Irwin A. Tang

Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives

About 6200 words

June 2003


Chapter 1: The Chinese Experiment




They knew next to nothing about the state.  But here they were, in the dead of winter, stepping off a train in Galveston, Texas.  The calendar read January 10, 1870. 

            They numbered about 250, and almost all of them were men aged 25-30.  Most were born in the Guangdong province of southern China.  A few were young boys, and a few were men over forty.  Only one woman hobbled off the train, her feet having been bound in the tradition of many Chinese women of that time.  (Houston Telegraph, 1/13/1870, Peabody 57-65) 

            These Chinese American men had recently helped complete the first transcontinental railroad of the United States, the Central Pacific Railroad (Harper’s Weekly, 1/22/1870, Peabody).  They were among the best railroad builders in the world.  They could lay ten miles of track in one day and completed the transcontinental railroad seven years ahead of schedule.  For three years, they built track through the solid granite of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  They built track through snow piled stories high.  They climbed out of avalanches, leaving the dead beneath the snow.  They fought off Irish workers.  Some even struck for better pay and improved working conditions, and Central Pacific rail executive Charles Crocker cut off their food supply and threatened to replace them.  They still won a two-dollar a day raise.  All in all, about 1200 of the 11,000 Chinese workers on the Central Pacific were killed by the elements, by sickness, and by dynamite blasts.  These 250 Chinese American men arriving in Texas tonight were among the hardened survivors, some of the toughest men America had ever known (Ward and Duncan 230-233; see Steiner). 

            They needed work.  In May 1869, they hammered down the final mile of the first transcontinental railroad, uniting the nation by rail and allowing for the speedy settlement of the wild West.  Despite and because of their heroics, these 11,000 Chinese American railroad workers lost their jobs over the following months.  Thousands of them returned to San Francisco where they had originally landed on American soil (Peabody 57-65). 

            In  November 1869, labor contractor Chew-Ah-Heung of San Francisco negotiated for a group of these Chinese American laborers a contract with John G. Walker, an agent of the Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad.  The Houston and Texas Central was Texas’s second railroad and one of its most important commercial lines.  Construction had begun in 1853 at Houston’s Buffalo Bayou on the Gulf coast.  By January 1870, the railroad ran north through the cotton plantations of the Brazos River Valley, helping to create in its wake the railroad towns of Millican, Bryan, and Hearne.  The H&TC railroad allowed for the efficient and affordable shipment of raw cotton to processing houses and to port (McCarver and McCarver).  The Chinese Americans were to work in rural northeast Texas, extending the railhead further north through cotton country, from Bremond to Corsicana (Rhoads 3).

            The labor contract Chew negotiated with Walker committed the Chinese American rail builders to three years of work on the H&TC at twenty dollars of silver coin per month, which consisted of 26 working days.  Chew himself would serve as the group’s leader and interpreter for $100 gold per month.  (10 XI 1869 – Record Book #55, pp. 20-22, Southern Pacific Co. Headquarters, Houston).  Although the Chinese American men could procure similar wages in California, these men wished to start a new life in Texas, a state to which few Asians or Asian Americans had ever journeyed. 

            The 250 or so Chinese American workers left San Francisco on December 19, 1869 by rail, heading southeast.  At some point, seven “faint-hearted” workers decided to stay behind.  The Chinese Americans knew not what awaited them in Texas.  The South had four years ago lost the U.S. Civil War and now wanted to experiment with replacing slave labor with Chinese labor.  Would the Chinese be treated as slaves?  Or would the South be an oasis from the anti-Chinese riots of the West?  Many Chinese American men were prepared to find out, as the seven deserters were replaced by eighteen more men.    (St. Louis Republican, 12/29/1870, reprinted in Houston Telegraph 1/6/1870 as “The Coming Chinaman”).

            The train stopped in Council Bluffs, Iowa where the Chinese Americans crossed the frozen Missouri River by walking on wooden planks laid across the cracked ice (Harper’s Weekly 1/22/1870).  They arrived at St. Louis on December 30 (GTWN 1/7/1870), via the North Missouri rail line.    From there, they took the steamship Mississippi down the Mississippi River.  They stopped in Memphis, Tennessee for a day and then steamed down to New Orleans (Peabody 57-65). 

            Upon their arrival in Galveston, a journalist described these new Texans to his readers, many of whom had never encountered people of Chinese or Asian descent:


Considering the length of time those who passed through yesterday had been cooped up on the deck of a vessel, they were much cleaner and neater in their clothing and persons than could have been expected.  Though small in stature they were robustly formed, and from the ease with which they handled heavy packages of plunder they are both strong and active.  (Houston Telegraph, 1/13/1870)


According to the St. Louis Republican, the Chinese each carried with ease a pole on the ends of which hung bundles of belongings weighing about 150 or 200 pounds.  They were described as having “dark, almond eyes and olive colored countenance, a whitish hue, tinged with orange and vermilion.”  (Houston Telegraph, 1/6/1870)  The Galveston reporter continued:


The general dress was a blue cotton blouse and pantaloons of the same material but of more ample dimensions than a fashionable gent would like to be incased [sic] in.  Their shoes were made after the fashion of a canoe, turning up sharply at the toes, and their hats resembled inverted washbowls.  A number of them, however wore boots and loose overcoats, and all appeared to be comfortably clad. 


            [ . . . ]


If they saw anything new or unexpected in Galveston they did not manifest it by word or sign, neither did they appear conscious of being the centre of attraction for crowds of strange people.


After their arrival at the depot preparations were made for cooking breakfast.  Fires were lighted, kettles were brought out, pans and bowls were placed in the hands of each, and every thing was conducted systematically and decorously.  The principal ingredient of the cuisine was rice, though we noticed that some of them placed small pieces of pork that had been browned to a crisp, over the tops of their pans of rice.  The chop-sticks were the only instruments used in carrying their food to their mouths [ . . . ]  After breakfast was over we noticed that most of them took a good big drink of the hot water in which the rice had been boiled.  Carefully putting aside the wood which remained after the cooking was done, they washed their bowls and chopsticks, packed away their pots, &c., lighted their pipes and enjoyed a smoke with as much philosophical composure as the most devoted lover of the weed among the ouside [sic] barbarians could have done.  Several of them spoke English indifferently well but did not evince any disposition to be communicative.


There was but one woman in the lot; she was small in size and by no means attractive in personal appearance, having undergone the usual process for rendering the feet disproportionally small; her walk was anything but graceful [ . . . ]  (Houston Telegraph, 1/13/1870)


The writer then described the typical Qing Dynasty hair cut of the Chinese men: their hair shaved from forehead to crown, the rest of the black hair allowed to grow long and tied into a queue, which most often “was nicely braided, coiled around the head and hidden under the hat.”  The article concluded with this:


About one o’clock yesterday afternoon the train left for Calvert with these, the first Mongolians ever brought to the State.  The success of this experiment will be watched with anxiety by a very large proportion of the people of the State [. . . ] (Houston Telegraph, 1/13/1870)


The migration of these 250 Chinese Americans to Texas may have doubled the Chinese American population of the American South.  According to the U.S. Census, only 217 Chinese lived in the entire South in 1870, with twenty-five of them residing in Texas, ninety-eight in Arkansas, seventy-one in Louisiana, and sixteen in Mississippi.  The rail workers heralded the migration of an additional two or three thousand Chinese to the American South over the next few years (Peabody 71).

            At the dawn of 1870, the Chinese American populations of states east of the far western states were minimal.  These 250 Chinese American workers were pioneer immigrants, representing the first large group of Chinese American workers to migrate eastward.  Thousands followed their lead in the subsequent months and years, establishing many of the first Chinese American communities throughout the East, South, and Midwest.   

The Chinese Experiment in the American South

            Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, it was not made public in Texas until Union General Gordon Granger read it in Galveston on June 19, 1865 (a day now known as Juneteenth).  Gradually, the 250,000 African American slaves of Texas were freed from bondage by their proprietors.  Although there was now an abundance of freed black laborers available to work on Texas farms, some of these men and women preferred to live in cities, in part for the urban social environment and in part for their own safety.  (Barr, 40-41).  Throughout Texas, and particularly in the Brazos River Valley, many whites attempted to keep African Americans in a state of semi-slavery through racist state laws and violence (see Crouch).  While some whites sought socio-economic domination, others simply sought alternatives to black labor.

            Just weeks after the announcement of slave emancipation in Texas, white plantation owners began debating the possibility of Chinese American labor as a viable alternative to free black labor.  Lucy M. Cohen describes some of the white planters’ highly racialized thinking in Chinese in the Post-Civil War South:


In July 1865, several articles in the Galveston Daily News supported using Chinese workers for the cultivation of southern lands.  Such laborers would be easy to obtain on a contract basis.  They were described as “docile and thrifty, taking good care of themselves, and doing their work without reluctance.”  The only drawback to a Chinese laborer was that “he will never go in debt to the proprietor and, of course after the contract has expired, the planter has no lien on the laborer, and cannot compel him to remain.”  (Cohen 46)


The only group of Chinese workers to enter the ante-bellum South consisted of twenty Chinese workers hired in 1854 to refine iron at an iron factory in Eddyville, Kentucky (Cohen 17-19), so for the most part, Southerners were unfamiliar with the Chinese.  Some Southern planters hoped that they could “import” Asian coolies to pick cotton and plow fields, rather than contract with free Asian laborers.  The term “coolie” refers to Chinese and East Indian workers who were treated in most ways as slaves, but whose servitude, in theory, and according to their contracts, lasted only eight years.  Most of the 300,000 Chinese coolies between 1847 and 1874 were kidnapped or tricked into bondage, and at the end of their eight years, their “employer” had the option of renewing their contracts.  The vast majority of coolies worked in Latin American and Caribbean plantations and guano pits owned by white capitalists.  Those coolies fortunate enough to survive the deadly ship ride from Asia to the Americas were often worked to death.  

            In the months after the Civil War, Southerners and Cuban planters suggested that Chinese and Asian Indian coolie laborers from the Caribbean islands be contracted to work in the South.  In the two years following the Civil War, Louisana plantations “imported” over one hundred Chinese coolies to work on sugar and cotton plantations, but in August 1867, the “trade” in coolies was halted temporarily by order of the federal government, which had outlawed coolie labor five years earlier.  (Cohen, 54-58) 

            Nevertheless, the Chinese “experiment” continued.  Despite protests that the Chinese were “heathens” and that introducing the Chinese might once again upset race relations in the South, commercial conventions in 1869 resolved that Chinese be brought to work in the South (Cohen 72).  A convention organized to discuss the possibilities of Chinese labor met on July 13, 1869 in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Southern capitalists and planters voted to form a joint stock company that would bring to the United States “as many Chinese immigrant laborers as possible, in the shortest time.”  (Cohen 67)  The possibility that the Chinese might be treated as slaves still motivated the white planters and capitalists.  One attendee, J.W. Clapp, stated that the South preferred labor managed “as of old,” meaning as slaves.  An importer of Chinese laborers and coolies named Cornelius Koopmanschaap, who was considered the “star” of the Memphis Convention, stated that in the South, “nothing but coerced labor will bring about prosperity.”  (Harper’s Weekly, 8/14/1869) 

            Some Southerners opposed the Chinese “experiment.”  Tennessee in December 1869 prohibited the joint stock company from bringing any Chinese laborers into the state (Cohen 72).  The Dallas Herald stated in unambiguously racist terms, “We want neither nigger nor Mongolians – we want white men . . . men created in their Maker’s image . . .”  After the Memphis convention, the paper wrote that it was the first in Texas “to oppose the mad scheme of introducing the Chinese into the country to take the place of negro labor in the South and to supplant white labor in the North.”  The Chinese will “lower the standard of labor, demoralize society and vote the Radical [Republican] ticket.” (Feb 12, 1869, p. 2 and July, 30, 1869, p. 2)

            Some of the Chinese workers brought to the South in the 1870’s were coolies brought directly from China.  In June 1870, 169 Chinese men brought directly from Hong Kong arrived at New Orleans to work on cotton plantations throughout the South.  Twenty had died on the 107-day trip across the Pacific Ocean.  These workers were to do farm work for thirteen dollars a month, working 312 days each year, even “if it takes eighteen or more months to do it.”  (see Cohen, “George Gift” article 169)  In what was the worst case of abuse of coolie labor in the American South, over 200 Chinese died while working on Arkansas plantations in the 1870’s.  They were victims of “the climate and hard treatment.”  (Peabody 74)  In contrast to the slave-like coolies taken from China, the Chinese American railroad workers of the South were free laborers doing far less work under much better conditions for much more money.  Nevertheless, some Southerners saw the Chinese American H&TC rail workers as underpriced replacement workers.  On their train trip from San Francisco to Galveston, they were met by African American protestors at St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  A Memphis reporter wrote that African Americans standing before the steamship were “open in their threats to demolish any of the usurpers who might step upon shore.”  (Houston Telegraph 1/4/1870)  The St. Louis Democrat, utilizing racial stereotypes, explained the animosity by writing that protesting African Americans “regard them [the Chinese Americans] as interlopers who work for half pay, keep all they earn, despise fat bacon, and never indulge in whiskey and poker.”  (Etta Peabody, 58-59) 

            The African Americans were no doubt aware that white capitalists had contracted with the Chinese Americans in part to diminish the economic power of African American laborers.  Ironically, Central Pacific railroad mogul Charles Crocker had threatened during the aforementioned railroad labor strike to replace the Chinese American workers with newly emancipated African Americans (Ward and Duncan 232).  In the early 1870’s, east coast capitalists also contracted with Chinese and Chinese Americans to work at factories in the Northeast.  Most of these workers were hired by plant managers to subdue white labor organizing.  When white workers returned to work, Chinese American workers were most often left without jobs (see Rhoads, “White Labor” vs. “Coolie Labor”).  It is unclear whether the Chinese American workers of the H&TC knew they were pawns in a war between capital and labor.  No matter, these Chinese American men needed the work; this they shared with both white and black Texans.


I’ve been Working on the Railroad

            Upon arrival in Calvert, Texas, the Chinese American rail workers headed directly to the end of the rail line around Bremond and began constructing towards Thornton (Rhoads 3); the rail line would eventually reach Corsicana and then Dallas.  The Chinese lived in huts and tents in a large work camp.  They ate rice, pork, dried fish, vegetables, and they drank hot tea, even during the Texas summer.  They spoke mostly Chinese, although Chew-Ah-Heung was fluent in English.  At least one Chinese foreman was in charge of each one hundred men, and one interpreter represented the group to English-speakers.

            A writer for the Calvert Enterprise observed that “they all speak at once, and reminded us of a covey of blackbirds.”  He noted that the “principal word” of the Chinese language must be “la,” since he heard it at the end of every sentence.  The writer was certainly referring to the Chinese word pronounced “luh,” which denotes past action.  The Texans observed that the Chinese workers were thrifty with their silver because, after all, they were in Texas to make money, not spend it.  (Galveston Tri-Weekly News 1/19/1870)  Some of the Chinese men were “sojourners,” planning on working hard and saving up a good deal of money in the United States before returning to China.

            A week earlier, the Galveston Tri-Weekly News had editorialized that the Chinese would bring the newly enfranchised blacks back under the control of planters and capitalists.  “When the Negro once finds out it is work or starve he will not hesitate long between the two.  Welcome then, John Chinaman.”  (GWTN 1/10/1870)  The Calvert Enterprise stated, “We hope they [the Chinese American workers] will rouse the negroes to work . . . Outside of this we see no particular need of them.” (GWTN 1/19/1870)  In March, the Centreville Experiment reported that some black freedmen watched the Chinese Americans, “habited in the lightest kind of cotton,” laying track during a Texas norther  (GTWN 3/9/1870).

            Texas’s first Chinese New Year celebration occurred on January 30, 1870 (Chinese New Year’s Eve) in Bremond, Texas.  “In full Chinese costume, including large umbrellas, they promenaded the streets, ‘to the delight of the juveniles without distinction of race or color.’”  The Chinese Americans drank whiskey and returned to their work camps by noon.  (GTWN 2/18/1870, p. 2) 

            The Chinese railroad workers sometimes rode the H&TC train down to Houston and picked up supplies.  The Houston Telegraph observed a young man dressed “in his best clothes.”


Yo Wykee, the name of our illustrious Mongolian visitor, who is apparently a young man of about 28 years and characteristically Chinese in feature and dress, has just come down to Houston for the purpose of making commissariat purchases for his countrymen at work up the line.  (Houston Chronicle, 1/11/1942)


Yo Wykee was followed by a crowd of onlookers who may have never seen a Chinese before.  Wrote the Telegraph, “Under the circumstances, his manner was rather instructive to us barbarians, and speaks volumes for the finish given in one branch of Celestial education anyway – politeness.”  Another paper marveled that “the poorest day laborer that arrives here from that country can write and cipher.”  (Houston Chronicle 1/11/1942)


It was reported that one Chinese man bought in Houston a ten gallon hat, a Bowie knife, two holsters, and two guns.  Evidently, the Chinese had been told that the Arapaho Indians had awaited the arrival of the Chinese “with anticipation of intense enjoyment in lifting their scalps.”  (Houston Chronicle 1942)


The Experiment Explodes

            By all early accounts, the Chinese Texans of the H&TC railroad were great workers.   The railroad company claimed that Chinese labor was the “only labor” they could rely on.  (Cohen 87)  Galveston’s Daily Civilian reported that “in contrast with the state of affairs among the Chinese stands the fact that a number of Swedes who came to labor on the same work have already given up their contract, and left for Minnesota, declaring that they cannot endure the hot sun, and must seek a colder climate.”  (Cohen 87)  The Galveston Tri-Weekly News reported too that “the planters round about regard them [the Chinese workers] with approving eyes,” and were interested in trying the Chinese Americans out on farm work (GWTN 2/4/1870, p. 3).

            By July 1870, this glowing opinion of Chinese workers reversed.  The Calvert Enterprise reported that “The Chinese at work on the Central Railroad are said to be very lazy and trifling, requiring constant watching.”  (GTWN 7/3/1870)  Had the Chinese suddenly quit working hard?  It is more likely that the railroad company wanted to rid itself of Chinese workers to appease its white workers and the white communities that would utilize their rail lines.  The Enterprise continued its rant later in July, “We are determinedly opposed to the Chinese coming here; we protest against it, as a laboring man . . . We would rather see every railroad in Texas abandoned, than that one man from the Celestial Empire should be imported in their construction.”  (GTWN 7/25/1870)  As early as February 1870 the Waco Register had noted “the jealousy of the Irishman towards the pig-tailed Chinese.” (Dallas Herald 2/3/1870, p. 3)

            By August, the Calvert Enterprise reported that “the Chinese laborers on the Central road are said to be worthless, and the company would like to get rid of them.”  (Dallas Herald 8/20/1870)  The H&TC rail company evidently stopped paying the Chinese their wages.  By September 1870, according to the Bryan Appeal, the Chinese “have all quit work, and have entered suit against their employers for wages and for a failure of compliance with contract.”  (Rhoads 6; GTWN 9/2/1870, p.2)

            The Chinese American workers’ suit against the H&TC railroad was one of the first among a series of petitions and protests for fair labor relations by Chinese workers throughout the South.  In the summer of 1870, Chinese field workers on a Louisiana plantation known as the Millaudon estate kidnapped a Chinese labor contractor to protest working conditions.  This led to the imprisonment of sixteen Chinese “ringleaders.”  The other Chinese attempted to break these leaders out of jail and refused to work until conditions had improved.  In December, a white overseer on the plantation pushed a Chinese worker, who retaliated.  The overseer shot the Chinese, and by some accounts, killed him.  The Chinese workers rebelled by taking up clubs and knives and demanding that the overseer be handed over to them.  In 1871, Chinese workers at W. L. Shaffer’s Cedar Grove plantation in Louisiana protested the whipping of a Chinese servant.  Three Chinese workers were shot, killing one of them.  (Cohen 111)

Throughout 1870 and 1871, hundreds of the 960 Chinese rail workers on the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad left their jobs in Alabama for higher wages in Louisiana.  The three hundred who stayed on were left in a lurch by the railroad when it went bankrupt in June 1871, owing six months’ of wages.  In protest, the Chinese, black, and white workers took over the trains and refused to let them run.  (Cohen 94)

            Many Chinese workers of the South left plantations and rails to work for higher wages and better conditions at other plantations and factories.  Some workers saved their money and opened laundry houses and restaurants.  Other workers protested abuses and breaches of contract.  Seen in this light, the H&TC rail workers’ lawsuit for lost wages may have spearheaded a series of Chinese American actions for fair treatment throughout the South.  The Chinese labor protests of the American South coincided with worldwide Chinese coolie desertions, escapes, protests, mutinies, and rebellions of that time.  Chinese coolies and workers throughout the Americas were known to have a strong sense of justice. 

            Southern capital had attempted to cast Chinese Americans as a “model minority” to discipline African Americans, but the Chinese Americans shirked this role in their struggle to improve their work conditions and to gain economic independence.  By the mid-1870’s, Southern capital stopped contracting with Chinese and Chinese American laborers.  With the end of Reconstruction, the South also abondoned on its plantations the system of contract labor system in favor of the system of sharecropping.


The Early Chinese of The Brazos River Valley

            Upon losing or quitting their rail jobs, the Chinese Americans of the H&TC were thrown into limbo.  They were no longer obligated to their labor contractor, Chew-Ah-Heung.  But no longer were they employed, either.  They were for the first time far from the Pacific Ocean, the body of water that connected them to China, far away from any Chinatown, and even farther away from their families in China.

            Chew-Ah-Heung traveled to New Orleans in November 1870 and advertised in the newspaper that he had “under his control Two Hundred and Forty (240) CHINESE LABORERS (now in Calvert, Texas) in need of employment, and whose services he offers to the community at large.”  (Cohen 89) 

            While some of the H&TC workers within a few years migrated to other parts of the nation or returned to China, some of the Chinese Americans worked as field hands or sharecroppers on Brazos River Valley cotton farms around Calvert and Hearne.  One sharecropping contract of 1872 stipulated that Sin Yong and John See farm thirty acres of James Scott Hanna’s land near Calvert.  The cotton and corn grown on the land would be split evenly between the two Chinese and Hanna (Hanna Papers).  In 1874, the Hanna plantation imported fifty-nine more Chinese farm laborers either directly from China or from Cuba, upon expiration of their coolie labor contracts there (Rhoads 3).  Still more Chinese may have been brought to Calvert in the 1880’s  (Burnitt interview).

            One Alabama man, in recalling the harvesting of the 1874 Calvert area cotton crop, wrote that “the country was full of negroes and Chinamen.”  (O’Keefe 10)  The African Americans and Chinese Americans were together in the fields picking cotton, as almost all of them at this time were farmers, sharecroppers, farm hands, and servants (1880 Census).  What did the Chinese do besides work?  An 1875 invoice charges James Scott Hanna $9.75 for a pound of opium, which he likely purchased for his workers (Hanna documents).  The Chinese also involved themselves with their new American democracy.  According to one local historian, 150 Chinese Americans, along with a large number of African Americans, registered to vote in Hearne in 1874 (McCarver and McCarver 57). 

            The 1880 U.S. census shows 136 Chinese Texans, 72 of them living in Robertson County, around Calvert and Hearne (Rhoads 7).  While some of the Chinese American men had wives and family in China, others married Texas women.  Among those who married local women, some married white women, and most married African American women.    Of the latter, there was a man named Bar Low, who expanded his name to Bar Low Williams.  The name change did not represent a complete assimilation, however; when discussing the after-life with a Baptist preacher, Mr. Low Williams declared, “I don’t think I want to go to your heaven, so high, high, up there in the cold, cold sky.  Your hell sounds better, warm and not so far away.”  (Tolbert 6/20/81)

            Lie Chapp, a leader among the Chinese, married an African American woman, and they gave birth to two sons, Lawyer and Bud (see Burnitt).  Chinese American Tom Yepp, Sr. arrived at Calvert as a farm worker for the Hanna estate (Yepp interview), and later in life ran a café and a laundry (Burnitt).  He and his wife Moriah had five children (Burnitt).  Lie Chapp and Tom Yepp married sisters, making their children cousins (Rhoads’ notes). 

            Lawyer Chapp became the overseer on the John Hill Drennan farm, where African Americans and Chinese African Americans had for years lived, worked and sharecropped.  Lawyer Chapp was known as “honest and able.”  After his only child (a daughter) died during childbirth, he became “broken of health,” moved into the town of Calvert, and passed away (see Burnitt).  Lawyer’s brother Bud apparently had children; by the 1970’s three of Lie Chapp’s great grandchildren – Alonzo, Jimmy, and Sammy Lee – still resided in Calvert (Johnnie Yepp interview).  By 1981, three of Sammie Lee Chopp’s children were engineers, one working for the Space Shuttle program.  (Tolbert 1981)

            Johnny Yepp, Tom Yepp’s son and Bud Chapp’s cousin, was 78 years old when Texas newspaper columnist Frank X. Tolbert wrote, “Certainly there is no more respected citizen in 1972 Calvert than Johnnie Yepp.”  By the time of his death, Yepp had managed the cotton gin in Calvert for 42 years.  He and his wife Jessie had seven daughters and one son.  Johnny knew little of his father, who died when Johnny was young, but he did tell Tolbert something about the younger generations:  “My children have quite a varied racial background.  My wife had a black mother and white father.  We have some mighty handsome children.”  By the 1980’s, most of the descendants of the Chinese Americans of Robertson County had left the Brazos Valley, many of them to pursue successful careers (Tolbert 1981).

            Just months after some African Americans had protested the 1870 arrival of the Chinese to the South, Chinese Texans began to live, work, and raise families with African Americans.  Segregation and the taboo of miscegenation had thrown Chinese Texans and black Texans into overlapping racial classes.   The intermarriage of Chinese men with black women demonstrated that the Chinese Americans of Robertson County had integrated harmoniously with the black community.  The marriage of Chinese men with white women demonstrated that even in the nineteenth century, Chinese Texans successfully challenged the segregation of races.  Although the census count of Robertson County Chinese dwindled down to 5 by the year 1910, this number is deceptive, as the children of most Chinese American men were counted as black or white, according to the races of their mothers.  The descendants of Bar Low Williams, Tom Yepp, Lie Chapp and many others, provide the true count.


Galveston Chinatown

            During the 1870’s and 1880’s, Chinese Texan communities sprung up in cities and towns throughout the state.  Although the Chinese Texans of Robertson County were farm workers and sharecroppers, they would prove the exceptions over the following years.  Railroad work and small business opportunities brought Chinese Texans to various small towns from West Texas to East Texas, including towns such as Toyah, Denison, Sanderson, Waco, Tyler, and Beaumont.  By 1882, all of Texas’s major cities, including San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Austin, Dallas, and Galveston, were home to burgeoning Chinese Texan communities.  Galveston was the state’s major seaport of immigration and trade, and Chinese American immigrants formed perhaps the first major urban Texan Chinatown in the city’s downtown. 

            From the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, most of the Chinese Americans of Galveston were involved with the laundry business; at the height of Chinese laundering, the 1893-94 Galveston directory listed thirty-two Chinese American laundries and three non-Chinese laundries.  While white businessmen ran steam laundries, which required special equipment, the Chinese laundries were run completely by hand. 

            Other Chinese Galvestonians worked in Chinese-owned restaurants and groceries, and some worked as house servants.  In the first decades of the twentieth century, some worked as cooks in Galveston’s extravagant gang-run casinos.  Perhaps the most famous casino was located on the pier and originally had the Chinese name of Sui Jen (meaning unknown) before it became The Balinese Room.  The only Asians there, however, were Chinese American men working in the kitchen.  One old cook fished the Gulf waters out of a trap door in the kitchen.  Once, upon catching a fish too big to fit through the trap door, he had to be restrained from taking a hatchet to the floor (Waldman 7, 8, 54-55).

            Some white Southern capitalists of the 1870’s undoubtedly reveled in the conflicts and competition between the state’s Chinese and black workers.  Nevertheless, laborers and labor organizers sometimes played into the hands of those who would pit race against race by scapegoating the culturally different Chinese.  The Galveston strike of July 1877 provides an example of such.  

            On July 30, 1877, most of the African American workers of Galveston struck for a wage increase from $1.50 to $2.00 per day.  (Galveston Daily News, 7/31/1877, p. 2).  A man named Martin Burns (race unknown) led the strike, and in a speech to workers the next evening railed against Native Americans (whom he labeled “scalp takers”) and Chinese Americans.  According to Burns, the nation had been “built up by the Irishman, the negro and the mule.”  According to the Galveston Daily News, “If the Chinamen and other foreigners were to be brought here to reap the results of the labor of those who had developed the country, [Burns] thought that it should be knocked to pieces, so that the Chinese and others could build it over again.” (GDN, 8/1/1877, p. 2)

            In the first recorded labor strike by Texas women, black women laundry workers of Galveston joined the general strike on the morning of July 31 (see Winegarten).  Twenty-five African Americans, including a few men, asked white women employees of a white-owned steam laundry to join the strike for higher wages.  After keeping laundry workers out of J.N. Harding’s steam laundry and nailing the entrance shut, they headed toward the Chinese American laundries.  These “California laundries,” as the Daily News called them (apparently implying that the Chinese Americans who opened them came from California), were located in a contiguous line “beginning at Slam Sing’s, on Twentieth street, between Market and Postoffice, and ending at Wau Loong’s, corner of Bath avenue and Postoffice street.”  The Galveston Chinatown, then, was only a few blocks south of the great port.  (8/1/1877, GDN, page 2)

            According to the Galveston Daily News, “At these laundries all the women talked at once, telling Sam Lee, Slam Sling, Wau Loong and the rest that ‘they must close up and leave this city within fifteen days, or they would be driven away.’”  These Chinese American men were neither the strikers’ employers nor their co-workers, but were seen as competition in the laundry business.  The men agreed to leave, saying, as quoted by the Daily News, “yees, yees,” “Allee rightee,” and “Me go, yees.”  They closed their shops for the day, but there is no evidence that they closed their shops for good.  The strike ended the next day, with the requested increase in wages, and the city went back to work, no one apparently forced to leave.  The expulsion of a city’s Chinese population was not uncommon in the western United States, but rare in the South.  Threats of expulsion were usually made by whites, not blacks, who were the victims of just such an expulsion in Texas on at least one occasion.  (see Comanche County entry, Handbook of Texas Online)

            One event that brought Galvestonians together were the Chinese American funerals of the nineteenth century, during which a roasted pig was placed at the grave of the deceased, as a sign of respect.  After the mourners left the cemetery, non-Chinese feasted on the pigs, a common phenomenon throughout the nation.  One such funeral occurred in 1898, for Sam Lee, a Galveston laundry owner who was most gruesomely murdered by Chinese American “hatchetman” working for a tong, or secret society (see Chapter Two).

            Two years later, on September 8, 1900, Galveston suffered one of the deadliest natural disasters ever to strike North America.  The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed 6000 of Galveston’s 37,000 residents and so thoroughly destroyed the city that it “called into question the location of the city itself.”  (Wooster and Calvert 245)  Although it is unknown how many Chinese Galvestonians died in the hurricane, one journalist did record that the Chinese American men of the city acted heroically during Galveston’s darkest days.  According to the Galveston Daily News (October 4), the Chinese Americans “called on the authorities and asked to be put to work without pay, at anything that could relieve the sufferings” of others.


The work assigned them was not of the sort for which “heroes” are detailed.  They were told that the desolate men would need a change of clothing, and that the wounded in the improvised hospitals would require clean linen, bed clothing and bandages, and it was suggested to them that they do the washing for the afflicted survivors.   They acquiesced gladly, and in a few hours a club of them was formed, which, as long as was necessary, did the unheroic work of keeping the garments of the sufferers clean.  It was never necessary to tell them they were needed.  They volunteered for any service that would bring relief – and in the performance of every duty, no matter how arduous, they were apt, efficient and earnest.


The news story concluded that “the conduct of the Galveston Chinese during the late horror will give much comfort to those who are ever looking forward to an establishment of the ‘universal brotherhood of man.’”


Works Cited and Partial Bibliography

Note: Many of these sources were obtained from the research archives and notes of Dr. Edward J.M. Rhoads, former professor of History at UT Austin.  His article, “Chinese in Texas” (see below), along with Cohen’s Chinese in the Post-Civil War South (see below) lay the foundation for this chapter.


Amerasia Journal, special issue, “Asians in the Americas: Transculturations and Power,” volume 28, number 2.  On coolie trade, protests and uprisings.  See especially page 60, footnote 49 on death rate, page 76 on coolies in Cuba, page 91 on coolie uprisings in Peru, page 5 on death rate on ships; pages 70 and 93 on number of coolies.


Barr, Alwyn, The Black Texans: A history of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995, second edition (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).


Burnitt, Pauline.  Interview, as summarized in the file “Chinese Farmers of 1870’s,” Robertson County, Texas Historical Commission (obtained from the notes of Dr. Ed Rhoads).


Cohen, Lucy M., Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without A History (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1984).


Cohen, Lucy M., “George W. Gift, Chinese Labor Agent in the Post-Civil War South,” Chinese America, History and Perspectives, 1995, pp. 157-178.  San Francisco, CA : Chinese Historical Society of America.


Crouch, Barry A., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1992).


Dallas Herald, 2/3/1870, p. 3.  Reprint from the Waco Register.


Dallas Herald, 2/12/1869, p. 2.


Dallas Herald, 7/30/1869, p. 2.

Dallas Herald, 8/20/1870, p. 1.  Reprint from the Calvert Enterprise, no date.


Galveston Daily News, “Another Raid,” 8/1/1877, p. 2, col. 6.


Galveston Daily News, “The Chinese in Galveston,” 10/4/1900, p. 4.


Galveston Daily News, “Jim Gouy’s Funeral,” 1/20/1908.


Galveston Daily News, “A Chinaman Assassinated,” 2/15/1898.


Galveston Daily News, “A Chinaman’s Funeral,” 6/30/1892, p. 8.


Galveston Daily News, “Chinese Funeral Services,” 2/16/1898.


Galveston Daily News, “Chinese Registration,” 10/26/1892, p. 5, col. 1.


Galveston Daily News, “The Strike,” 7/31/1877, page 2, col. 2.


Galveston Daily News, “The Strike at An End,” 8/1/1877, p. 4, col. 2.


Galveston Daily News, “The Strikers in Council,” 8/1/1877, p. 2 col. 2.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 1/10/1870, p. 4.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 1/19/1870, p. 3.  Reprint of story from Calvert Enterprise of January 13, 1870.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 2/4/1870, p.3. 


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 2/18/1870, p. 2.  Reprint of Waco Register story.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 3/9/1870, p. 3.  Reprinting story from Centreville Experiment. 


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 7/3/1870, p. 3.  Reprint of Calvert Enterprise editorial.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 7/25/1870, p.1.  Reprint.


Galveston Tri-Weekly News, 9/2/1870, p.2.  Reprinting Bryan Appeal article.


Harper’s Weekly, “Coolies,” 8/14/1869, pp. 514-515.


Harper’s Weekly, “Coolies for Texas,” 1/22/1870, p. 53.


Harper’s Weekly, “Domestic Intelligence,” 7/31/1869, p. 483.  On Chinese labor convention.


Handbook of Texas, Handbook of Texas Online, various entries.  Go to


Houston Chronicle, “Picturesque Chinese Unit, Landing in 1870, Won Liking of Texans,” 1/11/1942, reviews old Houston Telegraph articles on early Chinese.


Houston Telegraph, 1/11/1870, pp. 1 and 5.  On arrival of Chinese to Galveston.


Houston Telegraph, “Our Celestials,” 1/13/1870, p. 4, col. 5; reprint of a Galveston Daily News article.


Houston Telegraph, “The Coming China Man,” 1/6/1870, p.2, col 4; reprints St. Louis Republican article of 12/29/1870.


Houston Telegraph, no title, under “Texas Items,” 1/7/1870, p.2 col . 4, dateline Memphis, January 4, 1870.


McCarver, Norman L. and Norman L. McCarver, Jr., Hearne on the Brazos (San Antonio, Texas: Century Press of Texas, 1958).


Nunn, W.C., Texas Under the Carpetbaggers (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1997)


O’Keefe, Rufe, A Cowboy Life (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1936).


Peabody, Etta B., “Efforts of the South to Import Chinese Coolies, 1865-1870,” (M.A. Thesis, Baylor University, 1967)


Rhoads, Edward J.M., “The Chinese in Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 81 (July 1977).


Rhoads, Edward J.M., ““White Labor” vs. “Coolie Labor”: The “Chinese Question” in Pennsylvania in the 1870s,” Journal of American Ethnic History, Winter 2002, pp. 3- 32.


Hanna Papers, available at Daughters of the Revolution Library, San Antonio, Texas.  Includes sharecropping contract and receipt from the office of Moody & Jenison, Cotton Factors & Commission Merchants, Galveston, 4/1/1875.


Southern Pacific Railroad Archives, Houston, Texas, Record Book #55.


Steiner, Stan, Fusang: The Chinese Who Built America: The Chinese Railroad Men (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).


Tolbert, Frank X., Tolbert’s Texas column, “The Black Chinese of Calvert Town,” Dallas Morning News, 6/25/1972.


Tolbert, Frank X., Tolbert’s Texas column, Dallas Morning News, 6/20/1981.


Waldman, Alan, “Isle of Illicit Pleasure, Part III: The Casinos,” In Between #53, August 1979, pp. 7-57.  On Galveston Casinos and brothels, and Chinese cooks.


Ward, Geoffrey C. and Dayton Duncan, The West: The Complete Text of the Illustrated Companion Volume to the Acclaimed PBS Television Series (New York: Back Bay, 1999)


Williams, David A., Bricks Without Straw: A Comprehensive History of African Americans in Texas (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1997).


Winegarten, Ruthe, Black Texan Women: 150 Years of Trial and Triumph (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995)


Wooster, Ralph A. with Robert A. Calvert, Texas Vistas: Selections from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1986)


Yepp, Johnnie.  Notes of interview by Edward J.M. Rhoads, in person on 2/22/1974 and then by phone on 3/2/1974.


Yun, Lisa and Ricardo Rene Laremont, “Chinese Coolies and African Slaves in Cuba, 1847-1874,” Journal of Asian American Studies, volume 4, number 2, pp. 99-122.