Pacific Postcards

Maya Fielding- The Effects of Early 20th Century Chinese Migrant Workers on Mainland Chinese Families

The early 20th Century saw a period of extreme commercialization and economic growth. Economic development occurred both domestically and internationally, with ties between the U.S. and China expanding in particular. It is clear that Chinese workers in the U.S. had a tremendous impact on the economy in the Pacific-facing states, but these migrants also had an even more impactful effect on mainland China, specifically through their families back home. The impact however was felt on migration patterns, and the response of the U.S. government to those movements of Chinese, preventing women from joining their families. This created personal challenges expressed through letters between Yin Min and Jong Hai, also studied by scholars such as Adam Mckeown. These letters also demonstrate the importance of remittances sent from America back to China, and historians such as Gordon Chang have analyzed the effect of such payments on the broader Chinese economy. By examining the letters between Jong Hai and Yin Min, supported by the works of Gordon H. Chang and Adam Mckeown, it is evident that the migratory restrictions placed on Chinese women by the US government caused financial instability, causing women to rely on their overseas spouses for income. 

By examining the letters between male Chinese workers in the US and their spouses or mothers back home, such as Three letters from a set written from 1946­-1948 between a Chinese-­American husband and wife (in Chinese with English translations), we see personal accounts of how migrant income sent back home had a tremendous impact on families themselves. This particular set of letters, from the Montana Historical Society Research Center, were written from 1946-1948 and convey the story of Jong Hai and Yin Min (1). From the letters, we can gather that Jong Hai’s husband, Yin Min, was a worker overseas in the U.S. who appeared to be doing quite well for himself. Although their economic situation in China was a struggle, Hai is supported by the money sent from abroad. Hai is also six months pregnant, making it harder to immigrate to the U.S., in addition to the legal restrictions about which she complains. Using Hai’s account of her own and her husband's economic situations, we are able to see how Chinese women back home were reliant on overseas income generated by migrant workers in the US. 

The letters between Hai and Min also illustrate the economic situation in China. In a letter from 10/18/1948, Hai states: “Right now everything is expensive. Hong Kong money is high almost like US dollar. Even if you have money you can’t buy pork or beef. If you want to buy rice you have to pay black market for $80 US for a bucket.” (Hai) (2) With the context that Chinese women, especially pregnant women, were discouraged from joining the workforce (3), and the inflationary state of the Chinese economy, Hai’s anecdote shows us how it was extremely difficult to secure basic necessities, such as food. In a later letter from 10/22/1948, Hai accounts, “I received your letter and a check for $100 US. Don’t worry. I know that you have bought a new home. That really makes me very happy.” (Hai) (4) This contrast from the first letter shows Hai’s reliance on her husband's overseas income simply for sustenance. Although Yin was able to support his wife back home, he still barely made any income, as comparatively to the prices of food in the first quote, $100 is barely enough to survive. By accounting her reliance on her husband for income to survive, Hai sheds light on her inability to work during this time, since she truly had no other option with the Chinese social and governmental restrictions. 

Alongside the economic impact Yin had on Hai, the migratory restrictions in place against Chinese women are felt deeply, as Hai offers us a firsthand account of her own struggles with US immigration. In her letter from 10/31/1948, Hai writes, “About my documents, they are still not complete and are worrying me. I am a few months pregnant and sad that we can’t be together... If I can’t make it on time that would be really sad“ (Hai) (5) Hai’s personal struggle with U.S. immigration is one shared by many Chinese women at the time. More specifically, pregnant women such as Hai faced even more difficulties immigrating, as the US government tried to prevent Chinese births happening in the US to decrease the amount of natural born citizenships (6). In the same letter, Hai writes in detail about her immigration struggles: “So everyday I am hoping that the immigration office will inform us to go and see the American immigration office. I don’t understand the delay. They are not in a hurry to do their job. I will let you know, so don’t worry.” (Hai) (7) Here, Hai details how the American immigration office seemed “not in a hurry to do their job”, further illustrating the frustrating effects on Chinese women of the overwhelming inflow of migrants who were attempting to join their husbands. 

Hai’s letters offer us a personal and intimate firsthand account into the harsh realities Chinese women faced as their spouses remained in the US. The inability of these women to migrate to the US caused the economic hardships seen in Hai’s letters, but are missing from Gordon H. Chang’s Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective. Chang argues that migrants like Yin contributed not only to their families back home, but indirectly helped fund the larger Chinese society. When commenting on this economic exchange, Chang writes, “The Chinese workers did not just import items from Asia to the American West; they in turn sent gold and silver mined in the Americas to their families in China. This species, especially Mexican silver dollars, formed a significant portion of the southern China economy and mightily contributed to building countless numbers of homes, schools, temples, village halls, and towers throughout the region, giving it a distinctive identity.” (Chang. 36) (8) Chang points out that most of the U.S. dollars were converted into Mexican silver dollars, reflecting the globalization of currency at the time. Left out of this scholarly article is the mention that with the global increase in capital, inflation rates skyrocketed, leading to the extreme price influx that Hai detailed in her letters. Chang also mentions how this increased income impacted the whole Chinese community through the establishment of social buildings. However, these luxuries were only enjoyed by the wealthier members of Chinese society, leaving poorer women such as Hai continuously out of employment. Missing from Chang’s broader perspective of migrant effects on the Chinese economy is the bitter truth of most women in mainland China evident in Hai’s letters. 

When comparing Hai’s letters to a scholarly source such as Adam Mckeown’s Transnational Chinese Families and Chinese Exclusion, 1875-1943, we can see how her personal accounts are actually supported by a broader lens, contrasting Chang. Mckeown writes about the specific immigration restrictions placed on Chinese women directly, particularly due to the immense supply of (and demand for) male Chinese workers, leading to a rise in anti-Asian sentiment throughout American society. Mckeown states, “However, the merchants, teachers, and students who were exempted from exclusion were allowed to bring spouses and children over, as were American citizens of Chinese descent until the Immigration Act of 1924 prohibited them from bringing over Chinese wives.” (Mckeown. 74) (9) Here, Mckeown points out that when Chinese migration to the U.S. increased tremendously in the early 20th Century, the American government implemented a ban on Chinese women specifically. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a primary reason why Hai was unable to migrate to the U.S. in a timely manner, as many immigration offices simply shut down, causing the extreme delays in processing she writes about. When examining Mckeown’s writings alongside Hai's letters, it is clear that the exclusion of Chinese women in the U.S. and the xenophobia that followed the immense influx of Chinese migrant workers in the early 20th Century had a tremendous impact on female migrants such as Hai. 

The letters between Hai and Min combined with the works of Chang and Mckeown show us the various ways in which Chinese migrant workers affected mainland China, specifically their own families and communities. Hai and Mckeown both discuss the effect migrant workers had on immigration for families in mainland China, as the extreme influx of male workers and thus, rise in anti-Asian sentiments in society and government, resulted in restrictions for Chinese family members such as Hai to migrate to the US. When approaching the letters with Chang’s writings, we can see how broader perspectives of economic impacts only take into account a particular group of people, as Hai illustrates her own financial struggles whereas Chang writes about the positive economic state in mainland China. In the letters, one can only wonder whether Hai felt a connection between the two issues, as although work for immigrant women was slim, Chinese women could make enough to support themselves and live with their spouses. Perhaps if Hai had been able to migrate to the US, she would not have had to face the economic hardships evident in her letters.

1. Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America.
2. Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America.
3.  Stevens. “1949-2007: Women Workers in China.”, 18 Jan. 2010.
4. Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America.
5. Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America
6. Pak, Jennifer. “Why Chinese Parents Come to America to Give Birth.” Marketplace, 7 Mar. 2019.
7. Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America.
8. Chang, Gordon H. “Chapter 1.” Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective, pp. 36.
9. Mckeown, Adam. “Transnational Chinese Families and Chinese Exclusion, 1875-1943.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 18, no. 2, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 74. 

Works Cited-

Bancroft Library. “Timeline of Chinese Immigration to the United States.” Timeline,

Chang, Gordon H. “Chapter 1.” Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective, pp. 36–36.

Mckeown, Adam. “Transnational Chinese Families and Chinese Exclusion, 1875-1943.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 18, no. 2, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 73–110,

Pak, Jennifer. “Why Chinese Parents Come to America to Give Birth.” Marketplace, 7 Mar. 2019, 

Stevens. “1949-2007: Women Workers in China.”, 18 Jan. 2010, 

Wong Family, “Flora Wong to Charles Wong,” Digital Public Library of America,

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