With the personal perspective of an immigrant, history professor Hazel Ramos gave a speech entitled “Asian-American History: From Opium Wars to Gold Mountain,” before an eager audience.
The presentation, held in Kreider Hall at noon on Oct 15, described the story of Chinese immigration to the U.S.
Ramos, a former Glendale student, began her lecture by describing her early years growing up in the Philippines, which had been until recently an American colony. She indicated that her viewpoint at that time was influenced by an atmosphere in which American cultural superiority was emphasized and a white European was considered to be the ideal role model.
When she immigrated to the U.S. at age 13 with her family, Ramos was struck by the great diversity of people and cultures that she came in contact with. She described how she asked herself, “What is an American, is it something you are born into . or can you become American?”
Ramos noted that “the early American definition of a citizen was determined by the Naturalization Act of 1790 as approved by the U.S. Congress, which defined American citizenship as applying to a free white person ..
The key word here is ‘white person,’ and this definition shaped social and cultural dynamics during the 1800s and created an environment excluding non-white people from the creation of the nation.”
With this as background information, Ramos then examined the forces involved in the immigration of Asian-Americans to the U.S., both the factors causing them to leave their homeland, and those attracting them here.
Ramos noted that the technologic revolution led to the wide growth of economic influence of the British. In the late 1700s, British ships mainly brought tea from China, resulting in a trade imbalance, with the Chinese building reserves of silver. In order to reverse this, the British East India Company began bringing opium into China despite prohibition laws.
In 1837, opium was responsible for 67 percent of Chinese imports. When the Chinese government objected to the British regarding the negative effects of this opium, offense was taken, resulting in the Opium Wars fought from 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860.
As a result, the victorious British were able to establish trading ports in China, giving them a monopoly for international trade.
During that time in China, Ramos said, “There was a weak central government, extreme poverty and overpopulation . from 1800 to 1850 the population grew from 300 to 430 million, resulting in high unemployment.”
New opportunities in the U.S. attracted Chinese immigrants. First the California gold rush of 1849 brought many seeking the “gold mountain.” Then the demand for labor to build the transcontinental railroad was filled primarily by Chinese men during the 1860s.
“Hiring Chinese made good economic sense,” said Ramos. They were willing to work for less than Americans, but still earned much more than they could in China. They were industrious and willing to endure great hardship and danger in order to send earnings back to their families in China.
Ramos explained that as the supply of gold diminished, and the railroads were completed, white Americans began to feel that foreigners were intruding on their domain. As ethnic resentment grew, Chinese were seen as aliens. The Chinese began to band together for both protection and economic survival in their enclaves known as Chinatowns.
“The Chinese were viewed by many as a threat to the American identity,” said Ramos. Passage of the Page Act of 1875 effectively prevented the immigration of Chinese women. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act ended any significant Chinese immigration to the U.S. until it was repealed in 1943.
However, it was only after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that limitation of U.S. immigration based on nationality and race was finally ended.
In summary, Ramos noted that “what’s different now is that the opportunities which were only available to certain people in the past, generally speaking are much more available to everyone . we’ve come a long way.”
Following the presentation, a spirited question and answer session took place.
Sarah McLemore, an English professor, commented, “It was interesting to hear about the Opium Wars and how that connected to Chinese immigration.”
The presentation was part of the One Book/One Glendale citywide reading event, co-sponsored by GCC and the Glendale Library. The featured book for the ongoing event is “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See, which describes the story of two young Chinese women who immigrate to California despite many obstacles.
The series will end Oct. 29 when See comes to campus for a noon visit to discuss her work, in particular her 1995 book “On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family,” in which she recounts stories of her ancestors and their immigration to California over a century ago.