Primary Source: An “Asiatic” Forty-Niner Speaks Truth to Power, Part 1

“We are not the degraded race you would make us.”

Noel C. Cilker
9 min readMay 14, 2021

In the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the 1850s, thousands of glittery-eyed hopefuls migrated to the west coast of North America. They came from Europe, Australia, the United States (California would become a state in 1850), Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Hawaii, and large numbers sailed across the Pacific Ocean from China. They all, down to every last one of them, chased a dream of riches.

Mexicans, Chinese and Africans walk the streets of Portsmouth Square. (The Annals of San Francisco)

One of them came from Macao by way of New York City and Charleston. He was Norman Ah-Sing, a “sallow, dried, cadaverous, but active and keen old fellow” in the description of his peers, and his wardrobe was “a singular mixture of the Chinese and American, as he maintained his queue, and at the same time literally ‘capped the climax’ with a stove-pipe hat!”

His attire blended seamlessly into the sartorial eclecticism of San Francisco, and it was there he established his Macao & Woosung restaurant and the first mutual aid society for Chinese immigrants stepping off the boat. Over the next five years he made friends and he made enemies, and in 1852 he made newspaper headlines. The governor of California, freshly elected, had proclaimed a need to block the Chinese from entering the state. Norman, alarmed by the rhetoric and its implications, pushed back.

The following is Part 1 of an abridged chapter from a version of a book I’m writing. It is a true story with small threads of speculation woven in to complete the full living, breathing experience of life 170 years ago.

Telegraph Hill, 1855. (OpenSFHistory)

We believe that the next Legislature will feel called upon to take upon themselves the responsibility of enacting some law, which if it does not amount to a prohibition [of the Chinese] will materially diminish the immigration of this outlandish, beastly race who are now flocking to our shores, thick as the locusts of Egypt.

— Daily Alta California, 1854[i]

In the winter of 1852, at his restaurant at the corner of Kearny and Commercial Streets, Norman Ah-Sing was in the middle of a steaming bowl of jook with chunks of chicken, slices of ginger, green onions and white pepper. A tickle arose in his throat and he coughed. He must have swallowed the pepper wrong. Or maybe it was the papers unfurled in front of him that caused his throat to catch.

The inaugural speech of John Bigler, the newly elected governor, stared up at him. There were about a thousand other things he’d rather be doing, but Norman had to keep tabs on what the whites in power were saying and doing. Chinese prospects in California depended on it.

A few minutes of going through the speech netted zero mentions of “Chinese,” “Celestials,” “Asiatics,” “Chinamen” or anything else referring to his people. That was well and good. One of Bigler’s paragraph did mildly draw his interest:

Our mining interests are of inestimable value in affording lucrative employment to a large number of citizens, and supplying us with the sinews of energy, enterprize, and improvement. The mines should be left as free as the air we breathe.[ii]

That sounded fine on the surface, but he was quick to pick up on the word “citizens.” That didn’t include the Chinese. He also knew that the state’s government had already once tried to limit immigrant participation in the mines by way of the Foreign Miners Tax in 1850. It had levied $20 per month (almost $679 in 2021 dollars) on all non-U.S. citizens to mine the land but was quickly repealed due to the untenably high fee.

But 1852 saw the height of gold rush immigration to California as twenty thousand Chinese poured into California.[iii] Norman had seen it and felt it himself. San Francisco was teeming with them newly off the boats, and the Saam Yup and Sei Yup associations were exploding with new recruits. Even the Chinese neighborhood of Little China on Sacramento Street, near Portsmouth Square, was growing, creeping its western edge toward Stockton Street and its eastern edge past Kearny. And through his connections in gold country he heard the Chinese were really staking their claims out there. This was great for his people, Norman knew, but it made him nervous. Over twenty years of American living had taught him that Americans did not take kindly to outsiders who came in after them. They came through, then turned around and closed the door. But there was nothing to do about it now except carry on warily. He would need to hear something more definitive from the governor.

Chinese emigrants crowd below deck on their journey across the Pacific Ocean. (Harper’s Weekly)

Four months later, “definitive” arrived in a padded envelope. Norman opened it and laid out the fresh set of pages. They were dated April 23 from Sacramento. He hardly got past the second paragraph when he caught the word “Asiatic.”

I am deeply impressed with the conviction that, in order to enhance the prosperity and to preserve the tranquility of the State, measures must be adopted to check this tide of Asiatic immigration, and prevent the exportation by them of the precious metals which they dig up from our soil without charge, and without assuming any of the obligations imposed upon citizens.[iv]

His heart plummeted. Chinese immigration was long due for a nasty debate and here was the leader of the state firing the opening salvo. Norman sighed. He wanted to put the speech down but Bigler’s words kept his hands glued to the paper.

I allude, particularly, to a class of Asiatics known as ‘Coolies,’ who are sent here, as I am assured, and as is generally believed, under contract to work in our mines for a term; and who, at the expiration of the term, return to their native country.

“Coolie” was a term that simply meant “laborer,” yet the implication was more negative than that. The governor implied that the Chinese, which was by this time a highly conspicuous group, were coming over as indentured workers, which citizens would have understood as a veiled reference to slavery. This was a hot-button topic with the country steeped in the slavery debate — the Civil War was less than a decade away — and a convenient allusion guaranteed to raise the ire of Californians, since theirs had been admitted to the Union as a free state. Tens of thousands of Chinese coolies, Bigler professed, were glutting the market with cheap labor, leaving more-deserving whites left out of employment. He seized on the issue:

If it be admitted that the introduction of one hundred thousand, or a less number of ‘Coolies’ into this State, under such contracts with non-residents, may endanger the public tranquility and injuriously affect the interests of our people, then we are bound to adopt measures to avert such evils.

Governor John Bigler. (California State Library)

He listed his remedies:

1st. Such an exercise of the taxing power by the State as will check the present system of indiscriminate and unlimited Asiatic immigration.

2d. A demand by the State of California for the prompt interposition of Congress, by the passage of an Act prohibiting ‘Coolies’ shipped to California under contracts, from laboring in the mines of this State.

Norman put down the papers. He hadn’t really paid much attention to state politics because there was so much happening on the ground in San Francisco. The plight of his people up to this point was really pretty good. Gold was plentiful and the Chinese were a hit in town; they were invited to march in every major parade, including the one for Washington’s birthday in February and the upcoming Fourth of July parade.

Chinese residents (bottom two columns) march in the Fourth of July parade in 1852. (Bancroft Library)

It was true, however, that the level of Chinese immigration was increasing, and so many of them went to the mines. That didn’t sit well with the white miners outside the city, regardless of how well the Chinese were received in San Francisco. Still, Governor Bigler had it wrong. The Chinese laborers weren’t slaves. Historian Arnoldo De León explains that they were rather laborers working off a debt. A common avenue to finance the voyage from China was the credit ticket system, where an emigrant’s passage was covered by a lender. The laborer pledged to work until the lender was paid off with interest, which, he contends, was not indentured servitude, but rather merely a paying off what was owed. De León concludes:

As such, they were not ‘coolies’ — a term connoting slavery or peonage — and historians have taken pains to correct this misconception about the status of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants.[v]

Bigler was correct that the Chinese were performing labor at a cheap price, but they were hardly the only ones doing so. The Europeans and Americans were doing the same thing.[vi] The Chinese, however, were the natural scapegoats.

A vegetable peddler lugs his laden baskets on a bamboo pole. (Bancroft Library)

Additionally, the influx of Chinese flushed Californians’ racist attitudes into the open. With business booming at the outset of the gold rush, adventurers were far too busy and successful to worry much about the other man. When the easy gold pickings began to dry up, the issue of who really was an American — and thus who really deserved to strike it rich — bubbled to the surface.

Norman put his head in his hands. He knew he should have seen this coming. There was no reasonable way the Chinese could continue to live in a white country with no repercussions.

But what could he do about it? As former head of the now-defunct mutual aid society, he once held power. Men — important white men — had listened to him. But the San Francisco Chinese were now divided, and his influence was slipping away. The Saam Yup and Sei Yup factions ran things now and didn’t get along.

But something had to be done. He couldn’t sit there and read those words without some kind of response. It was unconscionable. Maybe the Chinese no longer spoke with one voice, but maybe this was the issue to unify them again. It was worth a shot.

Norman got out some paper, dipped his pen, and wrote. The words flowed out of him, easier and smoother than he thought they would. When he finished, he dropped the letter in an envelope, sealed it and delivered it to the Alta California newspaper office. This was a message everyone needed to see.

Up next: Part 2 of “Primary Source: An ‘Asiatic’ Forty-Niner Speaks Truth to Power.”

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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[i] Daily Alta California, August 22, 1854, Volume 5, Number 232.

[ii] John Bigler, “First Inaugural Address” (Speech, Sacramento, Calif, January 8, 1852),

[iii] “From Gold Rush to Golden State,” Library of Congress, accessed October 14, 2016,

[iv] Text of Gov. Bigler’s speech comes from John Bigler, “Address to the Senate and Assembly of the State of California,” in Journal of the Third Session of the Legislature of the State of California, 1852, 373–78.

[v] De León, Arnoldo. Racial Frontiers: Africans, Chinese, and Mexicans in Western America, 1848–1890. UNM Press, 2002, 13.



Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.