The St. Louis Chinese Americans Back In The Day

Since the 1850s, Chinese Americans have been actively involved in St. Louis. Although the Chinese Americans living in St. Louis were few for the majority of the 19th century they were subject to discrimination and prejudice that is often forgotten. They were forced to live in one block of downtown St. Louis for decades. This is well documented in newspapers.

The story of Chinese American immigrants in St. Louis and the United States generally must be viewed from the West Coast. California is where the two economic engines of California’s Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad facilitated immigration to newly admitted states. China was ruled at the time by the Manchu Dynasty. This led to a series of diplomatic and military defeats during the Opium Wars. British and American merchants were able to import the drug into Chinese ports. Emigration was encouraged by the Manchu Dynasty’s declining fortunes and China’s drug epidemic.

Although most Chinese immigrants arrived in California as men, the initial reception was one of curiosity. However, economic conditions on the West Coast changed and they became easy targets for white Americans. Over the 19th century, a series of legal decisions and laws ensured that Chinese Americans were not relegated to second-class citizens. Bigotry can be cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism, as well, such as when the California Supreme Court ruled in 1854 in People v. Hall that a Chinese man could not testify against a white man in court. According to the ruling, this was because historians had suggested that Native Americans had crossed the Bering Straits Land Bridge to the Americas and were therefore descended from Asians. Also, because Native Americans were considered lesser human beings, the ruling stated that the Chinese were less human than the Chinese. The Court assured that this was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. However, the penalty for a conviction would remain the same.

In 1882, laws were passed that restricted immigration and deprived Chinese immigrants of their citizenship rights. This trend continued for many generations. Although Chinese workers were initially praised for their hard work, many now see them as lazy and shifty, looking to steal from or scam white Americans. In a typical pattern throughout American history, drug abuse was blamed only on a few: Opium addiction was blamed upon Chinese drug dealers. This ignores the fact that opium originally arrived in the United States via India or Turkey on American and British-owned ships.

There were also massacres and lynchings of innocent Chinese immigrants. Jean Pfaelzer has written Driven out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. has documented over 150 incidents of violence throughout American history. The Rock Springs Massacre, which took place on September 2, 1885, was perhaps the most famous. It saw a mob composed of white miners attack a Chinese mining community, killing at least 28 and possibly dozens more in Wyoming. The majority of the victims were either burned or mutilated. Federal troops were sent to many instances of anti-Chinese violence. However, it was impossible to do anything when the whole white population of the town was responsible. The soldiers could only escort survivors to safety in a scene that would repeat throughout the West.

The ethnic cleansing of Seattle’s entire Chinese community was carried out months later. This followed similar acts in Tacoma (Washington) in 1885. A large mob attacked the homes of hundreds of Chinese residents on February 7, 1886. They forced them to pack up their belongings and march to the docks, where they waited for a steamer to transport them to San Francisco. Sheriff John McGraw reacted with force and shots were fired. Both police officers and members of the mob were seriously injured when they fell on the streets of Seattle. McGraw regained city control, but, as in Rock Springs, it was McGraw against thousands of his citizens. McGraw was removed from office shortly thereafter by the Chinese community.

The plight of Chinese immigrants in St. Louis followed the same path as those on the West Coast. However, there was no violence in the latter part of the 19th century. Alla Lee, the first Chinese to settle in St. Louis in 1857, was Huping Ling (Chinese in St. Louis 1857-2007). He would then marry an Irish immigrant. He was also considered a curiosity and fluent in English. He was also assimilated into local European American culture. He was a “go-to” source for information about his native culture when hundreds of Chinese workers came from elsewhere in China to work in the mines.

Discrimination in employment led most Chinese immigrants to enter the laundry business. It was hard work and dirty, but it required little investment. De facto housing discrimination also forced hundreds of Chinese immigrants to live on one block downtown. This block was known as Hop Alley or Chinatown. It is surrounded by Market 7th, Walnut, and 8th streets. This building, now homes to Philip Johnson’s General Life Insurance Building (Spire Gas headquarters), is also where Philip Johnson, an architect, was born. It was not demolished to make way for Busch Stadium. The district was not on the same block as Busch Stadium. An aerial photograph taken in 1955 shows that many of the historical structures had been demolished long before the stadium was constructed.

A similar examination of Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis 1876 and fire insurance maps 1892, 1897, and 1907 revealed that Hop Alley was far removed from a Midwest version of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (1905), a densely packed, multi-tiered slum with Chinese people living in horrible conditions. These primary source maps show that Hop Alley’s block was much smaller than the low-income blocks surrounding downtown. Many of the buildings had large areas of open land in their backyards. Although there were a few small apartments along the alley that bisect the block, most of the buildings were the two-story commercial buildings typical Soulard facing the major streets. It is possible to wonder if newspaper accounts of cramped conditions were more influenced by prejudices than direct observation. However, there was a huge lead smelter just upwind of the block. This certainly wasn’t a good thing for the residents’ health. The tunnel that runs under 8th Street, which leads to the Eads Bridge, was a tunnel through which trains could pass. It is possible that their houses shook when they saw the train. Burials were limited to the Wesleyan Cemetery, and later Valhalla.

Our main source of information about life in Hop Alley is based on sensationalized and racist accounts that mainly focus on the links between Chinese immigrants and drug dealing and miscegenation. As one PostDispatchauthor suggests, the authors were most concerned about white women married to Chinese men. He assumes that since a “Chinaman” knows his inferiority, he should treat his white wife more favorably to keep her loyal. According to contemporary documentation, the description of Hop Alley’s density in the article is not accurate. The author also ignores evidence that there were other legitimate businesses in the area, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and carpenters. A 1900 article headline simply stated that “Superstition has a strong influence over all Chinesemen” before moving on to a bizarre explanation about feng-shui.

In 1943, during World War II, the fortunes of Chinese Americans living in St. Louis and other places changed. Many Americans don’t realize that China was an American ally and has been fighting its wars against Japan ever since the 1930s. As war propaganda showed brave Chinese soldiers fighting against Japanese imperialism, the image of China changed again. In 1943, along with the war effort, anti-immigration laws which had been in place in large parts of America were repealed. The anti-Asian bias was shifted to Japanese Americans. 120,000 were expelled from their homes and placed in camps throughout World War II.

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