Introduction

One of the guiding principles in approaching our reading of American literature this year is that literature reflects society. Each piece is a little window on attitudes, customs, conflicts, and social mores; this is true of not only pieces of fiction, but is especially true of primary sources.

Chinese Business Directory

What "picture" of society--and the individuals that comprise it--can you put together using pieces from primary sources?

The ones we will use focus on Chinese immigrants' arrival, expectations, and experiences in different parts of the United States from the mid- to late 1800s.

Although a very small number of Chinese immigrants came to the United States prior to 1850, it was not until news of the gold strikes in California reached China that large numbers of Chinese men, eager to earn money, sailed for "Gum San," or the "gold mountain."

Sing Lee, Laundryman, Silver Cliff, Colorado, approx. 1890

Western encroachment and civil unrest had led to inflation, starvation, and loss of land in southern China. Many young men emigrated to the United States as a last hope for their families. Among their occupations were mining, building the Central Pacific Railroad, laundering, cooking, farming, and, if successful, operating restaurants and becoming merchants.

As you go through this lesson, think about the following questions:

Header image and image of book: Chinese Business Directory, courtesy of Boston Public Library

Image of Sing Lee. circa 1890-1910.
This is a Studio portrait of Sing Lee, a Chinese-American man, in Silver Cliff (Custer County), Colorado. He wears a shirt and skullcap. From a collection at Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Background image: Chinese Business Directory, courtesy of Boston Public Library