WOMEN IN EARLY CHINATOWNS
Community and Risk
As Chinese immigrants managed to enter and re-enter the United States in the second half of the 19th century, anti-Chinese sentiment intensified. Racial violence and “round ups” drove Chinese immigrants from over 300 towns across the Pacific North West, and they fled to San Francisco, Canada, or found refuge in other segregated Chinatowns. With the end of gold mining and the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, thousands of Chinese came down from the mountains and settled along the coast and California's inland valley.
Partly out of cultural need and partly as a response to racial prejudice, most rural Chinese American women lived in small, segregated Chinese communities where they observed their own customs. Chinatowns offered community and risk. Chinatowns provided home, family, work, and worship. Early Chinatowns are remembered as places of deep friendships and places of great danger.
The earliest Chinatowns were established in major North American cities such as Seattle, Sacramento, New York, and San Francisco, and in rural towns, like Tacoma, Portland, Chico, San Jose, Eureka, and Truckee. The men worked as woodcutters, cigar makers, fishermen, and field workers. The women worked as seamstresses and small merchants.
Banned from most manufacturing jobs, both Chinese American men and women entered the service sector, working as servants, cooks, nannies, launderers, and gardeners. The first Chinese American women struggled in the segregated Chinatowns. Laborers’ wives helped build communities in two storied shacks, tent housing, and boarding houses. Many Chinatowns lacked sewage. Merchants’ wives, laborers’ wives, and prostitutes were often isolated and secluded. Merchants’ wives found it difficult to even to walk on bound feet.