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Chinese Workers In Beaver Falls
By Mike Sajna
Milestones Vol 24 No 1 Spring 1999

Along with a sharp rise in the number of immigrants headed west across the Great Plains, the start of the California Gold Rush in 1849 brought the first significant numbers of Chinese to the United States. The surge would continue for the next 20 years, until an estimated 60,000 Chinese ventured across the Pacific Ocean to this country.

Hampered by geography, culture and transportation, most of those early Chinese migrants remained in the far West until completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. That opened the cities of the rapidly industrializing North and Reconstruction South to them.

Considered docile by most white Americans, Chinese laborers were sought by some factory owners as alternatives to white workers and emancipated slaves who had become too independent. Almost as soon as the railroad was completed, groups of Chinese arrived in Robertson County, TX to work on the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, and in North Adams, MA, where they were employed in the Sampson shoe factory.

By June 1872, the Chinese also had found their way to Beaver Falls, where Edward Rhoads, a research fellow in the University Center for International Studies, recently uncovered a colorful, but little known, piece of western Pennsylvania history.

"So far as I can tell, really very little has been done on the history of Asian Americans in this area," Rhoads said. I went back to the beginning, basically to the first group of Asians in southwestern Pennsylvania."

A professor of Chinese history at the University of Texas, Rhoads knew about the Chinese in Beaver Falls from previous reading. They are briefly mentioned in Gunther Barth's 1964 monograph "Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870" and WuChien-shiung's 1982 unpublished Pitt dissertation, "The Chinese in Pittsburgh."

Rhoads expanded on those studies by reading western Pennsylvania newspapers from the early 1870's, and examining material in the Beaver Falls Historical Society. That material includes "Beaver County's Chinatown," a 1925 talk by the nephew of the two brothers responsible for bringing the Chinese to Beaver Falls, and a five-page 1875 report, "The Chinese at Beaver Falls."

As in Massachusetts, the Chinese came to Beaver Falls as the result of a labor dispute. The Beaver Falls Cutlery Co. which was owned by the Harmony Society, early in 1872 experienced problems with its white labor force. Confronted by a similar situation, Massachusetts shoe factory owner Calvin Sampson, in a wellpublicized move, replaced most of his white workers with Chinese contract laborers.

After consulting with their fellow cutlery company directors, John and Henry Reeves decided to do the same in Beaver Falls. In April 1872, John set off for California with the idea of hiring 200 to 300 Chinese workers. According to his journal, he spent a week in San Francisco "looking at factories and seeing Chinamen work (and) was satisfied they were just what we wanted to make cutlery."

In San Francisco, according to Rhoads, John Reeves met Ali Chuck, a 45-year old labor contractor who arranged for about 200 Chinese to come to Beaver Falls in four different groups starting on June 29, 1872.

Controversy arose almost as soon as the first Chinese arrived in western Pennsylvania. Initial protests were in Pittsburgh, though, not Beaver Falls. Throughout July 1872, The Pittsburgh Post, which described itself as "The Only Democratic Daily Paper in Western Pennsylvania," editorialized against the hiring of the Chinese and tried to stir white workers against them until it became apparent that no "Coolie labor" was coming to the city.

Beaver Falls remained quiet at first because the inexperienced Chinese did not immediately displace white workers, according to Rhoads. Residents of the town believed the Chinese had been hired "to do such work as no white man would perform. " Then the cutlery company began assigning white workers to "common work at reduced rates", which caused many white workers to walk off the job
in December 1872.

Protests over Chinese labor ebbed after the Harmony Society and prominent citizens of Beaver Falls promised that they would not be used in any other businesses. But it did not end until September 1873, when the collapse of the banking house of Jay Cooke & Co. threw the nation into an economic depression that ended all labor agitation.

Of the approximately 200 Chinese who came to Beaver Falls, Rhoads was able to find the names of only about 20. From the sound of their names, he says, they all appear to have been Cantonese. When they arrived in Beaver Falls most had been in the United States for several years. They ranged in age from 12 to 55, with the majority apparently in their 30s. Except in possibly two cases, according to Rhoads, they were all men, which was not unusual for the time.

Under the terms of the contract they signed, the Chinese were paid $1 gold per day or $25 gold a month. They were to receive free lodging and fuel, but no food, and were to work I I hours a day, apparently six days a week. Their contract was for four years, after which time the cutlery company would pay their return fare to California.

Despite the fact that most white Americans considered the Chinese to be passive, Rhoads found that those who came to Beaver Falls were not afraid to stand up for their rights. They resented the economic power the interpreters, backed by the company, exercised over them. On June 13, 1873, half of the Chinese work force walked off the job when an interpreter enforced a clause in their contract prohibiting gambling and opium use, the only forms of recreation available to them.

Repeatedly abused by angry townspeople during their first year in Beaver Falls, the Chinese created their own world. It involved around the cutlery works, the "Mansion House," a large, two-story building surrounded by a high fence that the Harmony Society had purchased for their use, and a tea store operated by one of their interpreters.

Still, they were not completely cut off from the larger community. Rhoads found evidence of them "lolling on street corners: and attending community events, such as the Old John Robinson Circus, which appeared in neighboring New Brighton on Aug. 23, 1873. The cutlery works declared a holiday for the occasion and the Chinese were among those who attended the event. Many also attended church services, according to Rhoads, but may have done so more for the English lessons offered than for religious reasons.

The close associations that sometimes developed between the Chinese and their English language tutors even led to one highly publicized interracial romance. In spring 1874, according to Rhoads, Joe Che Oh, dubbed "Pretty Joe" by the press, fell in love with his Sunday school teacher, a blonde teenaged niece of one of Beaver Falls' leading citizens. Joe went so far as to cut off his queue, the long "pig-tail" that the Oing dynasty in China required its male subjects to wear under penalty of death.

The girl reciprocated Joe's feelings, but her family objected and sent her to stay with friends in Butler County. Joe went to Butler looking for her, but without success. The affair finally ended when the young woman was sent on "a visit of indefinite length to relatives in a western state." Joe left shortly afterwards for Philadelphia, where he became a merchant.

Gradually, for a variety of reasons, the Chinese departed Beaver Falls, until by January 1877 only 50 to 60 of the original 200 remained. When their four-year labor contract ended in July 1877, that group also left the town. In the 1880 census, not a single Chinese person was recorded in Beaver County.

Although the Chinese were in Beaver Falls for only four years, public anger their appearance aroused among white residents of western Pennsylvania echoed the Sinophobic sentiments of the West Coast, according to Rhoads.

"They (citizens of Beaver Falls) helped pave the way, to the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Law in 1882, by which all Chinese laborers were prohibited from coming to the United States for a period of 10 years:' Rhoads said. "Renewed for another 10 years in 1892, the Chinese Exclusion Law was eventually made permanent. It was, as is well known, the first departure from the American tradition of unlimited immigration, and it was the first law directed against an entire nationality."

Contributed to Milestones By Dr Joseph Makarewicz From The University Times,
(Pittsburgh), December 4, 1997