Chinese Labor in California, 1880

Henry Sienkiewicz

Henry Sienkiewicz was a journalist and novelist who immigrated from Poland in 1876 to help found a utopian community in Anaheim, California.  The venture failed, but during his two years in California Sienkiewicz managed to leave a lasting record of his impressions of the state and its inhabitants in letters and articles he wrote for papers back in Warsaw.  Below is an excerpt of his observations of Chinese laborers in the latter half of the nineteenth century as calls were going out to end or restrict Chinese immigrant labor into the country.

Questions to Consider  

Does he have a favorable or negative view of Chinese labor in California?
Does he have a favorable or negative view of white workers in California.
Can you point to any racial bias in Sienkiewicz argument?
Do you believe that Sinkiewicz is in favor of or opposed to increasing Chinese labor.

Let us now look at the kind of work the Chinese perform in California.  A single word describes it accurately:  everything.  A significant proportion of them has turned to agriculture.  The whole of San Francisco is situated on arid dunes and sandy hills, and yet whoever goes to the outskirts of the city will perceive at the ends of unfinished streets, on the hills, valleys, and slopes, on the roadsides, in fact, everywhere, small vegetable gardens encircling the city with one belt of greenness.  The ant-like labor of the Chinese has transformed the sterile sand into the most fertile black earth.  How and when this was accomplished they alone can tell, but suffice it to say that all the fruits and vegetables, raspberries and strawberries, under the care of Chinese gardeners grow to fabulous size.  I have seen strawberries as large as small pears, heads of cabbage four times the size of European heads, and pumpkins the size of our wash tubs....

[T]he whole of San Francisco lives on the fruits and vegetables bought from the Chinese.  Every morning you see their loaded wagons headed toward the markets in the center of town or stopping in front of private homes.  It may even be said that in all of California this branch of industry has passed exclusively into the hands of the Chinese....

A large number of Chinese likewise work for white farmers, especially in the orchards....In the vicinity of San Francisco and in Alameda County along the railroad are whole orchards of apple trees, pear trees, peach trees and almond trees; here and there fields comprising scores of acres are covered with red currant bushes; near Sacramento are extensive hop-gardens.  The work on these fields and in these orchards is done almost exclusively by hired Chinese....

In the cultivation of grain in northern California the Chinese cannot compete with the whites.  For plowing, harrowing, and harvesting, the white worker, being twice as strong, is much more in demand, for he works faster and with greater energy.  Where there are no whites, however, Chinese are used even for these jobs.  

In southern California where vineyards abound, there, too, very few Chinese are employed.  In this area Mexican and Indian laborers, who are as strong as the Yankees and who work as cheaply as the Chinese, are easily obtainable....

[I]n the cities...[t]hey are engaged in business; in the factories they serve as laborers; they are hired by the owners of handicraft shops; in the hotels they perform all the more menial tasks; in private homes they are responsible for orderliness and cleanliness.  In restaurants and on the railroads they serve as cooks and waiters.  Practically all of the laundries in town are in their hands and it must be admitted that they do the laundry neatly, quickly, and cheaply.  They serve as nurses for children.  In a private home the Chinaman fulfils [sic] all of the duties of a maid; he puts things away, sweeps the floors, makes the beds, cooks the meals, washes the dishes, and does the shopping in town; he is a quiet, sober, industrious, gentle, and obedient servant, and he costs much less than a white servant.  Ever since the Chinese have become numerous in California, all prices have declined considerably.  Everything from the cigars wrapped by Chinese hands to items of food - everything now costs less because the cost of labor is less....

Taking these things into consideration, one might deem the Chinese a blessing to California were it not for the keen competition they create for the white working-class....A white man...requires more food and better living quarters instead of suffocating with a score of others in one hole.  Finally, a white worker usually has a family, wife and children, whereas the Chinaman is alone....The result is that if the Chinese are a blessing at all it is is only for the wealthy classes who need servants as workers.  In the conflict between capital and labor the Chinese have tipped the scales decisively in favor of capital.  Even though white workers should offer their services more cheaply, some employers would prefer Chinese...as workers are not fellow citizens but half-slaves, quiet, obedient, and docile....and as they become more numerous, they begin to create dangerous competition for small business, small farmers, and small industries.