lobbied the Foreign Office in London to negotiate a new treaty with China to restrict immigration.  By 1886, Western Australia had banned Chinese from work in the goldfields at Kalgoorie. In South Australia, they forbad Chinese to work on their goldfields but allowed Indians and Pacific Islanders to continue working there. 

In 1901 Australia passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which required Chinese to pass a fifty-word dictation test in a European language. In the meantime, Australians continued to agitate against the “yellow agony.” The antagonism against Chinese in the early twentieth century in Australia took the form of branding Chinese products to forbidding Chinese to work on Sunday to prohibiting Chinese from working in any trade or business. Regarding Australia views toward the Chinese, Dr. Ngai states:


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White Australia was part of a larger trend among Great Britain’s white settler colonies to hold dearly to their racial prerogatives.  The dominions also imagined a kinship with the United States (especially the American West), another white settler colony with Anglo roots … another white man’s country.

 Chinese worker began emigrating to South Africa in 1904 to prospect for gold in the Witwatersrand mines in the British colony of Transvaal, at the New Comet Mining Company east of Johannesburg. They quickly formed a hinguan to take care of the new Chinese workers coming into the country. The hinguan leased a house that had several reception rooms, six bedrooms, a kitchen, and a toilet. The club rented rooms out to Chinese workers, kept a library with books and periodicals, and held social events. 

The influx of Chinese immigrants increased between 1904 and 1907 to a total of 63,296 Chinese laborers who came to South Africa to work in the mines. South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand each had to answer the Chinese Question:  “… what was the role and appropriate treatment of Chinese labor in the white settler colonies of the British Empire?” 

The treatment of Chinese workers by the mine owners and residents of South Africa was not good, resulting in a high death rate due to illness and work-related injuries. Nineteen thousand workers expressed their dissatisfaction with the working conditions in the South African mines. Examples of this dissatisfaction included refusing to work, rioting, staging work actions, and deserting the compounds. Regarding the Chinese laborers’ poor working conditions, Dr. Ngai states: “Forty-five [Chinese miners] were sentenced to jail terms of ten years or more, executed or shot dead during disturbances.”

In addition, the South African government passed Ordinance 17 in 1904, preventing the importation of unskilled non-European laborers, and excluded them from fifty-five skilled occupations. Ordinance 17 violated an 1860 agreement between China and Britain that had laid the groundwork for recruiting workers in China to emigrate to jobs within the British Empire. After months of negotiation between China and Britain, both countries signed the Emigration Convention of 1904 that stipulated a minimum age of twenty for emigrants and specified items such as wages, hours, rations; free passage and return and the right to free medical care and medicine. 

Recruitment of Chinese workers began again after this agreement was signed in 1904. Nonetheless, poor treatment of the Chinese workers by the mine owners and their staffs continued in South Africa. The Foreign Labor Department of South Africa continue to prosecute large numbers of Chinese workers for violations of Ordinance 17 (e.g. refusal to work, leaving mine premises without a permit). As Ngai mentions:

The Chinese starting wage, set at one shilling a day, was even less than the African wage, More disturbingly, the commentary described Africans as pitiable savages, barely clad and eating goat’s head and corn mixed with crude implements made from twigs.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

The Chamber of Mine Labor Importation Agency, the organization in charge of recruitment of Chinese laborers, originally recruited in both southern and northern China. After word spread about the poor working conditions in South Africa, southern China collapsed as a source of Chinese laborers to work in the mines. As Ngai states: “…Chinese suffered ‘tyrannical’ ill-treatment in South Africa, including racial restrictions, special taxes and segregation.” As a result, recruitment of Chinese laborers began in another part of China: half of the workers now came from the northern city of Tianjin.

Mistreatment against Chinese workers continued, with the mine owners relentlessly pushing the laborers to drill faster and deeper for gold, not taking care of workers who became ill with beriberi, engaging in corporal punishment, and withholding their wages. The workers began to desert the mines, and by 1907 Chinese no longer wanted to work in South Africa. 

By 1906 the Liberal Party in England had come into office, spurred by the mistreatment of Chinese workers in South Africa. Once they took office the Liberals decided to stop the practice of importing Chinese labor to South Africa, and to allow any laborer who so wished to return home. As a result, the contracts with Chinese workers were not renewed; thus, Chinese laborers ended their time working in the mines in South Africa by 1910.

According to Ngai:

South Africa was the most bluntly racist of the British settler colonies. But it was of a piece with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all established as dominions of the British Empire, the concept of ‘dominion’ signaling not a colony but a polity akin to a country, and one that indeed signaled its own dominion over native peoples. Dominions possessed maximum autonomy within the British Empire, which protected the rule of local white settlers while conveniently distancing the metropole from the openly racist modus operandi of native removal, racial segregation, and Asiatic exclusion–tenets of white settlerism that had, in fact, been forged in the United States.

Even today, Dr. Ngai believes, there is persistent discrimination toward Chinese in the United States. She noted there has been an increase in racist attacks against Asians in this country (11,000 since 2020). Americans still debate, she said, whether Chinese people even belong in this country. Her solution is for the United States to strive to be a more inclusive society. 

Her presentation was an important one because it will make people think about the Chinese Question not only in the United States but in other places. Professor Ngai ended her presentation with a quotation from Frederick Douglass in 1869: “I want the Asiatic to find a home in the United States, and feel at home here both for his sake and ours.”     


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Photo Joe Cantrell

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history:Historical Photos of Oregon(2010),John Adams(2011),George Flavel(2012) andGlenn Jackson(2014).


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