Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870

Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870

by Huping Ling

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Numerous studies have documented the transnational experiences and local activities of Chinese immigrants in California and New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Less is known about the vibrant Chinese American community that developed at the same time in Chicago. In this sweeping account, Huping Ling offers the first comprehensive history of Chinese in Chicago, beginning with the arrival of the pioneering Moy brothers in the 1870s and continuing to the present.

Ling focuses on how race, transnational migration, and community have defined Chinese in Chicago. Drawing upon archival documents in English and Chinese, she charts how Chinese made a place for themselves among the multiethnic neighborhoods of Chicago, cultivating friendships with local authorities and consciously avoiding racial conflicts. Ling takes readers through the decades, exploring evolving family structures and relationships, the development of community organizations, and the operation of transnational businesses. She pays particular attention to the influential role of Chinese in Chicago's academic and intellectual communities and to the complex and conflicting relationships among today's more dispersed Chinese Americans in Chicago.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804775595
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/18/2012
Series: Asian America
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Huping Ling is Professor of History at Truman State University and Executive Editor for the Journal of Asian American Studies. She has published eleven books and over one hundred articles. Most recently, she coedited Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia (2010).

Read an Excerpt

Chinese Chicago

By Huping Ling


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7559-5

Chapter One

Searching for Roots of a Transnational Community

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] A tree would likely die when transplanted; a man will survive and thrive when migrated. —Chinese proverb

Migration is an essential survival strategy in human society as well as in the animal kingdom. In an attempt to survive or to better their lives, humans have migrated to every continent, resulting in the colorful racial diversity evident today. Following this natural instinct, the Chinese migrated from north-central China, where they originated, to all of China proper and then emigrated further all around the world. One can trace the roots of Chinese immigrants in America as far back as ancient Chinese history and as close to the present day as the global capitalistic expansions of recent centuries.

Forces of Transnational Migration


The large two-story building, built in 1928, formerly headquarters of the On Leong Merchants and Laborers Association, stands prominently on Wentworth Avenue in the heart of Chicago's China town; it reminds many local Chinese residents of a yanglou (Western-style building) or diaolou (fortress building or watchtower) in their homeland in Taishan. The striking grandeur and staunch Chinese characteristics of the building also lead curious visitors to marvel over the connections between the Chinese in Chicago and their homeland.

The similarities are hardly coincidental but the natural outcome of emigration. Taishan and the three adjacent counties of Kaiping (Hoiping in Cantonese), Enping (Yanping), and Xinhui (Sunwei) are collectively called Siyi (Sze Yap), or "four counties." Along with Canton and its three adjacent counties, or Sanyi (Sam Yap), of Nanhai (Namhoi), Panyu (Panyi), and Shunde (Shuntak), they are internationally known as hubs whence came the overseas Chinese in North America, Australia, and Western Europe, while the neighboring province, Fujian, has been a native place for Chinese emigrants to Southeast Asian countries. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the Nationalist government published statistics in 1945 indicating that among the then 8,546,374 overseas Chinese, 5,992,066 or 70 percent were from Guangdong, mainly from Canton and the Sanyi and Siyi districts.

The Chinese in Guangdong are people with a long tradition of migration. The first group of migrants were more than one hundred thousand Han, or mainstream Chinese, dispatched by the authoritarian government of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) to expand the influence of Han culture and to develop the region. In migrating, the Han moved from a temperate environment into a debilitating hot, humid subtropical climate and gradually became accustomed to their habitat in South China. As a coastal province, Guangdong provided easy access to Southeast and South Asia, where many Chinese merchants had opened commercial routes by the first century AD. As early as the third century AD, Canton had positioned itself as an excellent port, attracting Arab merchants from West and South Asia for trade and becoming a great hub for international trade and overseas emigration. By the end of the Tang dynasty (618–906 AD), to escape the frequent social upheavals and civil wars, some Chinese emigrated to Southeast Asian countries, where they were called Tangren (people of the Tang dynasty) by the locals. This was the first large-scale Chinese emigration from Guangdong.

The Song dynasty (960–1279) saw the rapid development of Chinese maritime commerce. Residents from Fujian and Guangdong frequently traveled between the two provinces and trading ports in Southeast Asia. Merchants stranded by typhoons, illness, or debt became accidental settlers in these foreign lands. They were later joined by political refugees escaping persecution by the Chinese authorities and others seeking their fortune overseas. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia reached its zenith, as a result of Mongol military expeditions and Ming government–sponsored maritime expeditions to the region, which left behind many Chinese soldiers and civilians in the localities they contacted.

Quanzhou and Zhangzhou in Fujian together with Canton in Guangdong were well-developed Chinese ports for international trade as early as the Song dynasty. Canton, however, was selected as the only official port for international trade by the Qing government (1644–1911) in 1760. Writers have pointed out a number of reasons why the Qing court chose Canton as the only open port. First, rampant piracy in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong forced the Qing government to close the coastal areas for self-defense. Second, the Manchu rulers were convinced that the "foreign devils" would corrupt the Chinese populace and therefore should be contained in the most distant port possible. Third, the Qing rulers believed it more practical to delegate international trade to the experienced merchants in Canton (who were therefore called Gonghong, or security merchants) than for it to be handled by the court. The Canton monopoly in international trade allowed Western influence to penetrate the port city and nearby regions, making Canton and its adjacent counties premier locations for sending Chinese laborers overseas.


Although the emigration overseas, especially to Southeast Asia, continued throughout the centuries, emigration to the Americas did not occur in significant numbers until the end of the Opium Wars (1839–1842), when China was defeated by the cannons and gunboats of the British empire and forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with Britain, France, and the United States. These unequal treaties demanded that the Chinese government pay a $21 million indemnity, abolish the government-chartered Gonghong monopolistic system of trade, open five ports (Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai) to trade and to the residence of British consuls and merchants and their families, cede Hong Kong to the British, and fix a tariff at the very low rate of 5 percent. These treaties were imposed by the victors upon the vanquished at gunpoint, without the careful deliberation normally practiced in the course of reaching international agreements in Europe and America. Ironically, though the war was triggered by conflict over the opium trade in China, opium was not even mentioned in the treaties, as the issue of its future status was cautiously avoided by both sides. As a result, opium traffic became essentially unrestrained after the war.

The importation of opium deepened the social and economic crisis. The volume of imports rose from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 46,000 chests in 1848 and to 52,929 chests in 1850. The year 1848 alone witnessed the outflow of more than ten million taels of silver, which exacerbated the already grave economic dislocation and copper-silver exchange rate. The disruptive economic consequences of opium importation were further compounded by the general influx of foreign goods into the open ports. Canton was particularly hard hit because it had the longest history of foreign trade and the most foreign contact; it now lost this advantage to other open ports. Local household industries were swept away and the self-sufficient agrarian economy collapsed. Those who were adversely affected thus became potential emigrants.

In addition to the external invasions, many natural calamities also occurred in China during the 1840s and 1850s. Severe drought occurred in Henan in 1847; flooding of the Yangtze River plagued Hubei, Anhui, Jiang su, and Zhejiang; and famine struck Guangxi—all in 1849. Flood and famine in Guangdong gave way to the catastrophic Taiping Revolution (1850–1864), which devastated the land, uprooted the peasantry, and dislocated the economy and the polity.

Imperialist invasions and natural disasters, however, can only partly explain the phenomenal emigration to America in the second part of the nineteenth century. The lure of gold upon the discovery of rich deposits in California and other regions in 1848, and the opportunities in the so-called New Continent that resulted, also pulled Chinese emigrants to Gam San, or Gold Mountain, the Chinese nickname for America. In 1849, the news of the discovery of gold in California spread like wildfire to every corner of the world and soon attracted thousands of gold seekers to California. Among them, 325 were from Tangshan, a sobriquet used by overseas Chinese for China proper. In the early 1850s, the number of Chinese increased dramatically—2,716 in 1851 and 20,026 in 1852. By 1882, when the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act ended Chinese immigration on a large scale, there were about 300,000 Chinese resident in the continental United States.

In view of the popular Chinese expectation that America was a land full of gold, gold played a significant role in the lives of the early Chinese immigrants, with the majority of gam san haak (gold mountain guests) working in the mining areas of California. Census statistics indicate that almost 100 percent of the Chinese in the continental United States in 1860 were living in California. Most Chinese miners worked on placer claims, the most labor intensive and least remunerative of the three methods—placer, hydraulic, and quartz—used by miners. They washed the gold-bearing sand in small amounts in a pan or rocker, letting the heavier particles of gold settle to the bottom.

In addition to mining, the construction of the transcontinental railroad absorbed a large number of Chinese laborers, many of whom were former gold miners. After the end of the Civil War, the American government could once again devote its attention to the construction of the railroad. It contracted the eastern part of the railroad to the Union Pacific Railroad Company to be built westward from the Missouri River, and the western part of the railroad to the Central Pacific Railroad Company, nicknamed "the Big Four" as it was formed by four Sacramento merchants—Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and C. P. Huntington—to be built eastward from Sacramento. In February 1865, fifty Chinese workers were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad Company as an experiment. As the Chinese workers performed various jobs of blasting, driving horses, handling rock, and wielding picks and shovels and proved to be effective and reliable, the company began to hire more Chinese. During the peak of construction, twelve thousand Chinese, approximately 90 percent of the entire workforce, worked for the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

The Moys, the Taishanese, and Transnational Ties


One distinctive feature of the Chicago Chinese is the dominance of the Moys, outnumbering any other surnames, especially among the early immigrants. The Moy Family Association has been the largest of the family associations in Chicago since the late nineteenth century. In the over six thousand immigrant files in Chicago for the years between 1898 and 1940, there are at least one thousand files under the surname Moy. Although the Chins and Wongs were also populous clans in the early history of the Chinese in Chicago, for the convenience of discussion I shall use the example of the Moy clan to demonstrate the transnational kinship connections.

According to the Moy family genealogy, its progenitor was a member of the royal family of the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 BC). He was granted a principality in what is now Bo County, Anhui Province, called Mei in Mandarin Chinese (Moy in Cantonese), and therefore was known as Count Moy, whose offspring adopted the name of the principality as their surname. During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Bo County administratively belonged to Runan Prefecture (Nunan jun), and that is why the Moys were also known as Nunan people.

Though originating in northern China, the Moys eventually migrated south. By the end of the Han dynasty in the second century AD, the court had been weakened by both internal and external disturbances—political rivalries among the powerful aristocratic families and pressures from the nomadic "barbarians" from the north and northwest frontiers. The dynasty was soon usurped by one of the powerful aristocratic clans and then divided into the three states of Han, Shu, and Wu, during what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period (220–265 AD). This was followed by the so-called Period of Division (220–589 AD) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589 AD), when successive waves of various groups of northern and northwestern nomads invaded northern China and forced the Chinese court to move south. The constant wars among the divided Chinese states and between the nomadic kingdoms and the Chinese courts, together with the subsequent devastation of farmlands, resulted in one of the largest population shifts in Chinese history—hundreds of thousands of people followed the Chinese courts south of the Yangtze River, to an area previously perceived by the northern Chinese as an uncivilized region. For the first time in history, the population in South China exceeded that in the North: during the Han dynasty, the population ratio between the North and the South was 10 to 1; by the time of the northern Song dynasty (960–1127 AD), more than half the Chinese population resided in the South.

The Moys were among the waves of migrants from the North. In 307 AD, after a notorious palace coup that overthrew the Jin court, the Moys began their migration to southern China, following the defeated Jin court. To rule the dislocated populace more effectively, the Chinese court in exile established a qiaojun, or migrant prefecture system, among the migrants, setting up prefectures for the migrants in the South in accordance with those in the North where the various groups of migrants had originally resided. Runan Prefecture (presently Anhui Province) was thus established for the Moys, who had originally lived in Bo County, Runan Prefecture. The qiaojun system helped maintain social order and stability among the migrants, who therefore willingly cooperated with the government in implementing the practice. Only the prominent aristocratic families, however, migrated in an organized fashion, moving along the patriarchal clan structures collectively, whereas the commoners migrated sporadically and more or less randomly. Thus, the association between a surname and its prefecture name indicates the prominence and prestige of that surname. The Moys, having been transplanted and rerooted in South China, were mindful of their historically prominent northern origins and traced them proudly. Over the nearly two thousand years that followed, the Moys spread widely across China proper. The areas with the highest concentration of Moys include Anhui, Hubei, Henan, Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Jiangsu provinces, with an estimated total population of five million members of the clan.

A branch of the Moy family settled in Duanfen Township, Taishan County, Guangdong. Over time, Duanfen Moys became the largest branch of the Moy family in China. Duanfen Moys also prospered in the region, and Moy remains the predominant surname in the town, comprising 20 percent of the over fifty thousand residents during the period from the 1970s to the 2000s. A survey conducted in 1996 counted 14,500 Moys, or 26 percent of the total population of 55,290 in Duanfen.

What makes the Duanfen Moys stand out among all the branches of the Moy family is their written records, which provide virtually a complete family genealogy, or zupu. In 1664, Moy Mingxie, an eleventh-generation member of the Duanfen Moys and a metropolitan scholar during the Qing emperor Kangxi's reign (1662–1722), began compiling the Moys' zupu (Meishi zongqin zupu) and completed it nine years later. In 1706, Moy Xisi, a twelfth-generation member of the Duanfen Moys, updated the Moys' zupu. The Moys' zupu thus constitutes an invaluable resource for scholars and genealogists.

The causes of overseas migration from Duanfen in modern times are those that characterize Chinese emigration history in general since the mid-nineteenth century. At the end of the Qing dynasty, economic conditions in rural Taishan rapidly deteriorated. The economic crisis was further compounded by natural calamities. Between 1851 and 1908, reportedly fourteen floods, seven typhoons, five famines, four droughts, four plagues, and four earthquakes occurred. Situated on low-lying land, Duanfen bore the brunt of these various disasters—of droughts, floods, typhoons, and locust plagues. These natural disasters exacerbated the historical feuds between the Guangdong natives and the migrants, or hakka ("guest people" from North China from the time of the Song dynasty). Between 1856 and 1867, violent conflicts between the two groups affected Duanfen, resulting in countless deaths. In 1866, the commander-in-general in Guangdong deployed ten thousand troops to suppress the riots. Moy Qizhao, a Duanfen notable, joined the troops in charge of grain procurement. Witnessing the devastation, he wrote a poem to persuade the locals to go overseas to seek a better life, urging: "There are opportunities everywhere / Chinese went overseas for a long while / several hundred thousand in Gold Mountain (San Francisco) / several hundred thousand in India." The numbers he cited might have been exaggerated, but they certainly indicate that many Duanfenese had already chosen to emigrate overseas. Many locals readily took advantage of the situation, becoming brokers in the immoral Chinese coolie trade; a Duanfenese named Moy Yaoguan served as one of the zhuzai tou, or "head of the piglets," in the coolie trade.


Excerpted from Chinese Chicago by Huping Ling Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................xi
A Note on Translation and Terminology....................xvii
Introduction: Rethinking Chinese Chicago....................1
1. Searching for Roots of a Transnational Community....................12
2. Locating China town, 1870s–1910s....................24
3. Operating Transnational Businesses, 1880s–1930s....................58
4. Living Transnational Lives, 1880s–1930s....................98
5. Bridging the Two Worlds: Community Organizations, 1870s–1945....................132
6. Connecting the Two Worlds: Chinese Students and Intellectuals, 1920s–2010s....................172
Epilogue: The "Hollow Center Phenomenon" and the Future of Transnational Migration....................242

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