Primary Source: An “Asiatic” Forty-Niner Speaks Truth to Power, Part 2
“When your nation was a wilderness . . . we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life.”
In the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the 1850s, thousands of glittery-eyed Chinese immigrated across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of North America. At first, Chinese-white relations were agreeable. But as the easy gold was snatched up, attitudes hardened. The state passed a Foreign Miners Tax and newly-elected Governor John Bigler spoke to the legislature of the need to ban “coolie” labor from China.
In Part 1 of this series, Norman Ah-Sing, a once-powerful merchant from Macao, read through Bigler’s speech which proclaimed that
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.[vii]
In Part 2 of an abridged chapter from a version of a book I’m writing, Norman pens a response. This is a true story with small threads of speculation woven in to complete the full living, breathing experience of life 170 years ago.
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 office. This was a message everyone needed to see.
The next morning, he was thrilled to see that the paper had printed the entirety of it. He read through it with pride and some trepidation.
TO HIS EXCELLENCY GOV. BIGLER[viii]
Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States, and therefore take the liberty of addressing you as the chief of the government of this State. Your official position gives you a great opportunity of good and evil. Your opinions through a message to a legislative body have weight, and perhaps none more so with the people, for the effect of your late message has been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil. You may not have meant that this should be the case, but you can see what will be the result of your propositions.
I am not much acquainted with your logic, that by excluding population from this State you enhance its wealth. I have always considered that population was wealth; particularly a population of producers, of men who by the labor of their hands or intellect, enrich the warehouses or the granaries of the country with the products of nature and art. You are deeply convinced you say ‘that to enhance the prosperity and preserve the tranquility of this State, Asiatic immigration must be checked.’ This, your Excellency, is but one step towards a retrograde movement of the government, which, on reflection, you will discover; and which the citizens of this country ought never to tolerate. It was one of the principal causes of quarrel between you (when colonies) and England; when the latter pressed laws against emigration, you looked for immigration; it came, and immigration made you what you are — your nation what it is. It transferred you at once from childhood to manhood and made you great and respectable throughout the nations of the earth. I am sure your Excellency cannot, if you would, prevent your being called the descendant of an immigrant, for I am sure you do not boast of being a descendant of the red man. But your further logic is more reprehensible. You argue that this is a republic of a particular race — that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you.
It is true, you have degraded the Negro because of your holding him in involuntary servitude, and because for the sake of union in some of your states such was tolerated, and amongst this class you would endeavor to place us; and no doubt it would be pleasing to some would-be freemen to mark the brand of servitude upon us. But we would beg to remind you that when your nation was a wilderness, and the nation from which you sprung barbarous, we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life; that we are possessed of a language and a literature, and that men skilled in science and the arts are numerous among us; that the productions of our manufactories, our sail, and workshops, form no small share of the commerce of the world; and that for centuries, colleges, schools, charitable institutions, asylums, and hospitals, have been as common as in your own land. That our people cannot be reproved for their idleness, and that your historians have given them due credit for the variety and richness of their works of art, and for their simplicity of manners, and particularly their industry. And we beg to remark, that so far as the history of our race in California goes, it stamps with the test of truth the fact that we are not the degraded race you would make us. We came amongst you as mechanics or traders, and following every honorable business of life. You do not find us pursuing occupations of degrading character, except you consider labor degrading, which I am sure you do not; and if our countrymen save the proceeds of their industry from the tavern and the gambling house to spend it on farms or town lots or on their families, surely you will admit that even these are virtues. You say ‘you desire to see no change in the generous policy of this government as far as regards Europeans.’ It is out of your power to say, however, in what way or to whom the doctrines of the Constitution shall apply. You have no more right to propose a measure for checking immigration, than you have the right of sending a message to the Legislature on the subject. As far as regards the color and complexion of our race, we are perfectly aware that our population have been a little more tan than yours.
Your Excellency will discover, however, that we are as much allied to the African race and the red man as you are yourself, and that as far as the aristocracy of skin is concerned, ours might compare with many of the European races; nor do we consider that your Excellency, as a Democrat, will make us believe that the framers of your declaration of rights ever suggested the propriety of establishing an aristocracy of skin. I am a naturalized citizen, your Excellency, of Charleston, South Carolina, and a Christian, too; and so hope you will stand corrected in your assertion ‘that none of the Asiatic class’ as you are pleased to term them, have applied for benefits under our naturalization act. I could point out to you numbers of citizens, all over the whole continent, who have taken advantage of your hospitality and citizenship, and I defy you to say that our race have ever abused that hospitality or forfeited their claim on this or any of the governments of South America, by an infringement on the laws of the countries into which they pass. You find us peculiarly peaceable and orderly. It does not cost your state much for our criminal prosecution. We apply less to your courts for redress, and so far as I know, there are none who are a charge upon the state, as paupers.
You say that ‘gold, with its talismanic power, has overcome those natural habits of non-intercourse we have exhibited.’ I ask you, has not gold had the same effect upon your people, and the people of other countries, who have migrated hither? Why, it was gold that filled your country (formerly a desert) with people, filled your harbours with ships and opened our much-coveted trade to the enterprise of your merchants.
You cannot, in the face of facts that stare you in the face, assert that the cupidity of which you speak is ours alone; so that your Excellency will perceive that in this age a change of cupidity would not tell. Thousands of your own citizens come here to dig gold, with the idea of returning as speedily as they can.
We think you are in error, however, in this respect, as many of us, and many more, will acquire a domicile amongst you.
But, for the present, I shall take leave of your Excellency, and shall resume this question upon another occasion which I hope you will take into consideration in a spirit of candor. Your predecessor pursued a different line of conduct towards us, as will appear by reference to his message.
I have the honor to be your Excellency’s very obedient servant,
It was a bittersweet experience for him to write such a missive. Having lived in the United States for over two decades, Norman had made the country his home, even claiming he had become a citizen of it (although there’s no proof of his citizenship available). It had afforded him moderate wealth — certainly above and beyond anything Macao could have offered a middling merchant — and an opportunity to remake himself out west netted him power and prestige. But railing against those in charge of his adopted home was unsettling.
At the same time, such was the cultural tradition of America to criticize those in power. He exercised a fundamental right absent in Macao, and Governor Bigler had severely insulted his people. To fire back against the white man must have been exhilarating, and it provided just the right outlet for Norman’s frustrations.
Any praise or reversal of political fortune for Norman was not forthcoming, however. The white population read it but that audience was unenthusiastic and unsympathetic at best, the “your nation was a wilderness” line undoubtedly not winning many supporters. The Chinese, on the other hand, would have been enthusiastic about Norman fighting on their behalf — could they read English. There were no Chinese newspapers in circulation in San Francisco until two years later, so the only way they could have known about Norman’s letter was to have it translated into Chinese or hear it by word of mouth. Not many of the Chinese in California were literate, and the Saam Yup and Sei Yup associations were not about to waste their time promoting the writings of the declining leader. What should have been Norman’s triumphant moment in the Chinese community, wasn’t really.
Neither did it have much, if any, favorable effect on the Chinese immigration question. Governor Bigler read Norman’s letter and bristled at it, especially its “quiet vein of sarcasm.”[ix] Then he got straight to work with the legislature to revive the Foreign Miners’ License Tax — which set the fee at $3 a month — and to enact the Commutation Tax, which taxed ship owners for each foreign passenger, a fee the owners promptly passed along to their customers. In the years and decades that followed, subsequent taxes, laws and court rulings were passed down to encourage the Chinese in California to leave and discourage the rest from immigrating there in the first place. So began the unfortunate legal legacy of the Chinese during this period, a long train of anti-Chinese actions that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Norman couldn’t have known that this was the way things were heading, but he caught enough of a whiff of it at an early stage and had the foresight to put himself on the record as a dissenter. Despite his dishonorable public actions over the years — at least those recorded by the newspapers — most of which showed him to be a manipulative, sometimes violent man hungering for riches and ascension on the social ladder — Norman is remembered best for this stand against a racist government.
Norman wasn’t the only Chinese man to fire back at Governor Bigler. Hab Wa and Tong Ah-Chick, a man just arrived from Macao and with whom Norman would later feud, wrote no less an eloquent letter:
The poor Chinaman does not come here as a slave. He comes because of his desire for independence, and he is assisted by the charity of his countrymen, which they bestow on him safely, because he is industrious and honestly repays them. When he gets to the mines he sets to work with patience, industry, temperance and economy. He gives no man any offense, and he is contented with small gains, perhaps only two or three dollars per day. . . .
There are among them tradesmen, mechanics, gentry, (being persons of respectability and who enjoy a certain rank and privilege,) and schoolmasters, who are reckoned with the gentry, and with us considered a respectable class of people. None are ‘Coolies,’ if by that word you mean bound men or contract slaves. . . .
The emigration of the ‘Coolies,’ as your Excellency rather mistakingly calls us, is attended with the opening of all this Chinese trade, which, if it produces the same results here as elsewhere, will yet be the pride and riches of this city and State.”[x]
Some newspapers around the country weighed in. The Buffalo Morning Express editorialized that Governor Bigler had taken an
extreme and untenable position to the effect that quite inoffensive honest laborers from China, are injurious to the State for the simple reason that they are thrifty, economical and accumulating. To cure that supposed mischief he proposes to restrain their immigration by invidious laws and unjust taxation.[xi]
The Times-Picayune threw in a few barbs at the Chinese but ultimately agreed:
The duck-legged Celestial, with his funny pig-tail, his soft voice, angular eyes, timid habits and plodding ways, is rather a ludicrous figure out of which to create a martyr to a principle,
there is nothing in his character and habits to make him a less desirable citizen than many who are received with open arms.[xii]
Governor Bigler, however, didn’t much care what the rest of the country thought, and continued down his path. As for Norman, he, during his time in San Francisco, built an unsavory reputation for himself. He strong-armed his way into the leader of the town’s Chinese community, and in the same year he stood up to the governor, he was accused of assaulting a butcher over the price of cauliflowers and ticket running — selling unwary customers fake steamboat tickets (which he vociferously denied).[xiii]
But his letter criticizing the governor of California, at the onset of the anti-Chinese movement, is a display of brave, principled action about which Norman, the Chinese — and all who are interested in the promotion of civil rights — can be proud.
Up next: Part 3 of “Primary Source: An ‘Asiatic’ Forty-Niner Speaks Truth to Power.” In a separate case, Norman has no patience for a frivolous lawsuit filed against him.
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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[vii] 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.
[viii] Norman Ah-Sing, “To His Excellency Gov. Bigler,” Daily Alta California, May 5, 1852, Volume 3, Number 125.
[ix] “From California,” The Luzerne Union, July 21, 1852.
[x] Hab Wa and Tong Ah-Chick, “The Chinese in California.” Edited by E. Littell, Littell’s Living Age 34, no. 424 (April 29, 1852), 32, 33.
[xi] “California and the China-Men,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, June 9, 1852.
[xii] “The Chinamen in California,” The Times-Picayune, June 22, 1852.
[xiii] Norman defends himself in the San Francisco Daily Herald, in “Correction by Norman Assing,” San Francisco Daily Herald, June 9, 1852.