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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.