According to the 2010 census, approximately 1.3% of Chemung County residents are of Asian descent. While the majority of that population came here after 1943, there were a handful of Chinese immigrants living in the county as early as 1900.
The earliest Chinese immigrants to the United States came in the 1820s as part of the Trans-Pacific trade. By the mid-1840s, there were several hundred Chinese living in the United States, mostly on the West Coast. With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, that number jumped into the hundreds of thousands as immigrants came to seek their fortune. Most of these immigrants were young men from Guangdong province, aka Canton, on China’s southeast coast. Once in the United States, many of them worked in California’s mining camps or fisheries, labored on the transcontinental railroad or provided cheap labor on southern plantations.
In 1868, Congress ratified the Burlingame Treaty with China which, while granting China favored trade status and encouraging immigration, also denied Chinese immigrants the chance to become naturalized citizens. A series of laws including the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted Chinese immigrantion to the United States. These laws made it harder for unmarried women and laborers to enter the country. Over time, more and more restrictive laws were passed until 1924 when all Chinese immigrants were excluded from the United States. It wasn’t until the Magnuson Act of 1943 that Chinese nationals in the United States were granted the right to become naturalized citizens and immigration was allowed once again, abet at only 105 a year. In 1965 the quota was dropped with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act allowing Chinese immigration to begin in earnest.
Most of the pre-1943 Chinese immigrants who settled in Chemung County were not laborers, but businessmen. The first I've been able to find was a Mr. Yee Lee of 325 Carroll Street who appeared in the 1884 city directory as the owner of Elmira’s first Chinese laundry. In 1885, he was joined by Gee Lee of 221 West Water Street. By 1901 there were five laundries owned and operated by Chinese immigrants. There continued to be Chinese laundries in Elmira well into the 1930s.
Interestingly enough, I would never have even known about any of this if it wasn’t for the photograph above. The photograph is part of our unidentified cabinet card collection and was taken by the Chemung County photographer Charles Tomlinson sometime between 1874 and 1891. I stumbled across it while scanning images for an upcoming exhibit. While I still don’t know who the man is, I now know a lot more about how an Asian man might have ended up in Elmira in the late-1800s.