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Borderlands: Chinese Immigrants Helped Build Railroad in El Paso 19 (2000)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Chinese Immigrants Helped Build Railroad in El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.

By Jaime Portillo and Joanna Atilanoc

In the 1880s, El Paso was known as the Chinese Mecca of the Southwest. Today, only about 1,500 to 2,000 people of Asian descent live here. Historians have long known that Chinese labor built much of the intercontinental railroad in America, including the links in El Paso. Now the local Chinese community has begun to document the history of its immigrants with an oral history project at UTEP.

The discovery of gold in California was more than likely the biggest factor that led the Chinese coming into the United States. Because hard labor was needed for mining, young men were the ones who usually migrated. They wanted to make a fortune and take it back to their families.


Image caption:  Drawing of the Year of the Dragon.

But the Chinese were to suffer difficulties unknown to the Americans who were also looking for gold. They were subjected to hatred, prejudice and violence in California and leaving the state was one way to escape their harsh environment. They would next find work on the railroads in the West, especially Texas.

More than 1,200 Chinese laborers helped build the Southern Pacific Railroad from Los Angeles to El Paso, completed in May 1881. When the job was done, about 300 Chinese decided to stay in El Paso. Most were married with families to support back home. With the completion of the early railroad, the Chinese started settling in El Paso in larger numbers. Chinese women were scarce in Chinatown, however. Only two Chinese women were living in El Paso in 1883.

The laborers who remained in El Paso formed the basis of the El Paso Chinese colony. All over the U.S., Chinatowns developed where a large number of Chinese congregated. El Paso's Chinatown was located downtown from St. Louis Street (later Mills Street) south of Fourth Street, Stanton to El Paso and south of Overland Street. In her 1972 study of El Paso's Chinese population, Nancy Farrar says Chinatown served as a place of spiritual refuge for it was there that the Chinese could hear their native language and practice their native customs.

The Chinese operated laundries and restaurants, worked as house servants, cooks, waiters, gardeners and vegetable growers. A few kept working for Southern Pacific, cleaning trains. Some Chinese became property owners, exceeding their earlier goals of simply making enough money to get by and send home. They did this not only by taking jobs that other men did not want but by taking positions formerly held by women, especially Mexican women, such as laundry.

Farrar says all 18 laundries in El Paso in 1889 were owned and operated by the Chinese. This monopoly created tension between the Chinese and Mexican populations. The Chinese were accused of raising prices and giving mediocre service, and local newspapers went as far as to ask for reforms against the Chinese laundry owners.

Like their counterparts in California, El Paso's Chinese realized that their community did not accept them either. The immigration of Chinese into the United States was a highly contested issue. With the people of El Paso and the rest of the country growing tired of this problem, the government decided to act.  

On May 6, 1882, Congress forbade further immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. The Chinese Exclusion Act ended America's "open door" policy and began discriminatory distinctions based on race and national origin. Those Chinese caught entering the country illegally were quickly deported. The law exempted those Chinese laborers already living in the country and Chinese who were not laborers, but the law forbade their naturalization.

On October 1, 1888, the Scott Act prohibited the return of any Chinese laborer who left the U.S., punishing as many as 20,000 Chinese who had gone back to visit their families. The Geary Act, passed in 1892, added ten more years to the Exclusion Act of 1882 and required those Chinese laborers already in the country to acquire a certificate of residence within one year. A September 1895 Herald-Post article entitled "Notice to Chinamen" advised the city's Chinese that an immigration officer would receive applications for residency.

In 1894, The Gresham-Yang Treaty softened the exclusion laws a bit by allowing laborers to return to the United States if they left for a visit providing they had wives, children or parents living in America or property or debts owed them of at least $1,000. And when China denounced this treaty in 1904, Congress extended exclusion indefinitely. Not until 1943 when China became an American ally during World War II did Congress finally repeal the exclusion law, and the Chinese came under general immigration laws.

The Chinese Exclusion Act encouraged the smuggling of Chinese aliens across the border between Juárez and El Paso. An "underground railroad" began, a well-organized system which allowed illegal entry into El Paso. After their arrival in Juárez, Chinese aliens hid in homes there and waited patiently. Language schools were organized in Juárez to teach the Chinese English. Once smuggled into El Paso, they could speak as if they had lived here for some time.

According to Farrar, immigration officials even believed that tunnels with walls two feet thick and ceilings made of railroad iron actually extended under the Rio Grande to serve as entryways for illegal Chinese. When the right time came, they crossed the border into El Paso.

Specially designed houses with attic rooms and underground passages were built. Farrar says even floors contained secret compartments where a man could lie down and hide. She writes in her study that some buildings located on south Oregon Street were linked with underground tunnels in order for the Chinese to be able to move around from one place to another.

Historian W. H. Timmons writes that it was believed that all the Chinese who lived in El Paso supported this illegal activity. Mar Chen, owner of the Eastern Grill, was accused of supporting smuggling. Another businessman named Lo Kay, who owned and ran Kay, Doc Sing and Company, helped smuggle 18 Chinese aliens before being caught.

A New Mexico State University study states that for protection as well as social and economic support, traditional Chinese associations called "tongs" formed and confined themselves to Chinatown. The overseas branch of the revolutionary Triad Society (the Chee Kung Tong) became the main institution of the El Paso Chinese community, with almost half of its population belonging to the brotherhood. Faced with racial hostility, the Chinese became more and more independent. By the end of the 19th century, Mar Wing Kee, a café owner was the unofficial but recognized "mayor" of Chinatown.

While most El Pasoans saw the Chinese monopoly of the laundry business as a nuisance, they saw other Chinese-run businesses as immoral. By 1893, El Paso had more opium dens than did any other city in Texas because of its high Chinese population. Religious groups constantly protested against the opium dens and gambling halls, and crime and violence seemed to rise near these hot spots.

Laws were passed providing fines for anyone who bought, sold or smoked opium, but because many El Pasoans of all ethnic backgrounds frequented the opium dens, they continued to be run openly without fear of prosecution.

El Paso always blamed the Chinese for outbreaks of disease that occurred in the city. Chinatown's buildings were close, overcrowded and the living conditions of most of its people were poor. Farrar says that the dirty water left over from laundry businesses was dumped on the streets, leaving bad odors. Chinese who had pig pens and other dirty areas were ordered to clean up their filth. But as much as the El Pasoans resented the Chinese, they were tolerant of them. Other Americans had driven the Chinese out of their towns.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 interrupted service on the Mexican National Railroad, forcing a number of Juárez smuggling companies to cease operation. The U.S. Immigration Service increased its surveillance along the border, making it more difficult for Chinese to cross into El Paso. Although historians debate the exact date of the demise of El Paso's Chinatown, they agree that it disappeared in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Chinese in Mexico eventually helped the United States after smuggling activities had stopped. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing had been sent to Mexico to capture Pancho Villa after his raid on Colombus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. While the Mexicans refused to help Pershing, many Chinese living in Mexico did so. They supplied his troops with cigarettes and candy and cooking and laundry services.

Marian Martinello writes that the Chinese even helped fight one battle against members of the Villistas. Villa swore to hang every "Chino" in northern Mexico. When General Pershing returned to El Paso, he brought 537 Chinese with him, even though the Exclusion Act was still in effect. Congress granted a special exception for these Chinese to enter the country.

Many things led the Chinese to leave El Paso. The laws that were passed against immigration altered the flow of Chinese into El Paso. Steam laundries replaced the Chinese hand laundries. Gambling finally became outlawed. But the lack of Chinese women was the biggest reason that led to the decrease in El Paso's Chinese population.

However, the only Chinese cemetery in the state of Texas exists in El Paso. It is located in the middle of Concordia Cemetery, surrounded by a rock wall with large iron gates and the words "Chinese Cemetery" in both English and Chinese. Farrar points out that even in death, the Chinese remained apart from their fellow townsmen. Today there are fewer than 100 visible graves. Chinese funerals contrasted with the solemn ceremonies of Anglo El Pasoans. Laughter and music accompanied the procession to Concordia, with a long dragon snaking its way through the streets.

A close friend or relative of the deceased gave amber squares of candy representing the spirit of the deceased and silver coins for good luck to each person at the funeral. The ceremony lasted only about 15 minutes, and the coffin was then banked with food. Martinello notes that one of the many men buried in Concordia is Sam Hing, father of the first Chinese child born in Texas.

Today, El Paso's multicultural population is responsible for much of the city's uniqueness. The Chinese make up a small but notable percentage of El Paso's business and professional groups. Their customs and food remain part of a culture representing the many peoples who helped develop El Paso in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Chinese in El Paso

Paso al Norte Immigration Museum (EPCC Along the Rio Grande project #62)
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