Chinese and Japanese Immigrants and Effect on “White Americans” in California

Perhaps for Dennis Kearney and H.L. Knight, who were experiencing societal upheaval brought about by rapid industrialization, an American identity was defined by property ownership and masculine ideals of economic security. When their economic prosperity was threatened because of changing labor conditions, or especially, immigration, the newcomers were scapegoated and blamed for their insecurity. In “Our Misery and Despair,” Kearney and Knight railed against both the injustices they experienced by the “moneyed men,” but also their exclusion from work because “a stout Chinaman does it cheaper” (Kearny, Knight). They saw the exploitation of Chinese labor by moneyed interests as an attack on white American family men who could not compete against the Chinese. Turning their vitriol against the Chinese as “other” was much less risky then turning against the industrialists who controlled the opportunities which would turn their fortunes. The divisions this caused; the propertied classes reliance on cheap immigrant labor at the expense of the city-dwelling laborer forged a new American identity characterized by a struggle to achieve prosperity and racial discrimination in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Economic uncertainty and wide-spread unemployment was used to attract white men to the Santa Clara Valley. Appeals to American masculinity with themes which asserted that men could fulfill their role as breadwinner within the family were used to lure men to establish family farms in the region (Tsu, 24). This idealized version of the ‘family farm’ as the paragon of American-ness was flawed as most farms in Santa Clara County were neither fully family-run or fully American, but regularly took advantage of and prospered because of Chinese and later Japanese immigrants who were vilified in public, but worked side by side with white laborers.

Industrialists, like the Stanford and Hopkins families, seemed none too concerned about whether they were “American” or not, as their success allowed them automatic “Americanism.” Leland Stanford was seen as a paragon of manliness and Americanism when in an 1899 promotional real estate advertisement wrote that Stanford was, “that great and noble specimen of American manhood” (Tsu, 24). By this description, economic success, prosperity, and landownership equaled Americanism. However, these families used the cheap labor provided by Chinese, and later Japanese, immigrants to maintain their homes and gardens and helped them achieve their economic success.

Chinese and later, Japanese immigrants were regularly utilized by Anglo-American farmers as seasonal or manual laborers in fields, orchards and in fruit packing. In promotional materials promulgated by Santa Clara County and in the media, white farmers firmly held the opinion publically that white workers were “best” and racial separation was promoted (Tsu, 46). Products were advertised as being produced on “white run” farms as in the case of the Flickenger Cannery where a writer described it as a place where “the fruit is all packed by white men and women, who are required to exercise care that neatness and cleanliness shall characterize all their work” (Tsu, 79). These attitudes contributed to attempts to exclude immigrant laborers from factories. In 1905, a state bill was introduced into the California state legislature to allow racial separation to be promoted on product labels. This bill never passed partly due to pressure exerted by the California Fruit Grower, an organization that understood the vital importance of Asian labor in the fruit packing industry (Tsu, 80).

Despite the promotional literature for Santa Clara Valley which promulgated the image of the white family farm where husband, wife and children were the only people engaged in the work, this stereotype was not accurate. Tsu cites many examples of leases granted to Chinese laborers who rented land from Jane Stanford and other landowners for their own personal use or “for vegetable and fruit cultivation” (Tsu, 40). Women, like the Younger sisters, ran farms in San Jose. They leased land to Chinese tenants in 1879. Then, “in 1905, unmarried Augusta Younger leased nearly 19 acres of her inherited property to two Japanese tenants, becoming the first in the family to replace Chinese lessees with Japanese ones” (Tsu, 65). Women property owners felt ‘safe’ employing Chinese or Japanese men who were assumed to be bachelors. However, the reality was that many had wives and children that they were supporting in their country of origin. This further distanced them from the family farm ideal and made them more desirable to hire because they had fewer family obligations than white male family men (Tsu, 47). Landowners established boarding houses or camps to house their work force, often in conditions that would have been uncomfortable for women and children. A gender stereotype that negatively affected the perception of Chinese men by white men was their role as cook for the white farmers and crews of workers. Chinese men took on this role as another way to earn a living, but was confirmation for the white men that “Chinese men were effeminate” (Tsu, 44).

In several of the cases cited in Tsu’s book, Chinese and Japanese laborers worked hard and increased the fortunes of the landowners. They were able to negotiate leases and sharecropping arrangements in order to achieve some measure of success for themselves in some cases. They brought new methods of farming to the Santa Clara Valley like multiple cropping, “the use of one field to support more than a single harvest, and intercropping, sowing alternate rows of different crops at the same time,” helped to transform the Valley into the ‘Garden of the World’ (Tsu, 64).

Although white farmers firmly held onto the belief that white workers were “the best,” they regularly had difficulty securing the labor force they needed during harvest season. Because family labor was not sufficient to run the farm, they relied on immigrant labor, first Chinese, then, Japanese agriculturalists who transformed the Santa Clara Valley into the premier fruit growing region of California. Real estate agents and boosters sought to draw Anglo-American farmers to the valley with idealized images of the ‘family run farm’ which ran contrary to the reality. Growers recognized this need privately, but publically, sought to maintain the perception of racial purity and segregation. To Kearney and Knight, Chinese immigrants were seen as the wedge that drove white families further from success because of their willingness to work or live under conditions that white family men refused.