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A Chinese Immigrant's Experiences in California—Autobiography

An autobiography can provide useful primary source information about a person in the past or present. In addition, autobiographies can provide in-depth details about a specific community, time period, and location. The paragraphs below are from “The Biography of a Chinaman.” It was written by Lee Chew, who immigrated to San Francisco from China in 1880. This excerpt from his autobiography tells about his work experiences in the United States as well as some of the challenges Chinese immigrants faced.


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“When I went to work for that American family I could not speak a word of English, and I did not know anything about housework. The family consisted of husband, wife and two children. They were very good to me and paid me $3.50 a week, of which I could save $3 . . . . I did not understand what the lady said to me, but she showed me how to cook, wash, iron, sweep, dust, make beds, wash dishes, clean windows, paint and brass, polish the knives and forks, etc., by doing the things herself and then overseeing my efforts to imitate her. She would take my hands and show them how to do things . . . .

. . . I had $410 at the end of two years, and I was now ready to start in business. When I first opened a laundry it was in company with a partner, who had been in the business for some years . . . .

. . . The reason why so many Chinese go into the laundry business in this country is because it requires little capital and is one of the few opportunities that are open. Men of other nationalities . . . have raised such a great outcry about Chinese cheap labor that they have shut him out of working on farms or in factories or building railroads or making streets or digging sewers. He cannot practice any trade, and his opportunities to do business are limited to his own countrymen. So he opens a laundry when he quits domestic service.”

Excerpted from Lee Chew, “The Biography of a Chinaman,” Independent, 15 (February 19, 1903), pp. 417-423.


Background

Many Chinese immigrants came to the United States during the 1840s. Most settled in California. By 1851, there were 25,000 Chinese people working in the state. In the late 1870s, the number of jobs in the United States fell. Many workers in California blamed the Chinese, believing that Chinese workers had jobs that should be theirs. It became harder for Chinese immigrants to find work. These passages from Chew's autobiography help us understand what it was like to be a Chinese immigrant in the 1880s.

Keep in mind that in the 1880s workers earned less money than they do now. However, everything from houses to groceries cost less to buy, too. Today, a person might have to pay thousands, or perhaps even millions of dollars to start a business. In the 1880s, you could begin a business with only a few hundred dollars, as Lee Chew did.