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Challenging 1882’s Chinese immigration ban

After Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Wells Fargo agents testified on behalf of Chinese customers and supported their businesses.
The storefront of a Chinese run business. A sign reading Chy Lung & Co.’s hangs above the doorway where two men are standing. Image in black and white.
Featured photo caption: Chy Lung & Co.’s wholesale tea store in San Francisco was listed in Wells Fargo’s directory of Chinese businesses. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

In 1849, more than 20,000 people sailed from southeastern China to find their fortune in the California gold rush. This was the first wave of migration from China in U.S. history; over the following years, tens of thousands of Chinese migrants moved to America. Some returned after making money, but many stayed and made America their home.

Men carry bundles on poles across a grassy area. A large tree is in the background. Image link will enlarge image.
Chinese miners in Columbia, California, in the 1800s. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Chinese laborers built the railroads and canals that revolutionized U.S. transportation in the 1800s. As they followed work, they moved to new corners of the nation. From the Pacific Coast to Nebraska and beyond, Chinese immigrants helped build U.S. cities and towns across the country. In these communities, customers turned to Wells Fargo to help them stay connected to loved ones and to grow their businesses.

A large hillside full of boulders looms in the background while a Chinese work crew takes a break in the foreground. Image link will enlarge image.
Chinese workers dig the tunnel for the Central Pacific Railroad, the western end of America’s first transcontinental rail line, in the 1860s. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

An economic downturn in the 1870s caused white Americans to agitate against Chinese laborers, who often did the same work for less money.

A page of a ledger book showcasing signatures from Chinese customers. Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express is in large print across the top of the page. Image link will enlarge image.
Chinese customers signed their names in this book to confirm they received their deliveries of coins and other packages at the Wells Fargo office in Folsom, California, in the 1860s. New customers needed to be identified by someone familiar to the agent to protect against identity theft.Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

In May 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. It became the first federal policy in American history that banned a group of immigrants based on race and class. This law was renewed and strengthened until 1943, when it was repealed and replaced with a quota system.

Designed to stop immigration of Chinese laborers from competing with American workers, the law had a wider impact and affected people who had lived in the U.S. for decades.

Any Chinese migrant who traveled back to China to visit family or meet with business connections faced a terrible ordeal when re-entering the country. After arriving by ship, Chinese travelers were moved to detention centers — where they were stripped, examined, and held until they could prove they were not laborers. If they could not provide evidence that they were skilled laborers or held another exemption, they would be deported. The entire process could take weeks, or even years, to complete.

A yellow Wells, Fargo & Company check with red lettering, made out to a Chinese customer for $43 in 1863. Image link will enlarge image.
Wells Fargo checks, like this one from 1863, provided a safe way for Chinese merchants to send and receive payments. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Wells Fargo agents acted as witnesses in these official hearings to testify on behalf of local merchants and businessmen who were their customers.

A historic envelope cover stamped: Paid Wells, Fargo & Co’s Express Over our lines in the United States. The envelope features Chinese writings on the left margin. Image link will enlarge image.
Chinese customers did not always have the ability to write addresses in English. Wells Fargo hired Chinese translators to ensure that letters got where they needed to go. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Records show that in April 1894, William Pridham, Wells Fargo’s superintendent in Los Angeles, appeared in court to aid customer Lee Yook. He returned the next month to help Wong Yen Ock. In Santa Cruz, California, agent Richard Thompson showed the same support for customer Ham Tung.

Affidavit reads: We now subscribe to this Certificate and Affidavit to show that said Wong Yuen Ark is a bona fide merchant of this city, and also to clear away, as far as we may personally do so, any difficulties that may exist which prevent the landing or release of said Wong Yuen Ark at San Francisco, that he may be permitted to return to this city to resume his business here. Signed by William Pridham. Image link will enlarge image.
Wells Fargo Superintendent William Pridham signed this 1894 affidavit for San Francisco customer Wong Yuen Ark, “that he may be permitted to return to this city to resume his business here.” Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Archives, San Francisco

Samuel Coombs first met Chinese Americans as a Wells Fargo agent in Seattle. As he later explained to the Seattle Daily Times in 1905, “Forty years ago I used to be with Wells, Fargo & Co., where a number of Chinese merchants were banking. I come to know them pretty well and have followed their business career with interest.”

A historic receipt with yellow background and red lettering. The receipt is for a transaction from a Chinese customer in 1902. Image link will enlarge image.
This receipt shows that Chinese customers used Wells Fargo to deliver gold coins in 1902. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

By the 1900s, Coombs had left Wells Fargo, but continued to frequently defend former customers in hearings. When interviewed by a local newspaper in 1905, he declared “I want to see the Chinese given a square deal.” He actively advocated for a change to the immigration laws that ensnared the people in his community.

Two books. One book opened to page showing list of businesses in San Jose in English and Chinese. Second book is closed showing a colorful orange cover with decorative illustration. Title of book reads in English: Wells Fargo Express Chinese Business Houses. Image link will enlarge image.
Wells Fargo published this bilingual directory of Chinese merchants in 1882, the same year Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives. Photo by Rob Prideaux.

During these times of prejudice and animosity, Wells Fargo continued to support its Chinese customers by producing a directory of more than 1,000 merchants in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and other major cities. The bilingual directories with English-Chinese translations were designed to drive business to the merchants listed, some of whom were Wells Fargo customers.

Wells Fargo’s actions signaled to Chinese Americans that they were welcome despite the political climate. Today, Wells Fargo continues to value and promote an inclusive environment at all levels.

Lined paper with letter written in 1888 to Wells Fargo and signed by several people in English and Chinese. A Commission receipt dated November 28th, 1864. The receipt has yellowed with age. Image link will enlarge image.
Customers commissioned Wells Fargo to act on their behalf when renewing business licenses, filing taxes, and collecting debts for Chinese customers; merchants in San Jose, California, signed this 1888 letter directing Wells Fargo to manage shipping for their business. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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