Cohen-Bray House    

Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland


The Untraceable Chinese Men of Oaktree Farm

Posted by Cohen Bray House on September 28, 2016 at 1:20 AM

There were three Chinese servants working for Emma’s household in 1870 according to the census. Their names were Sam Wa (21), Hoa (18 ), and Py (50). 


There are zero plausible records for either Hoa or Py anywhere else in the census data either before or after 1870. For Sam, there are two possible records under the single name Wa for 1880, which either would put him as a laborer in Alameda or a Hop Raiser (beer!) in San Jauquin valley. Both Wa’s are listed as 32 in 1880, and both are married, but living in a large household of other Chinese men with no women.

The vast majority of Chinese immigrants arrived by boat from the Guangdong provence in southeast China. Source: Google maps, Wikipedia

As there is not a lot to learn about these specific men, I dug a little deeper into the general trends related to Chinese immigration in California. There is no doubt about it, being Chinese in 19th Century CA (or 20th century for that matter) was tough. The first Chinese immigrants are recorded as arriving in 1848, just before the gold rush. From the 1850s to about 1870, Chinese men worked primarily in mining and building the transcontinental railroad, often receiving the most dangerous and low paying jobs available. Chinese merchants also set up stores and restaurants to cater to their fellow Chinese workers. 


Gold Miners. Source: Mining Artifacts and History

In 1870, less than 5% of the Chinese population were women and more than half those were recorded as prostitutes according to the census. The vast majority of the Chinese women that were here were brought to the U.S. forceably or through coersion to work in the sex trade. Chinese women who arrived in San Francisco were sold at auction, commanding a price of up to $1,500 (approximately $26,000 in 2016 dollars). The average life expectancy for a Chinese woman working as a prostitute in CA was four years. It is nearly impossible to imagine what life was like for these women.

Chinese prostitute awaiting a client. Source: National Women's History Museum

After the completion of the railroad, there was a huge influx of Chinese workers into the urban areas, particularly the Bay Area, looking for jobs. The softening job market of the 1870s and the highly visible Chinese population, along with moral outcry over the prostitution issue, lead to the xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted new immigration and denied any Chinese immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen. This wasn’t repealed until 1943. Let’s just let that sink in for a minute. For 61 years, immigrants who legally lived in this country had no chance of becoming citizens soley because of their race.

Cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1882. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History


As always, there is so much more that could be said on this topic, but my key take away is that Sam, Hoa, and Py, wherever they ended up, probably struggled a lot during their time in California. If they were in fact married, as the census states, it may have been to a woman back in China as there were very few in California to be had. It is possible that they returned to China, or that their names were recorded differently in different censuses. We will never know.



Categories: Chinese Immigrants, Individual Histories

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