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The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics

Author(s):Ngai, Mae
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit

Published by EH.Net (July 2023).

Mae Ngai. The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics. New York: W.W. Norton, 2021. xx + 440 pp. $30 (hardback), ISBN 978-0393634167.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ranjit Dighe, State University of New York at Oswego.


In the English-speaking world of the late nineteenth century, the Chinese question was more a comment than a question. Within a decade of the first wave of Chinese workers in the California gold rush, the state of California passed draconian exclusionary legislation. Within two decades, the US Congress passed a bipartisan bill to effectively exclude Chinese immigration by limiting the number of Chinese passengers on any boat arriving in the US to fifteen. (For context, the steamships arriving from Europe at Ellis Island often carried 2,000 passengers.) President Hayes vetoed the bill, saying it violated the US-China open door treaty, but said he agreed that Chinese immigration was a problem and urged that the treaty be amended to allow Congress to restrict Chinese immigrants. Both of those things happened in short order. The resulting legislation became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinese exclusion was by no means unique to the US. New Zealand enacted similar restrictions in the 1880s. Australia did so in 1901, South Africa in 1913, Canada in 1923. While the US and Canadian bans were lifted during World War II, the Australian and South African bans remained until the 1970s and 1980s. What was it that caused these current and former European settler colonies to pass such transparently racist bans on Chinese immigration?

Mae Ngai’s The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics deftly explains the events that led to Chinese exclusion in these English-speaking areas, focusing on the US, Australia, and South Africa. As the book’s title implies, Ngai puts the gold rushes of the second half of the nineteenth century into global perspective. The gold rushes were concentrated in these countries, as well as Canada and New Zealand (which also prohibitively restricted Chinese immigration, as noted above).

The book has already won the Bancroft Prize for American history, so its historical bona fides would appear obvious. Ngai’s empirical methodology is clearly that of the historian. In researching this book, Ngai used archives from five continents and in several languages. Economic historians may note approvingly that the sources include economic statistics from various censuses, as well as from labor, immigration, and mining reports. But most of all for an economic historian, especially one studying immigration, the book provides valuable context.

Although this is not a work of cliometrics – there are maps but no tables or charts, let alone regression analysis – it is clearly one of economic as well as social history. If it weren’t for the extraordinary pull factor of potential gold mining riches, the Chinese would not have been in these countries in the first place. There is an element of political economy here; as Ngai puts it, her book tells “how the Chinese Question grew out of an alchemy of race and money in nineteenth-century global economic and political relations.” (p. xviii).

The introduction, “Yellow and Gold,” describes the international economics and geopolitics of gold and silver at the time the gold rushes began. Despite the centrality of gold in this story, the world’s leading economic powers were on a bimetallic standard for most of the nineteenth century. Silver had flowed into China for the previous two centuries. So much British silver, in fact, had been drained in exchange for Chinese tea that Britain sought to replace silver with opium as their medium of exchange with China. The resulting Opium Wars were sandwiched around the California gold rush that began in 1848. The treaty that ended the first war opened five ports to foreign trade and gave Hong Kong to Britain. The treaties that ended the second one opened ten more ports. The Chinese emigration to the gold fields of the English-speaking settler colonies and nations was a consequence of these wars that pried open the door to China. And yet, with or without irony, anti-Chinese agitators would later refer to Chinese immigration as an “invasion.”

Part I, “Two Gold Mountains,” is by the far the longest section of the book and would work well as a slim volume of its own. It details the initial emigration from a small section of Southeast China to California and Australia; the nature of the labor the Chinese immigrants performed; their reception, often but not always antagonistic, from local whites; the language and cultural gaps that contributed to Chinese immigrants’ lack of legal standing; the adoption of Chinese-bashing as a winning strategy for California politicians; and Australia’s failed attempt to establish segregated “protectorates” for Chinese immigrants.

The California gold rush involved Chinese laborers as early as its second year. The international dimensions of the gold rush are striking. The first gold discovery, in January 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, was on the property of John Sutter, a Swiss-American who settled the land in 1839, when it was still Mexico, with the aid of a land grant from the Mexican government. Ninety percent of the gold diggers in the first year of the gold rush were Native Americans. Others included “Californios” (Mexican descendants of the original Spanish settlers) and American soldiers who had fought nearby in the Mexican War, the peace treaty to which was not signed until a month after the discovery. With most Americans thousands of miles away and a transcontinental railroad two decades away, the gold rush became an international affair. Pacific Ocean voyagers from Mexico, Chile, and Hawaii were later joined by many more waterborne arrivals from Europe, Australia, and China, though most miners were white Americans.

The second gold rush began shortly after the first, in 1851 in Bathurst, Australia, about 125 miles inland from Sydney. Months later, prospectors struck gold near Geelong, not far from Melbourne, and the province of Victoria became the chief destination of the Australian gold rush. Australia’s small population and massive gold deposits made it inevitable that most of the miners would be foreign-born. Indeed, more than three times as many (573,000) would come from abroad than from Australia. In addition to China, which sent three times as many migrants to Australia as to the US, the migrants came from the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and even California. Even more so than in California, the rush of mining and miners was devastating – often as a matter of official policy – to the local aboriginal population.

Economic historians will naturally be curious about the labor arrangements the Chinese immigrants worked under. While virtually no historians believe the charges of some contemporaries that most Chinese laborers were slaves or indentured servants on fixed-term contracts, there has been heated debate over just how free the Chinese immigrant laborers were in America. Chinese laborers emigrated freely to the US, but the voyage itself was prohibitively expensive, about five times the typical Chinese income, and debate has focused on who financed their voyages and how repayment was enforced. Cloud and Galenson (1987, 1991) say the system was similar to colonial indentured servitude but without a set number of years and with payments being made by the workers to local Chinese associations (known as huiguan) and enforced primarily by a credit-ticket system that denied return voyage to laborers who could not produce a certificate stating that they had paid off their earlier debt. McClain (1990) says the huiguan were primarily mutual aid societies and did not import labor.

Ngai, who cites these authors but otherwise does not mention them, says most of the voyages to California were locally financed “with family funds or borrowed from clan or district associations” (34). Poorer emigrants had to borrow externally, and the credit-ticket system would become important. (Credit tickets were common in Australia, too.) Ngai offers an in-depth description of the huiguan (literally “meeting hall”), including their long history in China itself, as mutual aid societies that performed important clearinghouse functions. Instead of being importers of labor or direct financers of voyagers, their economic functions were more as intermediaries, with bilingual members who could connect the laborers with local employers, collect payments on voyage debts, and certify to China-bound steamship operators that a particular person was debt-free. The Chinese, then, were basically free laborers whose debt repayment was enforced through extralegal means, thus making them somewhat less free (i.e., less able to walk away from debts) than white laborers.

Ngai distinguishes these essentially free laborers from their predecessors. Before (and after) the gold rushes, there were desperately poor Chinese workers who worked as fixed-term contract laborers beginning in the 1830s in Caribbean sugar farming and Peruvian guano harvesting. Ngai says they were “coolies” in the sense of being bound laborers. The earliest Chinese arrivals to California were indentures on multi-year contracts, but the contracts proved unenforceable, as workers could easily desert and seek their fortune in other goldfields. The term-based indenture system was abandoned. Afterward, the Chinese who followed the gold rushes into North America and Australia “were farmers, rural workers, artisans, mechanics, and merchants who, in many respects, were just like other people from around the world who came seeking gold.” (34) Nevertheless, opponents of Chinese immigrant labor in other countries would inaccurately label all Chinese workers as “coolies,” to whom servility was second nature and who could never assimilate into western society. Ngai does not weigh in on the effect of low-wage Chinese labor on others’ wages, but she implies that the wages were well above subsistence in her discussion of the large volume of remittances from California and Australia. Moreover, most Chinese in Australia paid off their debts in less than a year.

Despite the formidable language barrier, relations between Chinese laborers and their white neighbors were not hostile from the start. Some California politicians in the early 1850s introduced bills encouraging the use of Chinese “coolies” to shore up the state’s agricultural labor force; the free-soilers who blocked those bills said they welcomed free Chinese laborers but not bound labor. But other politicians, notably California’s first governor, John Bigler, were all too eager to conflate Chinese and “coolies” for political gain, creating an opening for blatantly racist anti-Chinese arguments that countless other politicians would exploit. Like those others, Bigler’s arguments were not just about labor standards; he called the Chinese a menace to public safety. But the leading argument, among politicians and public figures such as Henry George and Samuel Gompers, was that the Chinese were a “coolie race” whose presence invariably degraded white labor. Many Chinese were expelled from mining districts and subject to violent, even murderous, attacks.

Early anti-Chinese legislation in California took the form of a monthly foreign miners tax, meant to be prohibitive for Chinese mine laborers, as the lump sum tax was set at what Bigler thought was a Chinese miner’s entire monthly earnings. The tax backfired as an anti-Chinese measure, as Chinese were able to pay it, even after it was increased the following year, and the state and counties came to depend on those revenues. But the hostility of white miners to the Chinese led to some private exclusions, such as by the underground quartz mining companies. In that industry, white workers struck for twenty months in 1869-70 and lost on every issue except their demand for Chinese exclusion. This episode seems instructive as a case of dwindling business support for Chinese immigration: apparently, the companies saw the marginal profits from hiring Chinese workers as outweighed by the marginal increase in good will among other workers from not hiring Chinese.

In the early decades of Chinese settlement in Australia, by contrast, anti-coolieism was negligible compared to the fear of a Chinese takeover. After all, Australia was a thinly populated island receiving immigrants from a heavily populated country. “The alarm over the ‘Chinese invasion’ was ubiquitous and often hysterical in tone.” (117) Although many whites got along with their Chinese neighbors, there was sufficient antagonism – over mining claims, water pollution from different mining techniques, religious differences, and general incompatibility – that the colonial government forcibly separated the Chinese population from the rest, in an apartheid-like policy called “protection.” This policy, in effect from 1854 to 1863, failed to stop anti-Chinese violence and created transportation and storage obstacles for Chinese miners. It also added to the heavy “race tax” burden on the Chinese, as each Chinese resident had to pay a “protection tax” of one pound per year. Chinese vessels arriving in Victoria were already subject to a landing fee of 10 pounds per immigrant. The protection tax was followed in Victoria by a residency tax on Chinese of twelve pounds per year (later reduced and mostly evaded).

Part II, “Making White Men’s Countries,” traces the roads to anti-Chinese immigration laws in the US and Australia. After about 1875, the arguments for restrictions were much the same in both places: pauperization of labor, unchecked immigration leading to invasion, and the supposed inability of Chinese to assimilate in white Christian societies. In the US, anti-Chinese agitation spread through California, most visibly in the “sandlot” rallies in San Francisco, led by labor leader and third-party politician Denis Kearney, whose rallying cry was “The Chinese Must Go!” Violence against Chinese settlers and settlements became commonplace. Banning Chinese immigration became increasingly popular at the national level, even though few Chinese lived outside of the sparsely settled West, and the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Anti-Chinese violence and harassment only increased after the Act’s passage.

Australians increasingly imitated the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the US, including anti-coolieism and claims of Chinese social deviance. This time it wasn’t just Victoria but other colonies as well, like Queensland and the Northern Territory. Demands for a White Australia, including exclusion of Chinese and other nonwhites, became increasingly common. Australia did not ban Chinese labor outright, but it did pass the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, which included a 50-word dictation test in a European language. As in the US, it only led to more anti-Chinese exclusions and harassment.

Part III, “The Asiatic Danger in the Colonies,” deals with the brief and sordid episode of Chinese labor use in South Africa’s gold mines. South Africa’s “Chinese labor experiment” began in 1904, with the importation of a thousand Chinese men to the Witwatersrand mines (“the Rand”) in the Transvaal, then a British colony. The Rand was the richest gold region in the world, but labor had been scarce since the dislocations of the Boer War, inducing the mining companies to look abroad for low-wage labor. Altogether, 63,296 Chinese laborers came via ship to South Africa in 1904-1907. This was a contract labor program. It was called an indenture system, but unlike the familiar colonial American indenture system, there was no option to stay and prosper in the new land. Instead, the Chinese – “raw Chinese coolies,” in the approving words of a representative of the Chamber of Mines – were required to return to China as soon as their terms were up. Work conditions were brutal and antagonistic, leading to the deaths of 3,192 Chinese and work stoppages involving another 19,530, dozens of whom were executed or sentenced to at least ten years imprisonment. In South Africa, Britain, and even in China, there were at least two “Chinese questions”: How should the Chinese miners in South Africa be treated, and should they be there at all? The larger Cape Colony, 800 miles away from the Rand, answered that question with a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1904, just three months after the first Chinese miners had arrived.

The Transvaal Immigration Act of 1907 effectively ended the importation of Chinese laborers. Although technically not a ban, it raised a prohibitive hurdle by requiring immigrants to demonstrate literacy in a European language and went out of its way to insult and inconvenience “Asiatics” by requiring them to be fingerprinted and registered. After South Africa’s four colonies united, a national immigration law in 1913 kept the literacy test and allowed immigration agents to apply it unfairly, sometimes allowing a European to pass on the basis of their signature while requiring an Asian to recite fifty words in a European language, a la Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act. South Africa also banned indentured labor imports at that time. (Also that year they passed the Natives Land Act, which placed 93 percent of the country’s land out of the reach of the country’s black majority.)

The “Asiatic Danger” did not pertain to all of the colonies, just the British “settler colonies,” like South Africa and Australia, where whites settled in large numbers. The anti-coolieism argument had been honed into an argument for the dignity and solidarity of white labor. This argument, Ngai says, was key to the successful launch of Britain’s Labour Party. Opponents of Asian immigration turned anti-slavery rhetoric on its head, patting the white race on the back for “‘freeing the civilized world from slavery’” and arguing that the way to keep it free of slavery was to ban the naturally servile, heathen races from their countries and settler colonies.

The book’s epilogue, “The Specter of the Yellow Peril, Redux,” says the Chinese question has not gone away. Although race-based restrictions on Chinese immigration may have disappeared, suspicion of the Chinese and their government is its highest in decades. Even the “Chinese coolie” stereotype is still with us, as many westerners instinctively view factory workers in China’s export zone as slaves and Chinese students as automatons. Fears of China are vastly different today than during the period covered in this book, which Ngai says was squarely in China’s “century of humiliation.” Back then, China was called “a sleeping giant, who when she wakes will shake the world.” Today’s world is well shaken. Chinese exports are ubiquitous, and the supposed invasion is not of low-wage Chinese labor, but of cheap Chinese goods produced with low-wage labor. China is involved in African mining again, this time with its capital; total Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa is roughly $50 billion. China-bashing is popular among American politicians from both major parties, and the previous president launched a trade war against China. The Wuhan-based coronavirus elevated anti-Chinese paranoia to new heights. The “China virus” could occupy a whole chapter and likely gets considerably more coverage in the 2022 paperback edition.

The basic China question – How should the west engage with China? (Or how should China engage with the west?) – is an old and enduring one. Ngai’s meticulously researched, well-written book offers valuable perspective on a key aspect of that question and would be a fine addition to any China-and-the-west or immigration reading list.


Cloud, Patricia, and David W. Galenson. “Chinese Immigration and Contract Labor in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Explorations in Economic History 24(1): 22-42 (1987).

–. “Chinese Immigration: Reply to Charles McClain.” Explorations in Economic History 28(2): 239-247 (1991).

McClain, Charles J. “Chinese Immigration: A Comment on Cloud and Galenson.” Explorations in Economic History 27(3): 363-378 (1990).


Ranjit Dighe is Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. His publications include “Factors Influencing the Timing and Type of State-Level Alcohol Prohibitions Prior to 1920,” with Eline Poelmans, John A. Dove, and Jason E. Taylor (Public Choice, 2022), and he is currently researching Congressional opposition to the US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII