What was it like for Chinese people on the East Coast during the Chinese Exclusion Act?

Above: images from the Boston Immigration Station’s case files during the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Though the vast majority of Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act entered through Angel Island, there was nonetheless a sizable amount of Chinese immigrants who entered the country through Boston. On the east coast, many hoped that Chinese would have an easier time being admitted as immigrants, at least compared to the harsher west coast.  Though a relatively small number of Chinese entering the U.S. through New England when compared to Angel Island and the west coast, entering through the east coast does seem to have expedited their immigration process. Additionally, the lack of widespread hostility when compared to the west coast did increase their chances of admission. 


Though Asian American studies tends to focus on the west coast, there were Chinese people living in New England from very early on in the country’s history. Some of New England’s earliest Chinese residents arrived in the United States via the China trade, which had been operating out of Salem, Massachusetts, and other New England ports since the late eighteenth century, and for years, the Chinese who lived in or visited the region formed a diverse array of merchants, sailors, officials, and students. In 1870, a cohort of Chinese laborers were recruited to work as strikebreakers in North Adams, Massachusetts for a shoe factory. Once their contract came to an end, many left for Boston, where they found jobs constructing the Pearl Street Telephone Exchange and settled in the South Cove area, near what would become Boston’s Chinatown.  


Additionally, once work for the transcontinental railroad was completed, there were less opportunities in the West and anti-Chinese violence was on the rise, leading many Chinese to migrate eastward to pursue new options. The composition of the Chinese population in the Boston area in New England began to generally become more like that of the West Coast, and male laborers and small business merchants from Guangdong Province still were predominant. The 1900-1930 census reported the Chinese population of Massachusetts was somewhere from 2000 to 3000 individuals, making it 4th or 5th highest Chinese population among all states in the nation.  According to the 1940 census, ⅔ of Boston’s Chinese worked as “Service and Kindred Workers,” and ⅕ classified as “Proprietors and Managers” – likely those who were employed in small-Chinese owned laundries, restaurants, and shops. The 1931 Chinese Directory of New England lists 110 restaurants and over 500 laundries in Massachusetts alone, and a number of Chinese-owned laundries during this period also existed in Connecticut and Rhode Island. 


The widespread anti-Chinese violence that broke out in the West did not occur as much in New England, because they weren’t directly competing for jobs with native-born whites as they entered the laundry and restaurant business, either working for themselves or for other Chinese. The Chinese population in New England was significantly smaller than in California, which also contributed to this lack of widespread violence. 


The male to female ratio dramatically skewed in New England among the Chinese community, due to the Chinese exclusion laws, cultural norms regarding travel, and other factors. During this time, the way most Chinese women could enter into the United States was through relationships to Chinese men or by nativity. The main categories of Chinese females who sought entry as dependents during the exclusion period were wives of Chinese merchants, wives and daughters of U.S. citizens of Chinese descent, wives of laborers, and U.S. born women. 


Additionally, another strategy some Chinese immigrants coming to New England used was getting a Canadian marriage certificate, which helped women who were the brides of men already living in the United States gain entry to the U.S.


Most women joining their husbands were illiterate, so instead of signing their own names they simply made a cross or an x mark. The majority of the women traveling from China came to New England by way of Canada, but some arrived straightaway from Asia aboard a ship passing through the Panama Canal. After entering Boston, women were destined for a variety of locations across the Northeast, including Portland, Maine, Providence RI, Newark, New Jersey, NYC, and Baltimore, Maryland. Though some stayed in Boston’s Chinatown area, many traveled to smaller cities and towns in the region, including Wobur, Mansfield, and Cambridge. Overall, the Chinese population was quite dispersed, likely because so many Chinese were engaged in the laundry and restaurant businesses and individuals set up shop in areas where they would experience as little competition as possible


The “Angel Island” of the East Coast would probably be 287 Marginal Street, an East Boston immigration station which opened in 1920. Unlike Angel Island, however, hearing were conducted within a couple of days and decisions were delivered anywhere from less than a day to thirty-eight days. Generally, in the case of the women entering Boston, the woman, the husband or father, and one or more witnesses were questioned. 1906 Compilation of Facts Concerning the Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Laws reported that “most if not all ‘wives’ were really women who would be sold into prostitution,” which caused Chinese women trying to enter the country to be treated with distrust. 


Thus, though most people entered via the West Coast during the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were still some Chinese immigrants entering via the East Coast during this era too. 


Want to learn more? Check out these resources: 


— Shauna Lo – Chinese Women Entering New England: Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Boston, 1911-1925

— Paul Watanabe and Shauna Lo – Asian Americans in Greater Boston: Building Communities Old and New 

— WCVB –  “Project Community: History of Asian Americans is as diverse as communities they’ve formed.”