A paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies, April 19, 1997, Seattle, Washington. <http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/stepping.htm>
Head, Special Collections and Archives
University of Idaho Library
Moscow, ID 83843-2351
Many Chinese laborers in the American West used domestic service as an entry point to entrepreneurial opportunities. Following a brief description of the role of Chinese servants in the American West, we will examine case studies of individuals who used domestic service as an effective stepping stone to more entrepreneurial, higher-status activities. Since not all servants became entrepreneurs, we will look at characteristics of entrepreneurship for insight into the life decisions made by Chinese servants and laborers. "Stepping Stones to Empowerment: Chinese Servants in the American West" continues the author's earlier research on Chinese servants in the American West. Travel support to make this presentation was provided by the University of Idaho's John Calhoun Smith Memorial Fund.
After the discovery of gold in the West, labor was always scarce because every laborer mistakenly believed that work in the gold fields was more remunerative than any other kind of employment. At the very least, the gold rushes drained off large numbers of workers who otherwise would have been filling jobs and building communities. There was also a resulting imbalance between the number of males and females, with females in decidedly shorter supply. The larger society greatly felt the lack of lower-class women who could serve as domestics. At one point, San Francisco bachelors even shipped their dirty laundry to Hawaii to be washed. (For background on Chinese servants: Abraham, Terry. Class, Gender, and Race: Chinese Servants in the North American West. A paper presented at the Joint Regional Conference Hawai'i/Pacific and Pacific Northwest Association for Asian American Studies, Honolulu, March 26, 1996, see <http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/papers/chservnt.htm>. On laundry to Hawaii, see Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California. San Francisco, History Company, 1888. v.6, p. 236.)
The shortage of labor for such tasks as doing the laundry or building the transcontinental railroad meant that employers sought to import workers, either from the eastern states or from across the Pacific. Coupled with outward propelling forces such as war, famine, and floods, southern China responded to the pull of work by sending laborers to western ports.
In accordance with Chinese custom, where women were expected to stay at home and sustain the husband's family, these immigrant laborers were almost entirely male. The demand for domestic labor eventually met the supply of Chinese workers. As a result, male Chinese laborers assumed the usually female role of domestic servant on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, despite efforts to recruit from traditional sources in the eastern and southern states. (Katzman, David M. Seven days a week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1978. p. 207.)
Domestic service involved cooking, cleaning, waiting table, laundry, child care, and the hundreds of other tasks that the primary caregiver in each home provided. Many households required servants simply because the amount of work was too much for any one person. In addition, social mores stressed the incapacity of adult women for domestic labor. The weak and wan dependent woman of popular literature could not be expected to carry and boil tubs of water to do the laundry every week. These kinds of jobs required sturdy immigrant women who didn't have fainting spells. (Katzman, David M. Seven days a week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1978. pp. 111, 120, 149.) In addition, the rich social life of upper and middle-class women required more "free" time than continual house-cleaning and cooking provided. Afternoon social calls, teas, receptions, and expansive dinners were part of the life-style of the socially conscious. However, as one observer noted: "For what good purpose this assistance [of servants] sets the women free is not easy to guess; rocking the chairs seems the most arduous duty in many Californian homes, and it is one which is faithfully carried out." (Shepherd, William. Prairie experiences in handling cattle and sheep. Freeport, Books for Libraries Press, [1971 reprint] 1885. 116-117.)
Into this economic niche resulting from overwhelming demographic, social, and political factors stepped the Chinese laborer. The Chinese were no more suited for domestic service in the West than were the Basque fishermen who became sheepherders there; this was just an artificial economic niche that circumstances made it possible for them to fill.
While much of the late Victorian era social life existed only in the magazines and other taste-arbiters, it did seem that every home must have its Chinese servant. Not just in the provincial capitals such as San Francisco or Victoria, but even in remote mining towns in Idaho, and inland communities such as Boise, Walla Walla, and Lewiston. In mountainous Pierce, Idaho, for instance, in 1880, there were seven household cooks and three Chinese servants. (Stapp, Darby C. "The Documentary Record of an Overseas Chinese Mining Camp." in Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese, ed. by Priscilla Wegars. Amityville, Baywood, 1993. p. 15.) One woman remembered of Boise, "nearly everyone whom I knew had a Chinese cook, and usually he was not only the cook but generally house boy -- washing, ironing, and doing all of the heavy work." ("Boise in the Seventies was a Delightful, Gay City," Idaho Statesman, 23 July 1939, p. 6, as quoted in Yu, Li-hua. Chinese Immigrants in Idaho. Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 1991. pp. 128-129.) Another noted: "All the first families had them, and so did the young officers stationed at Boise Barracks." ("Dragon is Gone," undated Statesman clipping in ISHS vertical file, as quoted in Yu, Li-hua. Chinese Immigrants in Idaho. Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 1991. p. 129.) It was not uncommon for military officers to have Chinese servants in the western posts. (Photographs of General O. O. Howard's Chinese servants, as presented by Donna Wells of Howard University, Society of American Archivists' annual meeting, Washington, D.C., September 1995; Roe, Frances. Army letters from an officer's wife, 1871-1888. New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1909. passim.) In Walla Walla, in eastern Washington, "In those days anyone who aspired to be classed as one of the Nob Hill set simply had to have a Chinese cook." (Bennett, Robert. Walla Walla, a town built to be a city: 1900-1910. v. 2 (n.p. 1982) 159; as quoted by Jewell, James Robinson. "Straw hat work force: The Chinese role in small town economies." Pacific Northwest Forum, Second Series, 6:1(Winter-Spring 1993) 47.)
Domestic service provided a number of learning opportunities for the Chinese who chose this route. They learned how to cook "American-style," accomplished the rigors of house-cleaning and laundry, and even coped with child care. In addition, servants were in an excellent position to "get inside" the dominant culture. Unlike the railroad or cannery worker who was insulated from the Caucasians by the contractor, the servant was thrown into the midst of a "white" milieu. Learning some English was a requirement, since the lady of the house was certainly not going to learn Chinese.
In addition to domestic duties, many cooks were also the shoppers. They would go to market, interact with the shopkeepers, and select and pay for the food supplies. As butlers and while waiting table they interacted with the social and political elite of the community. A Lewiston, Idaho, resident recalled having a U.S. Senator as a houseguest. During dinner, the Chinese servant asked to be introduced to the assembled company and went around the table shaking hands. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24.)
Others took advantage of their situation to learn business skills. Gee Sing asked his employer how to read the exchange rates in the newspaper; every night he would study the price of silver in Hong Kong. When it reached his target, he was off to the bank to buy or sell, in order to increase his stake being held for him in China. (Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44(April 29, 1933) p. 67.)
Domestic service as a stepping stone to entrepreneurship has not, and perhaps can not, be proven. However there are numerous examples in the literature of Chinese men who began their American life as servants and moved out to establish businesses and other ventures. Among these are:
He reported in the 1930s that after his arrival in southern California he first washed dishes in a French restaurant, and then went into domestic service for six years. Following that period he became a gardener. Eventually he bought land and became a farmer. (Gin Chow. Gin Chow's First Annual Almanac. Los Angeles: Wetzel Publishing, 1932. p. 29.)
A bright, young go-getter, Gee Hing became a cook for a Californian after learning the trade in the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco. He also had experience driving a laundry truck. He mother called him back to China for an arranged marriage, after which returned to the States, as planned, to become a merchant. As a grocer in San Bernardino, he kept in touch with his previous Caucasian employer. (Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44(April 29, 1933) p. 68.)
He came to the United States in 1877 and found his first job in San Francisco as a servant. Like many, he found this role too constricting and by 1882 he signed on as packer in an Alaskan salmon cannery, and was later promoted to foreman. Based on that experience, he set up his own labor contracting business in San Francisco. Forced to find alternate sources for the Chinese goods needed by his laborers, he opened his own import business. Unionization of the Alaskan canneries diminished Quong's role as a labor contractor and supplier of goods. He retired, and died soon after, in 1938. (Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its people. San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989. pp. 80-84.)
James was born in 1891 in Olympia, Washington. He started out as a houseboy and cook, and at age twelve or thirteen received three dollars a week. Later in life he was a Minneapolis restaurateur. (James, Walter. "Walter James: Reminiscences of my younger days," Interview by Him Mark Lai, Laura Lai, and Philip P. Choy; edited by Marlon K. Hom. in Chinese America: History and Perspectives 1995. San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1995. pp. 75-86.)
A goldsmith by trade, Dong Tien Shong left Hong Kong in 1873 and found work in Gonzales in the Salinas Valley as a servant for a Spanish family. On his $20 per month salary, he saved $800. He then quit and started a small store offering Chinese goods to the laborers in the valley. He expanded into Salinas and then Pajaro, opening a restaurant as well as additional stores. He died in 1933 at the age of 78 after overexerting himself assisting the survivors of a Pajaro Chinatown fire. (Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its people. San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989. pp. 229-234.)
These brief biographical mentions can be supplemented by closer examination of three individuals whose rose from domestic service to positions of prominence and appreciation within their respective communities. These are Ted Loy and Gue Owen of Lewiston, Idaho and Goon Dip of Seattle, Washington.
Born in the Taishan district of China in 1879, Loy followed his parents to Seattle in 1891. (U.S. Census 1920: Idaho, Nez Perce County, Lewiston, Precinct 3, sheet 2A; Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B; Loy's grandson stated that Ted Loy's name was actually Eng Moon Loy; Eng was his surname (Gorden Lee, personal communication to Priscilla Wegars, 1994). His gravestone in the Lewiston Normal Hill Cemetery gives his name as Eng Ted Loy. I appreciate Priscilla Wegars' provision of her notes on Lewiston pioneers Ted Loy and Gue Owen.) A few years later, possibly after working as a cook in Portland, he was employed on a steamboat traveling on the Columbia River and Snake Rivers, from Celilo Falls to Lewiston, Idaho. (Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B. Loy's grandson, Gorden Lee, stated that Eng Moon Loy was "driven out of Portland for union activities" because he had "joined with Caucasian cooks trying to [work] fewer hours [in order] to spend more time with their families" (Gorden Lee, personal communication to Priscilla Wegars, 1993). For more on steamboats on the river, see Randall V. Mills, Stern-wheelers up the Columbia. Palo Alto, Pacific Books, 1947. pp. 83-84.)
In 1900, by some reports, he was noticed by the local agent for the steamship company, John P. Vollmer, and was offered a position in that household. (Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B; Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho Chinese Lore. Caldwell, Caxton, 1970. p. 22. Loy lived on the second floor in the Vollmer house.) Vollmer was a prominent businessman in Lewiston with interests in trade, banks, flour mills, electric power, telegraphs, telephones, and transportation. ("John P. Vollmer," in French, Hiram T. History of Idaho. Chicago, Lewis Publishing Company, 1914. v.3, pp. 1006-1007.) Later, Loy transferred his employment to the home of another Lewiston banker, William F. Kettenbach. (Lewiston Morning Tribune, 4 June 1962, p. 14.)
Leaving domestic service, Loy apprenticed under Louie Kim at the Portland Cafe and then moved on to the kitchen at the Bollinger Hotel. (Trull, Fern Coble. The history of the Chinese in Idaho from 1864 to 1910. MA Thesis, University of Oregon, June 1946. pp. 58, 60; Lewiston Morning Tribune, 6 October 1935, sect. 2, p. 6. The dates of Loy's Portland Cafe employment are not known. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 4 June 1962, p. 14.) Married in 1918, by 1920 he owned his own restaurant. (U.S. Census 1920: Idaho, Nez Perce County, Lewiston, Precinct 3, Sheet 2A. The name of the restaurant he owned at that time is not known.) He remained active in the restaurant business as cook, owner and manager of a variety of establishments until his retirement in 1968. (Campbell, Thomas W. The Elders/ Ted Loy. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 11 December 1977, p. 5C; Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B; Bailey, Robert G. and Paul B. Blake, compilers. Nez Perce County, Idaho and Asotin County, Washington 1927 Directory. Lewiston, ID: R. G. Bailey and P. B. Blake. . pp. 57, 60; Lewiston Morning Tribune, 4 June 1962, p. 14; Polk, R. L. and Company. Polk's Lewiston City and Nez Perce County (Idaho) Clarkston City and Asotin County (Washington) Directory 1931-32. Seattle: R. L. Polk and Co. 1931. p. 120; Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho Chinese Lore. Caldwell, Caxton, 1970. p. 22; Bailey, Robert G., compiler. City of Lewiston and Nez Perce County, Idaho; City of Clarkston and Asotin County, Washington 1948 Directory. Lewiston, ID: R. G. Bailey.  pp. 65, 79, 85, 96-A, 128-D.) He was a member of the local temple society, along with other Lewiston restaurateurs. (Idaho State Historical Society photograph, No. 2961.) He died in Lewiston in 1981, age 101. (Campbell, Thomas W. Ted Loy, Chinese Pioneer, Is Dead at 101. Lewiston Morning Tribune, 21 March 1981, p. 2B. Ted Loy's gravestone, in the Lewiston Normal Hill Cemetery, is engraved in both Chinese and English. The English reads, "Eng Ted Loy / July 3, 1880 / Mar. 19, 1981.")
Gue Owen arrived in Idaho around 1875 at about twelve years of age. He first worked in the mines at Elk City but soon quit that and dropped down to the Camas Prairie above Lewiston, Idaho. Here, he cooked for prominent landowner Loyal P. Brown in Mt. Idaho. (Lewiston Weekly Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January 1894.) He apparently worked for a Mrs. Owen, from whom he derived his surname. She taught him to make bread, a skill he used to supply loaves to the Army troops defeated by the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in 1877. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24.)
Gue Owen was employed by the Robinson family in Grangeville from 1875 to about 1885. While in Grangeville he attended school where he honed his English. He also worked for a Mr. John T. Brown and at a Grangeville laundry. (Lewiston Weekly Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January 1894. Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Pioneer days in Idaho County, v.1. Caldwell, Caxton, 1947. p.136-137; in 1904 he is reported as having "lived in Lewiston and vicinity since 1877." Lewiston Morning Tribune, 14(285)2:3, September 1904.)
In 1887 or so, he returned to China to get married. After a year, and the birth of a boy, he returned to Idaho. (Lewiston Weekly Tribune, 2(16):1, 11 January 1894.) In 1889 he was apparently employed as cook and servant to anthropologist Alice Fletcher and her troupe who traveled throughout the Nez Perce Indian Reservation re-allotting Indian lands. (Gay, E. Jane. With the Nez Perces: Alice Fletcher in the field, 1889-92. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1981. p.12.)
Late in 1899 he ran the Kwong Lung Laundry in Lewiston. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24; Lewiston Teller, 23(58):3, 17 May 1899. Owen apparently preceding Ted Loy in the position as servant to the Kettenbach family.) From there he moved back into domestic service, for a local banker. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24.) About 1900 he worked for a year as a cook in the men's dorm at Lewiston Normal School. (Trull, Fern Coble. The history of the Chinese in Idaho from 1864 to 1910. MA Thesis, University of Oregon, June 1946. p. 57.) According to one local historian, "after he left the dormitory, he ran a hotel [and possibly a store] in downtown Lewiston. He eventually retired, went back to China, and was, according to rumor, robbed and murdered." (Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Pioneer days in Idaho County, v.1. Caldwell, Caxton, 1947. p.136; Elsensohn, Sister M. Alfreda. Idaho Chinese Lore. Caldwell, Caxton, 1970. p. 20.)
Goon Dip was born in 1862 in the Taishan district of China. In 1876, aged 14, he traveled from Hong Kong to Portland and on to Tacoma where he became a laborer for relative. In 1885 or 1886 he returned to China and married. (Information on Goon Dip has been extracted from Chew, Ron, ed. Reflections of Seattle's Chinese Americans: the first 100 years. Seattle, University of Washington press, 1994. pp. 141-142, and from Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon Dip: Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham, 1984. pp. 40-48.)
On his return to Portland, he despaired of employment in the face of the anti-Chinese sentiment in the air. He was taken in by Miss Ella McBride. Repeating the family story, Goon Dip's grandchildren reported: "She brought him home to meet her parents and they employed him as a houseboy. Ella taught the young Goon Dip English and introduced him to the customs of the new world. The bond between him and this young woman was so deep that in later years, Goon Dip would name his youngest daughter after his American friend. The gesture signified his gratitude for her assistance in helping him to adjust to American life." (Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon Dip: Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham, 1984. p. 42.)
Later in this account, it is noted that "within a short time, Goon yearned to advance himself above the level of being a servant." He left the McBride family and became the assistant of a Chinese labor contractor, Moy Bok-Hin, and the two remained partners in different ventures for many years. Although he reportedly worked on the railroads in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, he did not speak of it within the family. (Jue, William G. and Silas G. Jue. Goon Dip: Entrepreneur, diplomat, and community leader. Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest. Bellingham, 1984. p. 42. Chew, Ron, Reflections of Seattle's Chinese Americans: the First 100 Years. Seattle, University of Washington Press, Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1994, p. 141, repeats the account of Goon Dip's labors in Montana and elsewhere.)
He initiated a program of retraining disabled Chinese workers as hemstitchers, thus establishing Portland's garment industry. About 1900 he and a cousin opened a store. Then his cousin took over the business and Goon Dip started his own dry goods and hemstitching operation.
By 1906, Goon Dip had expanded his activities to the Seattle area. There he was appointed honorary consul for China representing the interests of the Chinese government, and later made full consul. In that role he was an official representative to the 1906 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.
It was in that capacity that he met the owner of extensive Alaskan canning operations who needed a ready supply of laborers. Goon Dip became his labor contractor. Well respected and honored for his activities, Goon Dip died in 1933 at the age of 71.
Learning English, and, as a consequence, American ways aided the inclusion of the Chinese workers into American society. Washington State's new Governor, Gary Locke, reported that his grandfather learned English as a houseboy for the Yeagers of Olympia where he worked for free in exchange for the opportunity to learn English. (Locke, Gary. "Address to AAAS," Seattle, Washington, April 17, 1997; Locke, Gary. "Inaugural address," AsianWeek, January 24, 1997. p. 7.)
Then as now, immigrant workers sought help learning the dominant language. Missionaries were eager to teach English as a way of spreading the gospel. Employers also mistakenly believed that Christian teachings would make the Chinese better servants. The Chinese were accused of using the mission school solely as a "free day school" and as an employment service, rather than for religious purposes. (Vernon, Di. "The Chinese as house servants." Good Housekeeping, 12(January 1891)21.)
Newspaper articles complained that the only result of such education was that the pupil would just quit and go "elsewhere for higher wages." ("Chinese Domestic Servants," Idaho Signal (Lewiston), 1:49(February 8, 1873)1, reprinted from the "S.F. Chronicle.") As might be expected, this was the whole point of the effort. It was this kind of upward mobility towards entrepreneurship that the former servants desired.
Florence Grohman found herself acting as teacher to her servant; in exchange for home security she gave him lessons. She wrote: "...I disliked being alone in the house during the long November evenings. Although I had many kind friends who took pity on my loneliness, very often I felt it would be more canny if Gee could be induced to stay in the house till nine or ten o'clock. He did not seem to like the idea at all when I suggested it, and nothing more was said about it for a few days." Then he offered to stay in with her in the evening, giving up his free time in Chinatown, if she would teach him to read and write English. (Grohman, Florence. "The Yellow and White Agony: a chapter on Western Servants" in, Fifteen years' sport and life in the hunting grounds of western America and British Columbia. by W.A. Baillie-Grohman; with a chapter by Mrs. Baillie-Grohman. London: Horace Cox, 1900. 336-337.)
Learning English, as we have seen, became the predominant characteristic of the Chinese who successfully made for the transformation from laborer to domestic to entrepreneur. Proficiency in English placed the Chinese at a transfer point between the two cultures. Taking advantage of that juncture is one of the marks of the entrepreneur.
While there were many Chinese who found the rigors of domestic service (always on duty, managing the household and the household's relationships, dealing with the continual patronizing) so onerous that even work in the canneries might have been preferable; there were those who found great satisfaction in the job and were well treated by their employers. (In fact, of the examples reviewed here, none left service because of mistreatment.)
In the old days, when a Chinese servant became attached to a family, he stayed attached. There are plenty of instances where they have served three generations. I had a cook once - Wong Suey, ...who worked for one family for thirty-five years and then left only because the family had practically disappeared. There have been hundreds of families in California where these faithful, expert, skillful servants have come to be major-domos, have had complete control of the ménage, which, by the way, is an obligation a good Chinese cook of the old school takes upon himself whether his employer wants it so or not. And he is usually so competent the employer is glad to submit to his management. (Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44(April 29, 1933)10.)
Others were drawn in alternate directions. Chin Quong, born in 1861, learned English in a mission school in China. Upon arrival in San Francisco he found his language skills and his mission training helpful in employment at the Chinese Congregational Church and as a domestic servant. Rather than following his initial dream to Gold Mountain, he remained in service to the Church for most of his life, while managing to send three of his six children on to college. (Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its people. San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989. pp. 84-87. This is a different individual than the previously mentioned labor contractor.)
Wing Yee, another example, began in California as a houseboy, then became a cook. He remained with the same family for many years, assuming greater responsibilities as general farm manager. He was encouraged to bring a wife from China, who became housekeeper in his place; and his employers built a home for his growing family next to the main house. (Wong, H.K. Gum Sahn Yun: Gold Mountain Men. n.p., n.p., 1987. 125-130.)
Defining and analyzing entrepreneurship has always been a puzzle to economists and sociologists. Economists complain that there are too many social characteristics to entrepreneurship while the social scientists found too many economic factors at work. One study found that certain non-economic factors proved to be nearly as important as economic circumstances in the emergence of entrepreneurship in a culture. Those identified as significant were, first, the legitimacy of entrepreneurship, or the cultural acceptance of the entrepreneurial role; second, social mobility, the fluidity of movement from one class to another; third, marginality, the mediating role of the entrepreneur on the margins of society. (Wilken, Paul H., Entrepreneurship: a comparative and historical study. Norwood, Ablex, 1979. pp. 8-13; 261-262.)
Chinese entrepreneurs in the West demonstrated the validity all of these characterizations. Frontier culture was socially and geographically mobile. The Chinese in particular, spread out from the port cities to the highest mountains and the deepest valleys. Their value as laborers placed them in the heart of the Midwest, eastern metropolitan areas, and the fisheries of the gulf states. With the increasing availability of the railroad, people of all backgrounds traversed the country. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of those who took an emigrant train across the U.S. in 1879; one car, set aside for them, carried only Chinese. (Stevenson, Robert Louis, From Scotland to Silverado, Edited by James D. Hart. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966. pp. 115, 117, 135.) Socially, the boundaries were more sharply drawn but in comparison with class structures in China, even Chinese laborers in the United States had greater social and economic mobility.
The dominating ideology of the respective cultures was favorable to entrepreneurship. Working hard and getting ahead was valued by both societies. The Anglo-Saxon ethic prized the "go-getters" who made things happen. The Chinese (or more precisely, Southern Chinese) characteristic that sustained the entrepreneur was acquisitiveness, where wealth accumulation was the means to status for one's family and lineage. (Hafner, James A. "Market gardening in Thailand: The origins of an ethnic Chinese monopoly." in The Chinese in Southeast Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore, Maruzen Asia, 1983. p. 41; see also: Pan, Lynn. Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A history of the Chinese diaspora. Boston, Little Brown, 1990. pp. 244-245.) In becoming merchants, it has been noted, the Chinese in America found a higher status than they would have had in the same role in China. This is often attributed to the importance of trade in the American scheme of things; but it appears to be a cultural signifier more common to South China. (Gosling, L. A. Peter, "Chinese crop dealers in Malaysia and Thailand: The myth of the merciless monopsonistic middleman." in The Chinese in Southeast Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore, Maruzen Asia, 1983. p. 151.)
Not only was the entrepreneurial role encouraged by the society; but the Chinese, as ethnic and racial minorities, found themselves at the very margins of the majority society. Truck gardeners were a prime example of how the Chinese assumed a mediating role between cultures. Growing vegetables for their own use, Chinese gardeners found their crops in high demand among the Caucasian population. In remote mining communities, they carved carefully sited garden terraces into south facing hillsides at lower elevations. They then provided early vegetables to the miners still locked in winter's snows at higher elevations. (Fee. Jeffrey M. "Idaho's Chinese Mountain gardens," in Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese, ed. by Priscilla Wegars. Amityville, Baywood, 1993. pp. 65-96.) Here the Chinese found an entrepreneurial niche that the dominant culture rewarded.
Studies in South-East Asia have identified other characteristics that fostered Chinese entrepreneurship. The Chinese had little incentive to invest in agricultural enterprises requiring extensive land holdings; they needed quick access to their capital both in response to anti-immigrant pressures and their own desires to cash out and return home. Newly developing market economies such as those in the West also offered increasing economic opportunities, often requiring little in the way of capital expenditures. (Lim, Linda Y.C. "Chinese economic activity in Southeast Asia: An Introductory Review." in The Chinese in Southeast Asia, v.1, edited by L.Y.C. Lin and L.A.P. Gosling. Singapore, Maruzen Asia, 1983. pp. 2-3.)
Entrepreneurship is the ability to see value where others do not. It is also the ability to "make lemonade when life hands you lemons." Living on the margins of the culture attunes one to the imbalance of goods and services. Domestic service provided the Chinese with an experience at the heart of the culture, within the Caucasian home, in the bosom of the family; an experience that offered glimpses of needs that could be fulfilled from the margin. Many seized the entrepreneurial moment and made a successful life for themselves in a strange land among a strange people.
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