The allure of California in the 1840's sparked a mass migration to the West. Tales of riches in the mines inspired many in the East--and Far East--to travel to California and try their luck.

A number of people in and around the poverty-stricken rural district of Hsin-ning, China came to America looking to strike it rich. As Kil Young Zo points out in his doctoral dissertation on Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century, the majority of Chinese immigrants to California came from this area in southern China. Zo cites three reasons for the large number of immigrants arriving from Hsin-ning over the subsequent thirty years:

-An increasingly violent Civil War raging in southern China.

-A high demand for labor in California and the relative ease with which Chinese could get to the West Coast (only two to three months compared to three to six months for laborers leaving from the Eastern United States).

-The number of Western vessels heading to California from Hong Kong harbor.

When the gold in the mines began to dwindle, so did the work in the mines. Many Chinese immigrants moved to the cities in search of new jobs while others signed on with the Central Pacific Railroad. Of the 4,000 men working for the CPR in 1865, only 1,000 were white. By 1869, there were still around 1,000 white employees but the number of Chinese laborers had increased to around 9,000.

When the railroad was completed, these 10,000 men were forced to find new jobs. This increase in unemployed Chinese laborers, along with erratic fluctuations in the California economy, generated a good deal of antagonism between workers of various ethnicities. Racial tensions were exacerbated by local politicians whose an anti-Chinese platforms appeared in campaigns as early as 1852.

Although the Chinese usually had no problem finding work in the new land, they had little hope of receiving fair treatment in their adopted homeland. The United States government did not consider these immigrants legal citizens and so they did not have the same rights as other immigrant groups.
A 1909 study of Chinese immigration to the U.S. notes:

"During the whole of this period they were excluded from the city hospital in San Francisco, and the only ones to which they were ever freely admitted were the insane asylums and the pest-house."

One reason for the hostile treatment is the way many Chinese laborers maintained their traditional customs and dress while in the United States. The 1909 study later notes:

"If the Chinese had worn American clothes and been able to vote,. . .they might have suffered scarcely [no] more persecution. . .than the normal amount arising from color prejudice. But being constantly in the public eye by reason of their peculiar appearance and lacking political power for their own protection, they were the natural victims of ignorant men who were both malicious and cowardly, and of the politicians dependent upon the Labor vote."