Chinese-American History in Chico

Date: ca 1895 Photographer: H.H. Frye     Chico, CA Donor: John Nopel Collection Collection # jn1001023 John Nopel identified this image as a Chinese house boy who worked for the Bidwells.

Date: ca 1895
Photographer: H.H. Frye Chico, CA
Donor: John Nopel Collection
Collection # jn1001023
John Nopel identified this image as a Chinese house boy who worked for the Bidwells.

Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park is giving thematic tours on the Chinese in California during the month of May. If you are interested, check out the dates and times here.  I took the tour last Saturday and came away with a greater appreciation of the Chinese contribution in Chico and a better understanding of the relationship between the Bidwells and the Chinese.

The picture to the left shows a Chinese man who worked for John and Annie Bidwell as a houseboy. His name may have been Ah Sang. Bidwell mentions him in his diary in 1882.

Chinese immigrants came to California beginning in 1850 as part of the Gold Rush, and they stayed to work on the transcontinental railroad and in various other pursuits. John Bidwell first hired Chinese workers in 1869. On Wednesday, May 19 of that year he records: “Ah Wing,
Chinaman, began work at $25 per month.” This was less than he paid white workmen.

Bidwell was soon employing a good number of Chinese workmen. They pruned trees, picked fruit, and tended vegetable gardens. They were skilled and reliable workers with extensive agricultural experience. They were also cheaper to hire, and Bidwell, like other businessmen, saw no reason to pay the Chinese at the same rate as whites if he could get them for less.

Many of the Chinese in Butte County were mining along the creeks where they managed to extract gold from claims abandoned by white miners. Others grew vegetables on rented land and sold their produce in town. Chinese vegetable peddlers were a common sight. Others worked as cooks, domestics servants, and laundrymen. Most middle-class families employed at least one Chinese servant. At Stansbury House you can see the small room occupied by Dr. Stansbury’s Chinese cook.

The Chinese community made up a significant portion of the Chico population. By 1880, according to the U.S. census, 20% of Butte County residents were Chinese. This is the highest percentage in the state. (The totals for Butte County are: White: 14.270, Colored: 136, Chinese: 3,793, Indian: 522). Overall in California, the Chinese were about 10% of the population. This holds true for San Francisco, where 21,790 Chinese lived alongside 210,496 whites.

Friction and resentment developed along the interface between Asians and Americans in Butte County. There would be trouble between the white population and the Chinese, and John Bidwell would be right in the middle of it. More next time  . . . .

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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