Chinese Make a Comeback

Chen Cheong, a manufacturer of cigars, arrived in Seattle early and was the first Chinese to go into business. He was said to be one of the most capable of business men of any period in the city’s growth. Other Chinese soon followed suit. They were industrious and resourceful; by 1889 the Chinese population in Seattle had bounced back to about 350.

Chin Gee Hee, Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum

Chin Gee Hee, Courtesy of Wing Luke Museum

Chin Gee Hee, a successful Chinese merchant, built one of the first brick structures after the Great Fire of 1889. His business, Quong Tuck Company, traded with the local Chinese residents and supplied workers for railroads and mines. Hee, Eng Ah King, and Chen Cheong revitalized Seattle’s Chinatown. They and other merchants emerged from the anti-Chinese disturbances as powerful figures. They controlled the supply of labor for the railroads, canneries and farms, were the exclusive importers and retailers of Chinese goods, and owners of the residential hotels inhabited by other Chinese. They maintained a two-tiered class structure — the merchants often accruing extraordinary wealth while most of their ethnic kinsmen remained in grim poverty. Chin Gee-Hee returned to China in 1905 and invested and supervised the building of the first railroad in China to be constructed without western assistance. In 1900 there were only 399 Chinese men and twelve women in Seattle. By 1910 the Chinese population had increased to 789 men and 49 women. (The Chinese Exclusion Act only allowed a few Chinese women to enter the country.)

Sources: Bagley, History of Seattle, p665; Lowell, Chinese Immigration, NARA Paper 99, p1; HistoryLink #1999;


3 Comments on “Chinese Make a Comeback”

  1. carol daniels Says:

    I find it interesting how Chinese merchants were at the top of the class structure here…
    Merchants, unlike the common laborer, were not banned from US immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Are these the same merchants who were at the bottom of China’s lowest social class? I’m reading “The Last Empress” by Hannah Pakula right now. On p.30, she says, “There were, he (Confucius)said, only two main social classes in China: officials (including scholars) and all others…The common people were subdivided into 3 classes, the most important being farmers, followed by artisans, and, at the BOTTOM, merchants.”

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