The first Chinese immigrant arrived in 1820, according to United States government records.

Fewer than 1,000 arrived during the next 27 years. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 drew the first significant number of Chinese. They came to do menial work for the growing population of gold seekers. By 1852 there were about 25,000 Chinese in California. By 1880 the total had climbed to 105,465, and most lived in the Far West. Many thousands more of the Chinese who came to America returned home after a few years.

Nearly all of the early Chinese immigrants were young, poorly educated males from Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province.  The province was an agricultural region, so many of the Chinese were laborers.  They came from a war-torn country where job opportunities were few. Many of them planned to work in the United States only until they could return home with a modest nest egg.

When the Chinese first arrived in California, they were regarded as welcome additions to a very small work force. Later, when anti-Chinese agitation was at its height, it was also for economic reasons that they were persecuted. The Chinese performed every type of menial job that was available. They worked in the gold mines, the lumber industry, the fisheries and canneries, and as migrant farm laborers. Some of them opened laundries, and within a few decades there were Chinese laundries in many American cities. The laundry business was a service for which there was a demand and one that required no capital or skills to start. The early immigrants, however, should be remembered for their heroic efforts in the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad employed about 15,000 Chinese.

By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the population of the Far West–especially in California–had increased dramatically. The overwhelmingly white labor force, made up largely of first-generation European immigrants, soon found itself in competition with thousands of unemployed Chinese rail workers. Only a year earlier (on July 28, 1868) Congress had ratified the Burlingame Treaty–a document that allowed the free and unlimited migration of Chinese but excluded them from naturalization. Even before the treaty became law, however, anti-Chinese feeling was being stirred up throughout the West. American citizens regarded the immigrants as serious competition for jobs.

Two other factors prompted an upsurge in anti-Chinese sentiment. The first was the increase in Chinese immigration after 1869. The second was the depression that started in 1873. Adding fuel to an already dangerous situation was the use of Chinese workers as strikebreakers in different parts of the United States and the attempts to replace the freed black slaves with Chinese laborers on Southern plantations. Throughout the West organizations were formed to stop emigration from the Far East. In some cities there were anti-Chinese riots. In San Francisco, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney started a movement to fight the “Oriental menace.”

The demands for an end to Chinese immigration became a major issue in West coast politics. Finally, Congress passed a series of laws, known as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It effectively ended the immigration of Chinese laborers. Afterwards the number of Chinese in the United States gradually decreased as many of the immigrants returned home or went to more hospitable places. Very few Chinese women had come to the United States to join the young Chinese men. Since Asians were forbidden by law to marry whites, there was little opportunity to have families and there were few children to replace the aging Chinese population. The Geary Act of 1892 extended the 1882 exclusion policy. And in 1924 the National Origins Act drastically restricted immigration to the United States from all of Asia. By this time the total number of Chinese in the United States had dropped to fewer than 62,000.

The end of this discrimination against Asians began during World War II. With China as a wartime ally in fighting Japan, the 1882 exclusion act became a national embarrassment. In 1943 Congress repealed the law and granted naturalization rights to foreign-born Chinese.

The Chinese normally settled in communities of their peers, as did most other immigrant groups. They created small Chinatowns in which they opened their own stores and restaurants, built temples, and formed societies. The most useful of the early associations were the Chinese Six Companies–family or clan organizations that helped immigrants to get established. These associations also governed affairs within the Chinese communities, particularly in San Francisco’s large Chinatown. The Chinese Six Companies also served American employers as employment bureaus to hire workers.

Somewhat better known beyond the Chinatowns were their tongs. These started out as benevolent protective associations, much like the Chinese Six Companies, but they were rooted in secret Chinese societies in Asia. In California the tongs developed into criminal gangs, each of which staked out its own territory. Feuds between these gangs, popularly called tong wars by outside observers, began during the 1850s and lasted until the 1920s. Some Chinatowns experienced a renewal of urban gang problems in the 1980s. This situation was related less to tongs than to the disillusionment felt by young unemployed immigrants toward the lack of economic opportunity.