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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Chinese Americans in Arkansas

by Tom Dillard | January 24, 2021 at 8:32 a.m.

I can recall as a history major in college the first time I came across, quite by accident, a reference to an enduring presence of Chinese Americans in Arkansas history. A bit of research established that Chinese laborers were brought here during Reconstruction to address the shortage of workers on cotton plantations.

While that experiment did not work out, the Chinese were here to stay.

Chinese immigrants began arriving on the west coast well before the Civil War, reaching Arkansas in 1869 when a group of planters organized the Arkansas River Valley Immigration Company and brought 189 Chinese laborers to the state.

The Chinese, all males, were expected to work long hours for little pay, but were usually provided with a house of some kind and food rations; some planters also supplied one-half pound of opium monthly per worker.

Few Chinese laborers stayed on the cotton plantations after their initial contracts expired. By 1905, not a single Arkansas farm was being worked by Chinese hands. Most of these immigrants left Arkansas, but a few stayed in Helena and other areas, the great majority in the Delta. The 1910 census identified 62 Chinese remaining in the state, the lowest point since their arrival.

Some early Chinese immigrants established laundries. They also became known for owning stores, usually small and often located in Black neighborhoods. This same pattern played out in Mississippi, which had a somewhat larger Chinese population.

Since Chinese immigration was closely connected to the Reconstruction administration of Gov. Powell Clayton, many Democratic newspapers, such as the Arkansas Gazette, opposed recruiting Chinese workers, though the Gazette did acknowledge the crucial role Chinese immigrants played in building the western railroads.

Like every other aspect of Arkansas life, race loomed large in the opposition to Chinese immigration. Stereotypes of pigtailed "Chinamen" with their traditional clothing abounded. Yet in August 1871, when two Chinese men appeared in public wearing western dress, the Gazette breathlessly reported that "two Chinamen were seen on the streets of Little Rock dressed like white people."

Newspapers often referred to the Chinese as Celestials, an old name for the Chinese empire. "Chinaman" was widely used, and sometimes they were called Mongolians. Chinese names were usually spelled phonetically, and should be considered mere approximations.

Early Chinese immigrants were often accused of being opium addicts, which was not totally inaccurate. Britain had fought two Opium Wars beginning in the late 1830s to protect an illicit trade of more than one million pounds of opium smuggled into China by the British East Indian Co.

One of the major suppliers to the illegal Chinese market was Warren Delano Jr., grandfather of future U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After the second Opium War ended in 1860, the Chinese were forced to legalize opium, and addiction soared. It is not surprising that many of the early Chinese immigrating to Arkansas smoked opium.

As early as July 1879, the Gazette was reporting that "Memphis is reported to be infested by Chinese laundries, with opium dens attached." The following year a Gazette story reported on a fight among Chinese in which the perpetrator was "crazed with opium ..."

Within the next year both Pine Bluff and Hot Springs were reputed to have Chinese opium dens. The Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper claimed to be "credibly informed that the house [in Pine Bluff] is visited regularly by a number of young Americans, who are fast becoming slaves to the seductive but fatal drug."

It seems that judges and juries were lenient on the opium users, at least during the 1880s and 1890s. In April 1881, Little Rock police raided a supposed opium den kept by Finig Wah. He demanded a jury trial in police (municipal) court, and although convicted, was fined only $1.

In the fall of 1886, Little Rock police raided an opium den owned by Ol Ty, arresting not only the owner but also the clients: three Chinese men, two white men, and two white women. The names of the women were printed in the news account, but not those of the men.

The municipal judge fined the women as if they were prostitutes: $10 and costs. However, the judge gave all the defendants a lecture on the evils of opium, and "after promising never to 'hit the pipe' again, they were let off on payment of costs."

The city of Little Rock adopted an ordinance outlawing opium in July 1892, and enforcement began the following month. Six "Celestials" were arrested on Aug. 6, and all but one of the defendants paid $10 fines, but Wah Lee appealed his case to circuit court. Amazingly, he prevailed because he argued that the opium den was his home, and that it was not illegal to smoke opium in one's home.

Later that month two female Chinese opium users were arrested. Both appealed, saying, according to the newspaper, "they have a constitutional right to smoke what they please." By the following spring, the Little Rock city attorney was publicly stating that the opium den ordinance was a "desperate measure" about which he had "serious doubts." In 1894, a local court reinforced the distinction between patronizing a den and smoking at home.

The early Chinese immigrants were sometimes accused of operating illegal gambling houses. Right after Christmas in 1883, Chinese laundryman Ten Foo and several employees were tried in Little Rock police court for illegal gambling. It turned out that the police had mistaken an abacus for a gambling device.

Chinese women were in Arkansas before 1900, but they were few in number. Despite the prevailing racial and caste system, some Chinese men married local white and occasionally Black women. Ol Ty, who we met earlier as an accused opium den proprietor, was married to a white woman and the father of "one little almond-eyed child."

Laundryman Lee Chow of Pine Bluff was married to a white woman, and when a prominent local white man pursued his wife, Lee Chow won a judgment in local court.

Hong Lee, a Helena laundryman, married a white woman in July 1876. The woman, who was described as "quite pretty," told a local reporter, "Well, ain't he better than none, and then can't I make him wash the clothes, cook, wash dishes and the like?"

A few years later, in May 1881, "Lung Sing of the celestial empire" and a resident of Desha County married Miss Kate Williams, described as "of African de[s]cent, tinted with a little anglo-saxon." One editor wrote that he thought this marriage was "the first case of the kind on record," but "the world moves on."

By 1900, the Chinese population of Arkansas was in transition. In a remarkably short period of time, Chinese Arkansans worked themselves into the middle class, established businesses, brought wives and other family members from China, and became a part of the Arkansas experience.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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