Pacific Crossings

Starting in 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company established a line from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It carried American merchants, missionaries, and government officials to Asia, but the company made most of its money ferrying Chinese laborers to and from the United States.

The U.S. economy slowed in the 1870s, and competition for jobs increased. Chinese laborers faced growing prejudice and discrimination. In 1882, Congress passed an Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country and prohibited any Chinese person from becoming a citizen. It was the first federal law to restrict immigration on a racial or ethnic basis.



Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Chinese Immigrants Coming to San Francisco, California

This contrived view of Chinatown shows streets crowded with men and lined with businesses. Immigrants stream from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and Canadian Pacific Steamship Company.

Exclusion policies limited the numbers of Chinese voyaging to the United States from about 13,000 in 1880 to less than 2,000 a year in 1900. Those who still came had to prove they were not laborers. Of the Chinese people who came to the United States between 1850 and 1900, more than half returned to China.



Engraving from Harper’s Weekly, May 20, 1876

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Chinese Emigration to America—Sketch on Board the Pacific Mail Steamship Alaska

White steerage passengers paid higher fares than the Chinese, in part to cover the cost of more expensive American food. Wealthy Chinese merchants were free to cross the Pacific in first class, but most of them traveled in steerage where familiar food was available on the long voyage.


Chinese Passengers on Deck, 1900–15

Chinese passengers, some eating from rice bowls, crowd the deck of this steamer. After the Exclusion Acts, the numbers of Chinese voyaging to the United States decreased sharply. This image probably shows Chinese laborers traveling to Hawaii.

Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives


E Pluribus Unum (Except the Chinese)

The U.S. government guards the Temple of Liberty against the Chinese.

Cartoon by Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1882

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum


Gift of Virginia Lee Mead

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China to New York

Ng Shee Lee brought this lacquered trunk with her from China after a visit in 1906. Her husband, Lee B. Lok, emigrated from Guangdong Province, China, in 1881. He paid $1,000 to upgrade his identity papers from laborer to merchant status before returning to China in 1896 and marrying Ng Shee Lee. They returned to the United States and had seven children, whom they raised while running a successful store in New York City’s Chinatown.


Oil painting by Alexander Charles Stuart, 1874

City of Tokio: Ikkaisen

In February 1885 the City of Tokio became an ikkaisen, or »first boat,« because it brought the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. This Pacific Mail steamer arrived in Honolulu after a two-week voyage from Yokohama. Aboard were 944 people, mostly laborers who had signed government contracts to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations.


Gift of Barbara Kawakami

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Japan to Hawaii

Around 1902, Kumataro Sugimoto emigrated from Kumamoto, Japan, to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. He was about 40 years old. Like many immigrants working as contract laborers, he traveled to Hawaii in hopes of creating a better life for himself and his family.


Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives


Japanese laborers cross the bridge to the Immigration Station on Quarantine Island, at Honolulu, in 1893. Immigrants were kept in the station for one to two weeks.