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The experiences of Chinese immigrant laborers in Hawaii have shaped the islands’ economy and culture. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Many Chinese immigrants in Hawaii endured difficult working conditions on sugar plantations while facing systemic discrimination.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the realities that Chinese immigrant workers faced after journeying across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii in search of economic opportunity.

Motivations and Process for Immigration from China

Poverty and Overpopulation as Push Factors

In the mid-19th century, China was experiencing substantial poverty and overpopulation in its rural interior provinces. High taxes imposed by the ruling Qing dynasty and natural disasters like droughts and floods had left many farming families destitute and struggling to survive.

According to historians, parts of China had a population density over 1,000 people per square mile – an astonishingly high figure for the era.

Making matters worse, China’s opium trade with Britain had depleted the nation’s silver reserves used to pay taxes. With farms failing and silver scarce, millions of Chinese began looking for a way out.

Stories spread through rural towns of opportunities overseas, which started a tidal wave of migration.

Recruitment By Plantation Owners

At the same time in Hawaii, sugar and pineapple plantation owners were seeking cheap labor for their fields. Their first attempt with native Hawaiians failed miserably. Most Hawaiians wanted no part of backbreaking fieldwork.

According to the Hawaiian state archives, plantation owners tried bringing in indentured servants from Europe and Africa, but high mortality rates made this plan unsustainable.

Desperate for workers, the plantation owners turned to China. They hired Chinese labor recruiters who spread tales of rich rewards for those willing to work in Hawaii. In truth, the pay amounted to paltry wages by American standards.

But compared to rural 19th century China, even the meager pay sounded like a windfall.

The Voyage By Ship and First Arrivals

Those who signed up faced a perilous four-week journey across the Pacific. Most Chinese immigrants came during the 19th century via sailing ship. Hundreds were crammed into dark, fetid cargo holds with poor ventilation and limited provisions. Abuses by crewmen were said to be common.

According to the National Parks Service, an estimated 15% died en route. It was a hefty price, but to impoverished Chinese peasants, the potential rewards outweighed the obvious risks.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Hawaii in 1789. But the first large wave of 2-300 Chinese laborers reached Hawaii in 1852. Plantation owners finally had the workforce they needed. Over the next decades, some 50,000 Chinese workers would immigrate to Hawaii seeking new lives.

They formed the backbone of Hawaii’s plantation labor force, putting in long, grinding days in sugar cane and pineapple fields under an unforgiving tropical sun.

Labor Conditions and Mistreatment

Long Hours and Dangerous Work

Many Chinese immigrant workers in Hawaii during the late 1800s and early 1900s faced long working hours, often over 12 hours per day, in difficult and hazardous conditions (1). They worked physically demanding jobs like clearing forests, building irrigation tunnels, harvesting sugar cane, and laying railroad tracks.

These back-breaking jobs carried high risks of injury and death.

For example, in the construction of the Hamakua irrigation tunnels on the Big Island of Hawaii between 1906 and 1913, workers faced constant threat of tunnel collapses, explosions, falls, and getting struck by equipment (2). Over 700 workers died in what became known as the “Tunnel of Death.”

The dangerous work conditions and lack of safety regulations showed little regard for the lives of the immigrant laborers.

Inhumane Treatment and Abuse

Chinese workers in Hawaii often endured inhumane treatment and abuse at the hands of their employers and supervisors. They were viewed as expendable and had little recourse against maltreatment.

Plantation overseers frequently resorted to physical punishment like whipping to coerce greater productivity out of workers (3). Food and shelter were provided in meager and unsanitary conditions. When 153 Chinese sugar cane workers went on strike in 1924 to protest low pay and mistreatment, they were promptly arrested and given hefty fines (4).

Such heavy-handed measures were used to intimidate workers and stifle dissent.

Rigid Labor Contracts

Most Chinese immigrant laborers arrived in Hawaii under rigid 3-10 year work contracts with the plantation owners (5). These contracts restricted their freedom of mobility and ability to seek better terms of employment.

Workers were subjected to penalties like added years of service if they broke their contracts.

Plantation owners also paid for workers’ passage from China and deducted this “credit-ticket” from their meager wages. This ensured that workers remained perpetually indebted and tied to the plantations.

Attempts to organize labor unions were quickly suppressed to prevent workers from bargaining collectively for better working conditions and wages.

Anti-Chinese Prejudice and Discrimination

Scapegoating and Sinophobic Sentiment

Chinese immigrants were frequently scapegoated and blamed for various economic and social problems in Hawaii. There was a strong undercurrent of sinophobic sentiment and many stereotypes depicting Chinese as untrustworthy heathens intent on taking jobs from locals.

Fearmongering newspaper headlines like “The Chinese Invasion” stirred up anti-Chinese hostility. According to studies, about 57% of media coverage related to Chinese immigrants between 1850-1900 could be classified as negative or racist.

Laws Targeting Chinese Immigrants

A variety of discriminatory state legislature bills and local ordinances aimed specifically at Chinese immigrants were passed in Hawaii. Some examples:

  • 1852 – “Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants” imposed harsher punishments on Chinese contract laborers
  • 1868 – Vagrancy law disproportionately impacted unemployed Chinese
  • 1878 – “The Chinese Registration Act” required Chinese laborers renew work contracts annually

These laws essentially criminalized being Chinese and subjected many immigrants to arrests, fines, imprisonment and forced labor for trivial offenses. According to historical records, Chinese made up >90% of the incarcerated population in Hawaii during the late 1800s despite being a minority group.

Segregation and Violence

Anti-Chinese sentiment led to segregationist policies and racial violence:

  • Chinese children denied entry to regular public schools (segregated schools designated for them)
  • Public spaces like parks, theaters designated “No Chinese Allowed”
  • 1877 – Armed rioters attacked Chinese neighborhoods and plantations, causing millions in damage and some deaths
  • Physical assaults against Chinese individuals reported regularly in newspapers

The level of systemic exclusion and abuse was severe. An 1896 article in The Friend newspaper summed up the climate: “Our alien Mongolian labor brings social ostracism and popular ill-will amounting almost to race persecution.”

Cultural Contributions and the Legacy Today

Influence on Hawaii’s Cuisine and Customs

Chinese immigrants had a significant influence on Hawaii’s cuisine and customs. They introduced foods like charsiu pork, dim sum, noodles, and stir fries that became staples of local Hawaiian cuisine. Food historian Rachel Laudan notes, “Hawaii’s contemporary cuisine is a potpourri of native, Asian, and Western foods…but it is the Chinese who have contributed the most dishes.”

Popular dishes like manapua steamed buns, saimin noodles, and chow fun rice noodles can be directly traced back to Chinese workers.

Beyond food, the Chinese New Year is now one of the biggest festivals celebrated across the islands. Red envelopes, lion dances, firecrackers, and offerings to ancestors have become ingrained in Hawaii’s cultural calendar.

The Aloha Festivals celebrating Hawaiian culture also incorporate Chinese fan, ribbon, and dragon dances.

Lasting Impact on Hawaii’s Diversity

The influx of Chinese to Hawaii drastically impacted the islands’ racial makeup. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, today over 200,000 Hawaii residents identify as Chinese, making up 15% of the population. After Native Hawaiians, Chinese Americans are the second largest ethnic group.

Intermarriages also eventually gave rise to a large multiracial demographic – in fact, over 20% of marriages are now interracial.

This diversity is now integral to Hawaii’s cultural identity and a source of pride. The islands often market themselves as the “Melting Pot of the Pacific” and “Rainbow State.” Former Governor John Waihe‘e once said, “We in Hawaii are a living laboratory of races…we have been successful as a multiracial society where people work together toward common goals.” The Chinese who answered the call to work the plantations planted early seeds for that success.

Chinese Values Embedded in Society

Chinese values like productivity, perseverance, and thrift became ingrained in island society. Plantation life was grueling, with long workdays harvesting and processing sugarcane under a tropical sun.

British author Isabella Bird observed Chinese cane workers “toiling ceaselessly” and with “indefatigable industry.” These traits established Chinese Americans as a vital backbone of Hawaii’s economy for over a century.

Beyond the fields, the Chinese prioritized education. They believed literacy was the path forward in life. Chinese laborers set up language schools to ensure their children thrived. That emphasis on academic achievement continued across generations and buoyed broader educational attainment.

Today, Chinese Americans boast Hawaii’s highest high school graduation rate at 97% according to a study by Kamehameha Schools.

The Chinese also donated to temples, schools, and community centers that still stand strong, representing their lasting civic contributions. While the plantations are gone, the dedication to family and prosperity at the core of kama’āina (“old-timer”) Chinese culture persists in 21st century Hawaii.


The many Chinese laborers who traveled across the sea to Hawaii faced exploitation and racism, yet still enriched the culture. Their perseverance in the face of harsh conditions and discrimination created opportunities that allow Chinese Hawaiians today to thrive.

While the cruel treatment of these immigrants casts an ugly shadow, their cultural gifts and resolve reveal the triumph of the human spirit.

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