During the summer of 1875, Sin Goon, a Chinese immigrant, arrived in the Great Plains in search of a prosperous town where he could open a laundry. While traveling through Nebraska he visited the nascent railroad town of North Platte. Impressed with the town's possibilities as a growing commercial center on the transcontinental line, Goon opened what was probably the first Chinese-owned business in western Nebraska.
Sin Goon was one of the relatively few Chinese who chose to settle in the Great Plains during the nineteenth century. In 1870, for example, no Chinese lived in either Nebraska or Kansas. By 1890 census takers enumerated only 214 in Nebraska and 93 in Kansas. The Canadian Plains attracted even fewer Chinese during this period. Only 80 Chinese lived in Calgary in 1900. Chinese immigrants, who began arriving in the United States around 1850, tended to settle in the far western states, primarily California. They came to the United States as sojourners, with the intention of making a fortune and then returning home. Thus, the first Chinese immigrants worked in the mining regions of the American West. Only the western fringe of the Great Plains offered Chinese immigrants opportunities in mining: Colorado, the Black Hills, Montana, and Wyoming. Denver quickly gathered the largest concentration of Chinese in the Plains; in 1890 almost 1,000 Chinese lived in "Hop Alley," the city's Chinatown.
While mining was the original economic attraction for Chinese immigrants, they also played an important role in nineteenth-century railroad construction, particularly on the Canadian Plains. Between 1881 and 1883 Chinese contract laborers helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway across the Prairies. Most Chinese returned home or migrated to the United States after the railroad was completed, but many settled permanently in Prairie cities such as Edmonton, Calgary, and Medicine Hat.
Service industries provided yet another economic opportunity for Chinese immigrants. Chinatowns in Denver; Butte, Montana; Deadwood, South Dakota; and Calgary supported a wide variety of Chinese-owned laundries, restaurants, gambling houses, and mercantile businesses. During the 1870s and 1880s enterprising Chinese entrepreneurs like Sin Goon left the Chinese enclaves of the mining West and opened service businesses in Plains towns such as North Platte, Nebraska, and Wichita, Kansas. Because Great Plains communities could support only a limited number of service-oriented businesses, Chinese businessmen were scattered across the Plains, often living alone and distant from fellow countrymen. In 1890, for example, Nebraska's railroad towns generally had one or two Chinese laundries and perhaps a Chinese restaurant: two Chinese lived in Sidney, two in North Platte, one in Lexington, two in Kearney, and three in Grand Island.
While the Chinese may have found economic opportunity in Great Plains communities they still could not escape from the racism, discrimination, and violence that plagued the Pacific and Rocky Mountain West. By the 1870s economic depression and racism produced a virulent anti-Chinese movement in California, which then spread to other regions of the American West. Towns such as Los Angeles, Tacoma, and Seattle witnessed anti-Chinese riots; in 1871 Los Angeles mobs killed twentytwo Chinese. The Great Plains was not immune to such intolerance. In 1880 rioters destroyed Denver's Chinatown, killing one Chinese launderer, while in 1885 at Rock Springs, Wyoming, a mob killed twenty-six Chinese miners. Although less violent than their American counterparts, Canadians also repressed their Chinese population. On August 2, 1892, for example, a Calgary mob destroyed the city's Chinese businesses. Sin Goon also experienced intolerance and violence in North Platte. Just weeks after his arrival Goon was warned to leave town by the non-Chinese launderers. When Goon refused, his competitors hired thugs to break the windows of his laundry. Goon hastily left North Platte, but instead of abandoning the Plains he moved down the Union Pacific line and opened another laundry in Grand Island.
After 1890 the Chinese population in the Plains began to decline, largely the result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which nearly halted all Chinese immigration to the United States. As a "bachelor society" with few women, the Chinese population in the United States could not sustain itself by natural increase. Between 1890 and 1900 the Chinese population in the United States fell from 105,828 to 74,013. During these same years Nebraska's Chinese population fell from 214 to 190 while Colorado's dropped from 1,398 to 960.
Chinese immigration to the United States did not resume until after 1947, when prohibitive immigration restrictions were lifted. Further immigration reform in both the United States and Canada during the 1960s sparked a new wave of immigration from China, primarily professionals and businessmen. As Sin Goon had done in the 1870s, Chinese returned to the Plains in search of economic opportunities. In the early twenty-first century, Plains towns such as Denver, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City in the United States and Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge in Canada have thriving Chinese communities, composed of women and children as well as men, and of scientists and doctors as well as launderers and restaurateurs.
Mark R. Ellis University of Nebraska at Kearney
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Li, Peter. The Chinese in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Wortman, Roy. "Denver's Anti-Chinese Riot, 1880." Colorado Magazine 42 (1965): 275–91.