The Chinese were the first of the Asian immigrants to come to Texas, and until the influx of the Vietnamese in the 1970s they were also the most numerous. According to the 1980 census, the Chinese in Texas numbered 25,461, or less than two-tenths of one percent of the state's total population.
The Chinese first came to Texas, in two contingents, with the railroads. The first group, 250 contract laborers from California, arrived in January 1870 with the Houston and Texas Central, whose railhead was then at Calvert. Although their labor on the Houston-Dallas line was abruptly terminated after less than a year and most of them soon left the state, a few nevertheless remained in Robertson County. In 1880 these seventy-two were 53 percent of the 136 Chinese living in Texas. The second contingent, also from California, came in 1881 with the Southern Pacific, whose 3,000-person work force was, except for 400, all Chinese. When the line was completed in 1883, some of them, too, stayed in Texas. By 1890 the number of Chinese statewide had jumped to 710, of whom 225 (32 percent) were in El Paso County.
After reaching a peak of 836 in 1900, the Chinese population in Texas began to decline as a delayed reaction to the congressional enactment in 1882 of the Chinese exclusion law, which for the next six decades barred practically all further immigration from China. The decline would have been more precipitous than it was but for one of the rare occasions when the exclusion law was set aside. In 1917, when Gen. John J. Pershing returned to the United States from Mexico, after his fruitless pursuit of Francisco (Pancho) Villa, he was permitted to bring with him 527 Mexican Chinese who had assisted his troops during the invasion. Most of these "Pershing Chinese" settled in San Antonio and thereafter replaced those in El Paso as the largest Chinese community in Texas. Even with this infusion, the statewide Chinese population in 1930 was only 703, of whom 321 (46 percent) were in Bexar County.
The Chinese exclusion act was repealed in 1943, and American immigration laws were greatly liberalized in the following decades. As a result, the Chinese population in Texas boomed. From 1,031 in 1940 the statewide population soared to 25,461 in 1980, of whom 12,048 (47 percent) were in Harris County. In the 1950s Houston surpassed San Antonio as the center of Chinese life in the state.
These postwar immigrants from China were, in several respects, very different from their predecessors-so much so that the two groups and their descendants often have little to do with each other. Whereas the old immigrants had originated almost exclusively from the Canton region of south China and spoke only Cantonese, the new immigrants were generally from north and central China (though often by way of Taiwan or Hong Kong) and spoke Mandarin. Furthermore, the old immigrants were originally of peasant stock and had come to the United States initially as unskilled and illiterate contract laborers, such as railroad workers. Once in Texas, however, they had carved out for themselves niches in the service and commercial sectors of the urban economy-notably hand laundries, which required little capital and posed no economic threat to Caucasian males; chop houses and restaurants that served American food as well as ersatz Chinese food like chop suey; and retail groceries that often catered to Chicanos or Blacks. The descendants of these older immigrants, though upwardly mobile, usually stayed in the business world. The new immigrants, on the other hand, have generally been products of China's elite culture and have tended toward professional careers in the sciences and engineering. Finally, the old immigrants had come to America not as permanent settlers. They were nearly all men-in 1910 only thirteen (2 percent) out of the 595 Chinese in Texas were women-and their primary purpose in coming to America was to earn money to support the families they had left behind in China and hoped eventually to rejoin. Because of this "sojourner" attitude on their own part as well as because of the exclusion law, which barred them from bringing their wives, a normal conjugal family society did not emerge among the Chinese Texans until the late 1920s or 1930s, long after they first arrived in the state. The new immigrants, on the other hand, usually came with their families as permanent residents.
Except in the 1870s, when most of the Chinese in Robertson County were sharecroppers and field hands on the cotton plantations near Calvert and Hearne, the Chinese Texans have always been overwhelmingly an urban population. As noted, they were successively drawn to the cities of El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston. Around the turn of the century in El Paso they were numerous enough to form a small but compact Chinatown.
Socially, the Chinese in Texas have always been a close-knit, inward-looking community, bound by their own awareness of the distinctiveness of their original Chinese culture as well as by a long history of discrimination in the United States. They have looked to themselves and their own institutions for support and protection. The foremost institution among all Chinese has been the patriarchal family, on whose behalf, for example, the old immigrants endured long periods of separation during the era of exclusion. Among both old and new immigrants it is not unusual for three generations to be under one roof, with the aged parents living with their adult children and their grandchildren. Aside from the family, other social groups have also played an important role, though probably more among the old immigrants and their descendants than among the new. These include the clan or family association (usually defined by a common surname), the district association (defined by a common county of origin in China), and the merchant association (descended from the secret society of an earlier era, e.g., the Hip Sing and On Leong associations). These organizations, either individually or collectively, looked after the general well-being of all Chinese; they claim, for example, to have kept the Chinese Texans off the welfare rolls during the Great Depression.
Politically, the Chinese have similarly kept to themselves. Until the end of exclusion, they were classified as aliens ineligible for citizenship and thus, except for the few who had been born in the United States, were denied the right to vote. In 1937 they successfully lobbied against an amendment to the Texas alien land law that would have driven the Chinese groceries out of business. They were not, however, otherwise active in Texas politics. They preferred to involve themselves instead in the politics of their native land. They contributed generously to China's struggle against Japanese aggression in the 1930s and early 1940s, when branches of the Chinese Nationalist party, or Kuomintang, were established in San Antonio and El Paso. Since the repeal of the exclusion act in 1943 and the triumph of the Communists in China in 1949, however, their ties to China have loosened considerably. In 1964 Tom. J. Lee of San Antonio became the first Chinese Texan to be elected to the state House of Representatives. More recently, others have been elected to local office in Houston.
Culturally, Chinese Texans have retained, to varying degrees, some of the distinctive elements of the old world ways. Many prefer Chinese food to American, though the proliferation of Chinese restaurants since the 1970s has been due more to the changing tastes of the general public than to any Chinese demand. Most celebrate the Chinese (lunar) new year. And, under the influence of Confucianism, they tend to emphasize family solidarity and the value of education more than most other ethnic groups do. They have also attempted to pass on to the younger, American-born generation some knowledge of Chinese languages and culture. A Chinese school operated in San Antonio for more than twenty years beginning in 1928; another was founded in Houston in 1970. But such efforts have been of only limited success. By and large, the Chinese, despite an adherence to traditional values and practices, have assimilated into the mainstream of American life. In religion, many are Baptists.