Narrative: Chinese Settlement in El Paso
The origins of El Paso’s Chinese settlement lie in the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad during the 1870s and 1880s. Chinese laborers were first drawn to the United States by the California Gold Rush of 1849 but soon became an integral part of the railroad industry and mostly young, unskilled, Chinese men provided much of the manual labor needed. The Southern Pacific Railroad employed almost 2000 Chinese when it reached El Paso, Texas on May 19, 1881. They built simple wooden or adobe residences and almost immediately an area around St. Louis Street had Chinese shops and residences. [i] Unfortunately, the Chinese arrived in El Paso at a time when a nationwide anti-Chinese movement was underway. Efficient, inexpensive Chinese laborers were seen as an economic threat to whites and other ethnic groups in the West. Their culture was seen as clannish, corrupt and decadent. For years, state and local governments restricted and discriminated against the Chinese. This culminated in the passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It ended Chinese immigration, put deportation measures in place for illegal aliens, and denied the naturalization process to the Chinese. [ii]
Site of a 19th century Chinese laundry, 212 W. Overland Street. Image provided by George D. Torok
There are no records of Chinese in El Paso before 1881. Although most of the 2000 Chinese laborers that worked on the Southern Pacific line left the area after the Exclusion Act, a small number remained forming a community of about 300 by the 1890s. [iii] They worked as laborers, began small businesses, and created a small Chinatown on the northern edge of the city. By 1889, the Chinese monopolized the city’s laundry business driving out Mexican competitors. Others operated businesses such as restaurants, retail shops, small vegetable farms, and contracting. [iv] There were soon several very successful Chinese businessmen such as contractor Sam Hing who built a beautiful residence in the Magoffin District. A small professional class, including several physicians was also present. [v] El Paso’s Chinese preserved many of
their cultural traditions such as language, music, and burial rites. They held traditional celebrations, organized tongs which were regional social organizations, and celebrated Chinese holidays. While some arranged to have friends and family members’ remains returned to their ancestral homeland, many also chose burial in El Paso. A Chinese cemetery still exists today in El Paso’s Concordia Cemetery. [vi]
But the Chinese continued to be seen as a threat. El Pasoans worried about the success of the laundries fearing they would draw more Chinese to the city. Mexican laundries were often driven out of business. They were associated with gambling halls and opium dens and both were common in the small Chinese community. Although frequented by whites as well as Chinese, these establishments became the target of city reformers around the turn-of-the-century. Gambling was outlawed in the 1910s and well into the 1920s local authorities tried to control the opium trade in El Paso. [vii] Illegal entries to the U.S. also drew attention. Following the exclusion act, Chinese were smuggled into El Paso through Ciudad Juarez. They were brought to Mexican ports, given a basic command of English, guided to the border by an elaborate “underground railroad” system, and smuggled in from Ciudad. Juarez. Many went on to other Chinatowns of the west. An extensive tunnel system was built under the Rio Grande to bring both Chinese alien and contraband. [viii]
El Paso’s Chinatown was located in an area extending east to west from Stanton to El Paso Street and north to south from present-day Mills to 4th Avenue, the northern edge of town in the 1880s. [ix] The major concentration was between Overland Avenue and East 2nd Street. Excavations conducted in the early 1980s by New Mexico State University archaeologist Edward Staski uncovered a variety artifacts in the Cortez Parking Lot, an area on the fringe of El Paso’s Chinatown. [x]
The small Chinese community of El Paso thrived around the turn-of-the-century but began to decline by the 1910s. Although the number of Chinese hovered around 300, it was reduced proportionally as the city grew. Several factors explain the rapid demise. Few Chinese women came to the United States and Chinese men began to inter-marry, especially with Mexican women. Although illegal aliens continued to enter El Paso many soon moved on to larger Chinese communities in the West. American steam laundries replaced the hand laundries of Chinatown. The Mexican Revolution brought a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment to Mexico and many refugees fled north to the U.S. border but were denied entry. The few Chinese that did remain blurred into the general populations of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Many others left to find opportunities elsewhere. The Chinese community became less homogeneous and lost its distinction. By 1931 it was estimated that there were but six surviving Chinese in El Paso who could trace their ancestry to the period of the 1880s. [xi]
[i] John A. Peterson and Mark D. Willis, The Union Plaza Downtown El Paso Development Archaeological Project: Overview, Inventory, and Recommendations (El Paso, TX, 1998), 113.
[ii] Nancy Farrar, The Chinese in El Paso (El Paso, TX, 1972), 3-4; Edward Staski, Beneath the Border City: Urban Archaeology in Downtown El Paso (Las Cruces, NM, 1984), 13-14; Edward Staski, Beneath the Border City: The Overseas Chinese in El Paso (Las Cruces, NM, 1985), 7-8, 12.
[iii] W.H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (El Paso, TX, 1990), 186-87.
Farrar, Nancy. The Chinese in El Paso. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1972.
Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.
Peterson, John A. and Mark D. Willis. The Union Plaza Downtown El Paso Development Archaeological Project: Overview, Inventory, and Recommendations. El Paso, Texas: City of El Paso, 1998.
Sonnichsen, C. L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1968.
Staski, Ed. Beneath the Border City: The Overseas Chinese in El Paso. Vol. 2. Las Cruces, New Mexico: New Mexico State University, 1985.
-------. Beneath the Border City: Urban Archaeology in Downtown El Paso. Las Cruces, New Mexico: New Mexico State University, 1984.
Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1990.