The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is often seen as the first major law to restrict immigration in the United States. But there is an earlier law that was used to effectively prevent Chinese women from immigrating to the United States: The Page Act of 1875.
Chinese Immigration in America
The first Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 1850s. Many were fleeing the economic consequences of The Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60), when the British fought to keep opium trafficking routes open in defiance of China’s efforts to stop the illegal trade. An ensuing series of floods and droughts drove members of the lower classes to leave their farms and seek new work opportunities abroad.
When gold was discovered in California in 1848, more and more Chinese immigrants traveled to the West Coast to join the Gold Rush. Some worked on American farms or in San Francisco’s growing textile industry. Others were employed as laborers with the Central Pacific and Transcontinental railroads—railroads which would speed up Westward expansion and facilitate the movement of troops during the Civil War.
Despite their pivotal role in building the infrastructure of the United States, racism directed at Chinese immigrants was a constant from the moment they arrived on American shores.
By the early 1850s, 25,000 Chinese immigrants had migrated to the United States, joining a growing wave of Irish settlers fleeing the Irish Potato Famine and increasing numbers of German settlers seeking a new life alongside other groups from Europe.
Both European and Asian immigrants came to the United States seeking to improve their economic well being, explains Dr. Melissa May Borja, assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. But Chinese immigrants were regarded as a bigger threat.
"They were seen as a racial threat to a pure white America. They were seen as an economic threat to free white labor. They were depicted as a disease threat—a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric hinged on portraying Chinese people as filthy and disease-ridden. They were also seen as a religious and moral threat as heathens who threatened a Christian America.”
Prejudice Against Asian Women
Chinese women were perceived as a particular type of threat: A sexual one. “They were stereotyped as promiscuous, as prostitutes,” says Borja.
While there were Chinese women working in the sex industry in the mid-19th century, they were singled out from their white peers: “Chinese women were specifically accused of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. They were scapegoated. That sexualized stereotype stuck,” says Dr. Kevin Nadal, professor at the City University of New York and vice president of the Filipino American National Historical Society.
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The Page Act of 1875
Enacted seven years before the better-known Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1875 Page Act was one of the earliest pieces of federal legislation to restrict immigration to the United States in the 19th century. “It was designed to prohibit immigrants deemed ‘undesirable’—defined as Chinese "coolie" laborers and prostitutes—from entering the U.S.,” says K. Ian Shin, Ph.D., assistant professor of History & American Culture at the University of Michigan.
On paper, the Page Act of 1875 prohibited the recruitment of laborers from “China, Japan or any Oriental country” who were not brought to the United States of their own will or who were brought for “lewd and immoral purposes.” It explicitly forbid “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.”
In practice, it was used as a way to prevent Chinese women from migrating to the United States. It left the decision as to whether or not to permit an individual’s entry to the United States up to the consul-general or consul at port cities.
Under the Page Act, Chinese women attempting to enter the country at Angel Island Immigration Station outside San Francisco were subjected to invasive and humiliating interrogations by U.S. immigration officials.
“Poems scratched on the wall at Angel Island identified the medical exams they were forced to undergo as barbarous, humiliating, and discriminatory,” says Borja.
“One of the reasons why the number of Chinese women immigrating to the U.S. declined after the 1870s is precisely because these women opted not to subject themselves to these kinds of interrogations,” Shin says.
Impact of the Page Act
The impact of the Page Act skewed gender ratios in the Chinese American community to heavily male. “In the early 1870s, there were roughly 78 Chinese women per 1,000 Chinese men in the U.S.," Shin says. "After the law's passage, that number dropped to 48 women per 1,000 men.”
Preventing women from immigrating alongside their partners meant male laborers were unable to create families and set down roots in America. Instead, many sought to earn money and then return to China to rejoin their families. Bachelorhood among Chinese male laborers, in turn, enhanced U.S. suspicions. “They were portrayed as driftless," says Borja. "It enhanced the view that they shouldn’t be full Americans. Barriers justified other barriers.”
Most west coast states had laws preventing people from marrying outside their race by the mid-1800s. So by effectively barring Chinese women from entering the country through the Page Act, the U.S. government limited the growth of Asian American families. Nadal points out that there were no laws targeting immigrant women from European countries.
In setting a precedent for discriminating against a specific group of immigrants, the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act paved the way for other discriminatory immigration policies that placed quotas on certain ethnic groups and prohibited the entry of individuals with mental disorders, physical disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.