Living between the worlds: Chinese-American women and their experiences in San Francisco and New York City, 1848--1945

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, United States|Women's Studies|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




The first Chinese woman, a servant, arrived in San Francisco in 1848. About thirty years later in 1879, a Chinese merchant's wife came to New York City. San Francisco, the "Big City" in Cantonese, received the largest number of Chinese immigrants until the mid-1940s, when New York's Chinatown emerged as the second leading Chinese immigrant settlement. By 1940 the female Chinese population for both San Francisco and New York City had substantially increased.^ This dissertation examines the experiences of Chinese immigrant and Chinese American women of different social classes. Based upon primary sources extracted from the United States census manuscripts, oral interview documents and Chinese and English newspapers, this study divides Chinese immigrant and Chinese American women into two major categories: working-class women and women of "higher ambitions." It not only analyzes lives of the early Chinese immigrant prostitutes, but also endeavors to reconstruct Chinese working women's occupations which included employment as canners, shrimp pickers, domestic servants and seamstresses. These women turned Old World skills of making salted fish, growing vegetables and fruits in rural Canton and sewing garments into money-generating activities in the New World. Laboring as co-wage-earners and sole breadwinners, they were no longer dependents of extended Cantonese rural families; instead, some became listed in the United States census as "heads" of households.^ The study also shows how China-born and American-born female intellectuals emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as leaders of Chinese American women's social and patriotic activities. Inspired by the events occurring in China such as the 1911 Revolution, natural disasters devastating immigrants' home provinces and the Japanese invasion, the women intellectuals organized and led the Chinese Young Women's Christian Association, the Square and Circle Club and the New Life Association. The dissertation concludes that Christian missionary work, New World economic opportunities and the growing Chinese patriotism served as three major forces reshaping the lives of these women. ^