The Golden Venture tragedy brought to world attention the thriving multinational criminal enterprise that made millions by transporting immigrants from Fujian Province to the US.   The media focused on sensational accounts of vicious snakeheads, indentured servitude and desperately poor immigrants willing to do anything to make it to the US.

However, the Golden Venture was really only the latest dramatic episode in the sad story of the Chinese in America that goes back many years. Starting from the early 1800's, Chinese immigrants have made the arduous, costly journey in the face of severe discrimination and economic hardship.

But what in America has called to the Chinese and brought about the establishment of vibrant, growing Chinatowns?  As we take a look through the years at important milestones in Chinese immigration to the U.S., we see many of the same goals and dreams pursued.

1848 Gold Mountain

The first major waves of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. after hearing of the "Golden Mountain" or "Gum Saan" when California's Gold Rush began in 1848.  Civil war and famine back home in southern China, where most of the first immigrants were from, propelled them on as well, so that they could work in the U.S. and send money to families back home.  In steamships, they arrived in San Francisco's harbor, where the first Chinatown was founded.

1865 Transcontinental Railroad

The Chinese immigrants, almost 95% male, also worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the later 1800's. By agreeing to lower-paying wages than other workers, and by enduring the rough and dangerous working conditions, they were largely responsible for laying down the tracks for the western railways, in one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.  It was completed in 1868, at a breakneck pace. 

Along the way, in frontier communities that sprung up, Chinese men began selling food and doing menial services, work traditionally done by women in that era. Setting up makeshift restaurants, providing care for children, and laundering became flourishing businesses.

Into this wild western territory not many Chinese women dared to venture.  Most who did were in the sex trade.

1871 Anti-Chinese violence

With the completion of the railroad and end of the gold strikes, Chinese immigrants became targets of a decade-long wave of violence and discrimination in western cities such as Los Angeles.

1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act

The U.S. Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, riding the popular anti-Chinese fervor and fear of overpopulation by the Chinese (More than 322,000 Chinese came to the United States between 1850 and 1882).  This is a major turning point for America, which had previously welcomed all immigrants, but was closing the door to Chinese laborers.  Offenders were faced with imprisonment or deportation, and American citizenship was denied to any Chinese immigrants already in the U.S.

This act froze the Chinese community in place in 1882, and prevented it from growing and assimilating into U.S. society as European immigrant groups did.  Chinese immigrants formed their own organizations to keep businesses going.

1892 Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States (or the Geary Act)

The next significant exclusionary legislation was the Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States in May, 1892, known as the Geary Act.  This allowed Chinese laborers to travel to China and reenter the United States, but its provisions were more restrictive than preceding immigration laws, requiring Chinese to register and secure certificates as proof of their right to be in the United States.  Imprisonment or deportation were penalties.


The Chinese boldly filed over 10,000 lawsuits challenging laws and practices designed to harass and oppress them, recognizing that the Constitution offered protection to all people in America, not merely its citizens.  The Supreme Court eventually heard cases challenging laws as in violation of the 14th Amendment.

1905 United States v. Ju Toy

The 1905 Supreme Court case United States v. Ju Toy established the Department of Commerce and Labor as the final level of appeal and due process for immigrants and returning travelers claiming United States citizenship. Thereafter, immigrants could appeal to Federal courts only on procedural grounds. As a result of this decision the number of Chinese immigration cases heard in Federal court diminished significantly.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Paper Sons

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the citywide fire that resulted destroyed many immigration records and gave leeway for Chinese to bring others from China into America. With no records available, the Chinese already living in the U.S. could claim to have been born here, making themselves citizens. As such, they were entitled to bring their children from China. This led to a widespread practice of claiming false "paper sons."

1910-1940 Angel Island

During this period, Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated at Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco Bay. To be permitted entry to the United States, Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific to San Francisco had to pass through the gauntlet of Angel Island. It was unlike Ellis Island in New York, which rapidly processed primarily European immigrants. Thousands, the majority Chinese, were detained for months in a purgatory of isolation and suspense, and for some the fruitless wait ended with a return journey back across the Pacific.

1924 Immigration Act

This restrictive legislation went one step further, excluding all classes of Chinese immigrants and extending restrictions to other Asian immigrant groups. Until these restrictions were relaxed in the middle of the 20th century.

During this period leading up to World War II, 90 percent of the Chinese immigrants who reached the United States came from an area the size of Rhode Island (1,231 square miles or about 3,150 square kilometers) in China's Guangdong Province. Toishan County sent so many immigrants to New York City's Chinatown that until the 1960's fluency in the Toishanese dialect was required of the Chinese consulate in New York.

1943 Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts

During World War II, because China joined the Allied Powers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, also known as the Magnuson Act. This Act of December 13, 1943, also lifted restrictions on naturalization and allowed Chinese to be considered as American citizens.  It was made primarily to smooth relations between the U.S. and its important World War II Asian ally, China, and in response to Japanese propaganda focusing on anti-Chinese discrimination in the U.S.  It also created an annual quota of 105 visas to Chinese immigrants, in order to control their welcome.  However, until the Immigration Act of October 1965, numerous laws continued to have a restrictive impact on Chinese immigration.

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1952 The Immigration and Nationality Act (or the McCarran-Walters Act)

This act ended Asian exclusion from immigrating to the United States, introduced a system of preferences based on skill sets and family reunification, and eliminated laws preventing Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens.

1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act

This new immigration law changed the way the U.S. counted its immigrant population. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country then ever before, and eliminated the old quota system that gave preference to western Europeans.

There was a resulting surge in the Chinese American population, almost doubling within ten years.  This new group of immigrants did not come from the same few rural provinces of China as the immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had. Instead, many came from urban cities such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and had greater expectations of social mobility. Some were professionals, and they and their families integrated easily in cities throughout the United States.

1980's to the present

From the 1980s, many more people from China, particularly from the province of Fujian, joined the migration to the U.S.  The Fujianese immigrants have remade the nation's Chinatowns.  In New York, the Fujianese clustered around E. Broadway, which is the national hub for immigrants from Fujian.  Immigrants go to the employment agencies along E. Broadway to find restaurant jobs in other parts of the country.   Wholesale restaurant business in New York supply the vast number of Chinese restaurants around the US.   As the flow of immigrants from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong continues to remain steady, the Chinese-American communities in both large cities and suburbs continue to adapt to the challenges that come with a growing and diverse culture.

1996 Human Rights Restoration Act of 1996

Congress passes legislation authored by a Republican congressman, Chris Smith, granting political asylum to a maximum of 1,000 people who can prove their home countries forced abortions or sterilizations as a result of population control programs.  But the burden of proof is high and the State Department has denied many claims.  This was reinforced in 1997, when the Board of Immigration Appeals concluded that a husband could prove he had been persecuted if his wife had been forced to have an abortion or undergo sterilization.  However, a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July of 2015 found that U.S. law does not automatically grant asylum to spouses or partners in cases in which the women have been persecuted under China's family-planning policy, which limits most urban couples to one child.

Economic contributions

Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans have contributed much to the U.S. economy.  In 2002, there were over 286,000 Chinese-owned firms in the U.S., employing more than 649,100 workers, and generating more than $105 billion in revenue.  The number of Chinese-owned businesses, mostly in professional, scientific and food-related services, grew 13.2 percent between 1997 and 2002, and are steadily rising.

But there is still a discriminatory distrust of Chinese and Chinese-Americans, as evidenced by recent persecutions of such individuals with spy charges (Wen Ho Lee) and campaign donor scandals.  Sovereign wealth funds from China are also under scrutiny for implications that China may undermine American financial institutions.

California had the most Chinese-owned firms with 110,823 firms or 38.7 percent, with receipts of $56.2 billion or 53.5 percent. New York was second with 57,673 firms or 20.2 percent, with receipts of $10.2 billion or 9.7 percent. Texas was third in number of Chinese-owned firms with 13,735 firms or 4.8 percent, and receipts of almost $5.2 billion or 5.0 percent.

Most Recent Days

One of the newest Chinese immigrants are adoptees.  Most foreign-born adoptions are from China, according to the State Department which issued 6,500 visas to Chinese orphans in 2006.  Since 1991, Americans have adopted 55,000 Chinese children.

Most Chinese immigrants have settled in the following states: California, New York, Hawaii, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts.

Even though they've had a difficult history encountering a myriad of U.S. immigration practices, the Chinese and Chinese-Americans common (and welcome) in American communities are still thriving and growing, as the largest Asian population here, at 3.6 million strong and counting.