By Don C. Conley
Between 1860 and 1880, the majority of the approximately one hundred thousand Chinese arriving at the port of San Francisco came from Guangdong Province. In its capital, Guangzhou (Canton), trade between China and Western nations flourished in the late eighteenth and nearly nineteenth centuries. This commercial atmosphere brought news of American current events, such as the California gold rush, which stimulated the imaginations of adventurous Cantonese. But nineteenth-century Chinese came to the United States for many reasons. Floods, typhoons, droughts, and general poverty were endemic in the Pearl River delta of which Guangzhou was the center. Besides insufficient protection from natural catastrophe, further insecurity stemmed from the loose and faltering central government in Peking, twelve hundred mi les north of Guangdong, as well as numerous local bandits roaming the hills, local ethnic disputes, local official corruption, heavy taxes, meager earnings, and unparalleled population density.
The emigrants made their way to Hong Kong and from there to San Francisco, a journey averaging about two months. The earliest groups were sponsored as indentured servants by Chinese companies in San Francisco. This later was replaced by a credit-ticket system, wherein a Hong Kong brokerage firm advanced the forty-dollar passage fee, and a connecting firm in the United States found work for the immigrant and collected the voyage debt from his eventual earnings.
A number of those original Chinese immigrants found their way to Utah first as construction workers on the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento, California, to Promontory, Utah, in the late 1860s. More than twelve thousand Chinese were employed in the building of the Central Pacific. They not only laid track with consistent precision but also became legendary through their blasting of tunnels and ridges with nitroglycerin, sometimes while lowered in baskets over cliffs, such as those fourteen hundred feet above the American River Canyon. Their Chinese food was more conducive to good health than the meat and starch diet of American workers, and their tea drinking helped protect them from diseases transmitted through polluted water.
Promontory became the gateway for most Chinese coming into Utah in frontier times. Between 1870 and 1880 the majority of Chinese in the state lived in Box Elder County, and were almost all employed as section hands on the railroad. Corinne, the once-booming railroad center, had a Chinese community of up to three hundred people in its heyday.
As the railroad center for Utah, Ogden witnessed the development of a Chinatown, with census figures rising from 33 Chinese in 1880 to 106 in 1890. The Chinatown was characterized by “many rows of low wooden structures . . . built along Twenty-fifth Street from the Broom Hotel to the railroad station, four city blocks west of Washington Boulevard, and many of these establishments were operated by the Chinese.”
Wong Leung Ka was one of the first Chinese merchants in Ogden. He arrived around 1880 but did not come with the influx of railroad workers. However, like many other Chinese of that period, he came to this country without wife or family. Unlike settlers from northern Europe, most Chinese most intended to return to their homeland. Wong Leung Ka resided in Ogden for forty-six years. During those years, he returned to his family in China twice; each visit lasted less than a year because he traveled with a business visa that did not allow him to remain away longer.
Wong Leung Ka had a shop in Ogden that carried groceries, canned goods, and Chinese imported items. Above the store, in the upper level of the building, were sleeping rooms. Wong Leung Ka was known for his compassion and generosity. When times were hard and men were unemployed, Chinese in the area sought Leung Ka’s store as a place of refuge. Sleeping rooms and meals were provided. When and if employment was found, the men would pay back what they could.
Since 1900 the largest Chinese population in Utah has been in Salt Lake City. The 1890 census counted 271 Chinese in Salt Lake City. Plum Alley ran north and south, dividing the city block between Main and State streets, the cross streets being 100 and 200 South streets. Within and around Plum Alley the Chinese developed a microcommunity with grocery and merchandise stores, laundries, and restaurants.
Another Utah Chinatown existed in Park City. According to the 1890 census, 131 Chinese resided there. The first railroads into Park City were constructed in part by Chinese labor. A landmark in old Park City was the “China Bridge” that stretched across Chinatown from Rossie Hill, the residential section of Park City. The bridge was built so that the residents of Rossie Hill would not have to pass through Chinatown. The Chinese in Park City continued to be victims of sporadic, racially inspired difficulties into the first decade of the 1900s. During 1902 and 1903 the miners union campaigned to boycott Chinese restaurants and laundries, to end employment of Chinese, and to prohibit the selling and buying of Chinese goods.
In Carbon County during the 1880s, the Chinese worked in Pleasant Valley as coal miners. According to one observer, “the mine entry that was driven by them . . . is as beautiful a piece of work as one could wish to see in a coal mine. Evidently no powder was used for blasting. Entry was driven exclusively with pick work. The sides are perfectly straight to a certain height and the roof is semi-arched. Due to the method of working this entry will stand indefinitely.” However, the Chinese in Pleasant Valley also met with prejudice and were forced through violence to abandon their jobs.
Despite the anti-Chinese sentiment found especially in Utah’s mining camps, some Chinese did prosper as business men. In the Uinta Basin during the 1890s and the early part of the twentieth century, few personalities stand out with such prominence as Wong Sing. He had a humble beginning as a laundryman at Fort Duchesne in 1889, but during the 1920s he owned and operated a merchandise store which boasted an inventory of between sixty and seventy thousand dollars. Besides general merchandise, the store handled furniture, ready-to-wear clothing, meat, and groceries; and Wong Sing also acted as general agent for machinery companies and other firms. Wong Sing spoke the Ute language and displayed a knowledgeable interest and respect for Indian culture. When he died in an auto accident in 1934, sixty Ute men assembled at the office of the Indian agency to mourn his passing.
The decades between 1900 and 1930 were the years of growing Chinese activity around Plum Alley in Salt Lake City. In Ogden, Chinese businesses dotted Twenty-fifth Street and spread to north Grant and Lincoln avenues. As was the case in most Chinese communities, there were few families. In Ogden, four or five families provided the rare presence of women and children. However, during the Depression years a declining population took its toll of laundries, stores, and restaurants, and by 1940 the number of Chinese in the two major cities reached a low of fewer than five hundred people.
During World War II most of the eligible men served with the armed forces. Of the twelve in overseas units, one failed to return. Lt. Arthur Chinn from Salt Lake City was shot down in France while flying a mission in a P-51. Kingsley Wong, a Third Army infantryman, received several Purple Hearts and other medals, including the Silver Star for gallantry in action in Germany. Many returning American-Chinese veterans capitalized on their hard-earned opportunity to attend college under the G.I. Bill, receiving an education that would probably have been an impossibility had this financial aid not been available.
A new wave of Chinese immigrants began to settle in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. This pattern of immigration was ushered in by changes in immigration laws: the repeal in 1943 of the Chinese Exclusion Act; the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which approved immigration from Asia; and the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the national-origins quotas. The influx of refugees from Vietnam after 1975 contributed to the expansion of the Chinese community as well, because many of them were of Chinese extraction. Additional numbers were supplied by students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and, more recently, from the People’s Republic of China; some of these have stayed on to become citizens. Active in all facets of society and economy, Chinese Americans make a valuable contribution to the state of Utah.
Steadily growing since the mid-1960s, the Chinese American population now tallies 5,322 people (1990 census), a number that represents a tremendous increase over the 1970 total of 1,281.