Thomas J. Geary

Kansas City Chinese Resist the Geary Law

Toward the end of March, 1893, U.S. government officials began to notice that Chinese residents across the country were not complying with a law passed the year before. It was called “An act to prohibit the coming of Chinese persons into the United States,” but was commonly known as the Geary Law after its author, California Congressman Thomas J. Geary.[1] 

The law extended by a further ten years the 1882 Chinese exclusion act which had suspended admission to the U.S. of Chinese laborers[2]  and prohibited Chinese already in the country from becoming citizens, but Geary made a significant addition:  within a year of its passage all Chinese laborers were required to register with the local internal revenue collector and obtain a certificate of residence. The testimony of one “credible white witness” that the individual had been a resident at the time of the act’s passage was required. Failure to register would be treated as evidence that the laborer was not in the country lawfully and he could be sentenced to a year’s imprisonment at hard labor before being deported.

Certificate of Residence 1892The Geary law had been approved on May 5, 1892. The deadline was near and across the country revenue collectors’ registration books remained virtually empty. In Kansas City, only two applications for registry certificates had been made. In an unprecedented act of civil resistance virtually all the 125,000 Chinese in the U.S.[3]  refused to register.  

On March 22, the Treasury Secretary, John Carlisle, warned that the act would be enforced after May 5,[4]  and the Collector of Internal Revenue for Kansas City, H.F. Devol, who was responsible for its enforcement, sent out a letter to Chinese residents of the city warning them of the approaching deadline and of the consequences if they did not comply.[5]

Rumors circulated that the Chinese “Six Companies,” a coalition of clan and mutual aid associations based in San Francisco, had called for Chinese to resist arrest by force. The Times editors responded to the rumor with a furious editorial under the title “Throttle the Six Companies”: “For a year the yellow stranger has had opportunity to register and comply with the laws that govern his free living in this country. In no part of the United States has the reluctant heathen responded.”

The Six Companies, fulminated the editors, have virtually declared war on the United States:Officers of the Six Companies, San Francisco, 1890

It is a government within a government; a secret power that commands, compels and punishes. Never before has it been as threatening as it is now…. The peaceful Chinaman is bad enough, inimitable and inherently heathenish; but when he becomes warlike in a land where he has freedom and opportunity it is time to grind him under the national heel.
Every other foreigner may become an American; the Chinaman is always a Chinaman. The Six Companies should be throttled; it is a menace to the country.[6]

The rumored call of the Six Companies for violent resistance was a fabrication, said China’s Vice Consul in San Francisco: “We will submit peacefully to the laws of the country,” but civil disobedience would continue: “we shall issue a warning to the Chinese to acquiesce in imprisonment if need be but never to resist.”[7] The Six Companies had hired lawyers to prepare a test case, anticipating the law would be found unconstitutional. The Star expressed admiration for this strategy:

The Chinese had caught on to “one ‘Melican’ idea, and that is the possibility of defeating the law through the forms of law. They do not resist the registry law from any blind, heathen, unreasoning stubbornness. They behave as American citizens would under the same circumstances. They believe the law may be beaten in the courts, or at least that delay may be secured; they have employed counsel and they await the issue. It is not well to underrate the intelligence of people on account of the style in which they wear their hair, or the cut of their eyebrows.[8]

Gam LeeThe leader of Kansas City’s Chinese community, Gam Lee, told a Times reporter that the city’s Chinese had held several meetings and agreed not to comply with the act: “We are peaceful, law-abiding citizens and we don’t want trouble, but we will not register before May 5. We have been advised by our vice consuls and by our Six Companies and by leading men of our race in this country and at home not to comply with the requirements of this unjust law, and we will stand together as one man for our rights.”

Reports had come in of Chinese registering in other cities: “all false,” said Lee. A few “fools” might be “bulldozed into registering, but as a class we will stand out against it.” They would not fight or resist arrest, he said, but would rely on the courts. “The Geary law cannot be enforced,” said Lee:

It is inhuman, and other nations will not stand by and see us imposed upon.  Our people come here and conduct themselves as law-abiding citizens. We hurt nobody, but laws are made against us and we are treated like so many yellow dogs. The scum of other nations come here and receive good treatment. We have the same rights as men of other nationalities to come here. In China an American is given the protection of the laws and treated right, and we think that one good turn deserves another…. We think the law will prove a failure. We will go to jail or be killed, but we will never register.”

The city’s Deputy Collector was sent to sound out the feelings of Chinese on registration. He was met with a wall of silence. Collector Devol tried to attribute the failure of the registration effort to “the ignorance of these people of our language” and of the law: “My sympathy is with these strangers in a strange land,” he said,” in that they are ignorant of what is required of them by this law. I would like to see them come here in a body and register.”[9] Gam Lee’s candid interview with the Times shows that the problem was not one of law or language but of racial discrimination:  Chinese were being treated differently from all other immigrant groups.

With the registration deadline just four days away and Collector Devol vowing to arrest every Chinese in the city without a certificate after May 5,  a Star reporter found the city’s Chinese calmly unconcerned. Gam Lee told him that they will register if told to do so by the vice consul and Six Companies, but otherwise would do nothing. He reminded the reporter that the Chinese government treats Americans in China better than the Chinese are treated in the U.S.: “China extends every courtesy to Americans. We wouldn’t think of retaliating by forcing Americans in China to register or treating them the way the Chinese are treated here.” [10]

A possible retaliationA Star article reported, inaccurately as it turned out, that the requirement to have a photograph taken had been dispensed with, as the Chinese were thought to be “superstitious about having their photographs taken.” The Daily Journal ran a cartoon satirizing fears of Chinese retaliation against Americans living in China by showing a crowd of Chinese gleefully taking pictures of American missionaries in China, and expressed doubts about the justice of the Geary law, saying it was “not one that recommends itself to those who believe in the advance of civilization.”[11]

As a Republican newspaper, the Journal attributed partisan political motives to the Geary law’s passage. Although the law had been enacted during the Republican administration of Benjamin Harrison it was, in the Journal’s view, “a child of the Democratic house,” devised as a political ploy aimed at forcing Harrison to veto the measure and thus gain votes for the Democratic national ticket in the west coast states. California’s Geary was merely a “fanatical tool” in the plot and the Democrats who voted for the measure in the House were “almost dumbfounded” when the act went through the Republican senate and was signed by a Republican president. It was “merely an act of self-defense”[12] on the part of Republicans claimed the Journal, which took a generally anti-exclusion position.

Those who argued for exclusion of Chinese sometimes used as justification the claim that the Chinese sent their wages back to China, draining the country’s already strained treasury of $810,000,000. The Journal responded that even if the figure were accurate, the Chinese have left “about double that amount of good honest work behind them for the money,” while the “brokers of Europe” have drained the treasury but left nothing behind,[13] a sore point in an increasingly depressed economy.

There were other views of the purpose, significance, and effect of the Geary law. A Presbyterian preacher in New York, Edward Payson, called it unjust and un-Christian because it discriminated against the Chinese, children of a culture which had given the world “more varied benefits than any other nation on earth.”[14]  The Times responded that the law was directed not against Chinese but against the dominance of the Six Companies[15], who opposed the law, in the editors’ opinion, because “it would deprive them of the labor of thousands of Chinamen who were smuggled into this country and whose expense of food and transportation had already been advanced.” The Companies feared their own financial loss if large numbers of laborers were sent back, claimed the paper, but “The Chinaman as an individual does not care anything about the Geary law. As a consistent fatalist he would as soon be registered and photographed or even branded as not.” It was only at the urging of the Six Companies that he declared the act humiliating, and some “soft-hearted Americans of waning patriotism are standing up for him.” The national government, they conclude, has the right to “regulate the traffic of a nefarious organization known as the Six Companies, which, in violation of our laws, is making itself rich and establishing a government within a government.”[16]

The Times position did nothing, of course, to address the Reverend Payson’s accusation of discrimination by a government proposing to register Chinese residents but not European ones. Interestingly, the Star, though a Democratic newspaper like the Times, opposed the law, calling it “legislation in obedience to the decrees of prejudice and to satisfy the demands of political demagogues. Popular sentiment in this country never favored the Geary law. It was a purely sectional measure, but, unhappily, the penalty which attaches to its enactment must be borne by the whole country.” [17] Even the Times conceded that the law “is not exactly in accord with the usual spirit of our customs,” but justified it with a vague claim that “China does the exclusion business more completely than the Geary law does and can not complain.”[18]

Pennoyer telegram to GreshamEven West-coasters, presumed to be most behind the law, were divided.  As the registration deadline approached, the Secretary of State, Walter Gresham, sent a telegraph to the Western governors asking them to take precautions against violence to Chinese when the act took effect. The Populist governor of Oregon, Sylvester Pennoyer, a fervent exclusionist, famously responded, “I will attend to my business. Let the President attend to his.”  In contrast, a California mining executive passing through Kansas City told the Times, “The better class of people on the coast don’t believe in deporting the China men. We are willing to give them a show. They are law-abiding and don’t interfere with our citizens, and their labor is indispensable in gathering the fruit crops. The cry of ‘The Chinese must go’ is the stock in trade of sand-lot politicians and is not popular.”[19]  Still, the “sand-lot politicians,” so named for the place in downtown San Francisco where they rallied their followers, gained a considerable following among common laborers, if not orchard or mine owners, by accusing Chinese immigrants of working for wages so low that white workers could not compete and by pressuring growers to fire Chinese laborers and replace them with whites. A Daily Journal article describes a “peaceable war” in the San Joaquin valley aimed at displacing the Chinese.[20]

Chinese Must go leaflet

The Geary law’s purported purpose was to prohibit “the coming of Chinese persons into the United States,” but many, like the mining executive, believed the ultimate goal was to expel all Chinese from the country. The Times adopted the latter position, perhaps not entirely seriously, when it editorialized about a report that the Chinese government had created a law preventing its citizens from returning to the U.S. once back in China: “Why, bless their ancient , Confuscian [sic] souls, we don’t care how soon the Chinese authorities make a law recalling every Mongolian from America and keeping him away from our shores. He is a quiet, inoffensive fellow, but he is immiscible, unsociable, off color and generally undesirable.”[21] In another mini-editorial, the Times jokingly responded to an announcement that deceased Chinese in California were being disinterred to be returned to China: “There is no need for this,” they write. “Dead Chinamen are good. Let the authorities at once begin the deportation of the live ones.”

In this contentious atmosphere, the May 5 registration deadline came and went, Collector DeVol ‘s ledger remained blank, and the test case initiated by the Six Companies proceeded toward a decision. [22] On May 6, three Chinese men, Fong Yue Ling, Wong Quan, and Lee Joe, whose names should surely be inscribed among pioneering fighters for civil rights, were arrested in New York for failure to register.[23] They appeared before a circuit court judge, who ordered their deportation. 

Joseph ChoateTheir case moved swiftly on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Joseph Choate, lead lawyer for the three, began his argument by asking whether 100,000 “unoffending and helpless residents” of the country should be deported to China “without review by the courts,” and whether, if the Emperor of China decided to expel Americans resident in China in retaliation, Americans would have any basis for protest. His constitutional argument was that the act deprived the Chinese of liberty and property without due process and that it vested judicial power in the collector, an executive officer.

The Solicitor General, Charles Aldrich, replied that the Geary Law did not have for its purpose the deportation of Chinese laborers but aimed only at creating a system of identification and registration, “a lawful purpose,” said Aldrich, “whether applied to citizens or aliens….”[24] Neither Choate nor Aldrich’s arguments directly addressed the point most at issue, that only Chinese were required to register, although another of the attorneys employed by the Six Companies, J.H. Ashton, argued that the law raised “fundamental principles of American constitutional liberty, the right to freedom, property and the pursuit of happiness of many thousands of persons living and laboring long and peaceably” under U.S. laws.[25]

On May 15, the supreme court ruled that the Geary act was constitutional, without respect to its “wisdom [or] justice,”[26] or even to treaty obligations: “If congress makes a law inconsistent with a treaty,” said Justice Gray in announcing the decision, “it may give the foreign nation the right to complain and to take such actions as it may deem best for its own interest, but the duty of the courts of the United States is clear….” 

Three justices dissented from the majority. Justice David Brewer, who had briefly practiced law in Kansas City, viewed the act as unconstitutional and predicted that if it were upheld “there was no guarantee that similar treatment might not be accorded to other classes of our population than the Chinese.”[27] Justice Field, a California jurist not noted for defending minority rights – he would vote with the majority in the  1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that upheld racial segregation – nevertheless characterized the Geary law as “inhuman and brutal, and as violative of the constitution in every section.”[28] In his dissent, the Chief Justice, Melville Fuller, echoed Ashton’s argument, saying that the law violated fifth amendment due process and fourteenth amendment equal protection rights.[29]

J.H. Ashton promptly moved for a rehearing of the case before the full court, one justice being absent, so implementation of the law would be at least briefly delayed pending issuance of the court’s written decision and a possible rehearing. In San Francisco, however, there were celebrations led by Dennis Kearney and C.C. O’Donnell, the most prominent of the sand-lot politicians.

Reverend Condit, a Presbyterian missionary, said that immediately enforcing the law, as some wished,  would be “very dangerous” for Americans in China[30]: “Every American building in China would be destroyed…,” he predicted, “and the killing of many American residents could hardly be prevented.” The Chinese, he said, are “the most vindictive people on the face of the earth.” The Reverend Ng Poon Chew, Rev Ng Poon Chew Presbyterian missionary and influential newspaper editor, said the Chinese people are “not unfriendly” towards Americans, and that if given the opportunity to register, the Chinese would do so now that the law had been declared constitutional. He anticipated a rupture in diplomatic relations and great harm to U.S. commercial interests in China if there were mass deportations.[31]

In fact within a few days of the Supreme Court decision it began to appear that the Geary law would not be immediately enforced, despite calls for the immediate deportation of all unregistered Chinese by a California Congressman[32], and Secretary Carlisle’s insistence that his department had no power to extend the already expired date. A hundred thousand or more unregistered Chinese would, theoretically, have to be deported, but Congress had made no appropriation to fund such a number of deportations, and in addition, according to one wire service report printed in the Star, “the administration believes that the law is not just and that congress will repeal it next fall.”

Quite a few congressmen were deciding their vote for the law had been a mistake; Kansas Congressman Harris described the law as a “blunder, wrong in spirit and letter….” Others were alarmed by the snowball effect. As Justice Brewer had predicted, the law was spawning nativist calls for measures to exclude other immigrant groups, “and some congressmen are already not causelessly frightened at the know nothing spirit developed,” alluding to the xenophobic “Know- Nothing” movement of the 1850s.

An unnamed member of the Cleveland cabinet emerged from a cabinet meeting to say that the law was “nothing short of a political scheme enacted for political effect (he said, in fact, something about ‘demagogy’), and he intimated that there had been a general hope among his associates that the court would have held it unconstitutional.” Now Congress and the country were facing the consequences of a poorly considered law that might have serious unintended consequences: “there will be trouble with China over the Geary law,” predicted the Daily Journal. “China is a big nation and is not filled with fools or cowards…. The indignities heaped upon the citizens of China for political effect can have but one result, and that is the severance of all relations with that country.”

The Journal predicted violent retribution against Americans in China, possibly leading to war with a country that was, in the general view, a formidable military power: “we Americans believe that we are the greatest people on earth, [but] it must be remembered that China is rather large also, and is probably the best equipped nation on earth when it comes to fighting on land or on sea.”[33].

An unnamed War Department official believed there would not be war, but added that if the law were enforced and deportations occur, “there is no telling what may happen when you are dealing with a people who are barbarous for the most part and still cherish a vindictive hatred for the despised foreigner,”[34] a statement that might have brought an ironic smile to a Chinese reader. State Department officials, on the other hand, insisted there was no indication the Chinese government was planning to retaliate against Americans living in China.[35] The Times argued  there was no justification for reprisals in any case since the Geary law was merely intended to keep a record of all Chinese in the U.S.: “It looks like discrimination against a particular race,” they conceded, “but the Chinese populace will take revenge out on missionaries and merchants without government action.”[36]

Reasons continued to pile up why the law could not be immediately enforced. First, the decision of the Supreme Court needed to be properly framed and transmitted to the Chinese government. Then, the Six Companies were displaying the means and determination to litigate every technicality to obstruct action while the government barely had money to pay for the court case, much less engage in deportations that required each potential deportee to be examined,[37] taken to a port and sent back to China. And finally, there was a strong feeling that Congress, thinking better of its approval of the law, would never appropriate the funds necessary to carry it out.[38]

To the Times editors, all this shilly-shallying was infuriating; the editors denounced the efforts of the Six Companies to delay enforcement, accusing them of simply wanting to get more money before the laborers they had brought in on labor contracts, “many of [them]…. on fraudulent papers,” were deported. Unlike the Star, which admired the Companies’ adroit use of the legal system, the Times conjectured the Companies were misjudging Americans, having “formed an idea of our merciful natures by a comparison of our chronic lenience toward murderers and other criminals with the severity practiced in China.”[39]

John CarlisleDiscussions of the law’s implications and possible consequences continued for months after the Supreme Court decision. Treasury Secretary Carlisle debated whether unregistered Chinese could be treated as criminals deserving punishment or deported without summary proceedings or indictment. His Assistant Secretary, Charles Sumner Hamlin, declared the idea of imprisoning the Chinese at hard labor “ridiculous.”[40]

The possibility of war with China continued to be a concern.  Under the title “China is able to fight us,” the Times published an article which unfolded an elaborate scenario of American residents of China being killed by angry Chinese, the Chinese government refusing to make amends, and a war breaking out in which the U.S. – ranked at nineteenth among naval powers in the world – would face “one of the greatest naval powers of the world….. It is likely that the Son of Heaven would send his ships across the Pacific to fight with the Yankees.” The Hawaiian Islands, very much in the news as annexation by the U.S. was being debated in the press, would become a crucial station for this imagined conflict between the Chinese German-built battleships, “among the finest in the world,” and the less well-armored American battle fleet.

Dingyuan battleshipEven supposing the navy of China could be defeated, it would then be necessary, the story continues, to land troops in China, where they would face a large if fragmented military. China “is the only country in the world where the profession of arms is not honored,” the writer observed.“There, on the contrary, it is held in the utmost contempt,” its principal duty being to exterminate grasshoppers. China’s previous encounters with the European imperialist powers had gone disastrously: “they had no chance in a fight with European soldiers trained in the art of war at its highest development…. In every armed collision they were shot down like sheep.” American soldiers could probably expect a similar outcome, if they weren’t captured and skinned alive, as the story says happened to European soldiers and sailors captured in war “by these heathen…. The latter are by disposition cruel.”

The Times story concludes by casually upsetting the entire grisly scenario with speculation that the Chinese government would not likely resort to retaliation because it wouldn’t want to interrupt profitable trade relations with the U.S.: “In 1892 we sold to the Chinese $5,600,000 worth of merchandise, and purchased from them $16,000,000 worth of goods,” a three to one balance of trade in China’s favor -- not far from the current trade imbalance of about four to one. Imports from China had once been even higher, the article notes, “but the Chinese have injured their trade with us by sending over adulterated teas and other fraudulent stuff. They are inveterate cheats in such ways,”[41] an accusation which has not disappeared from U.S.-China trade relations.

Rumors that China would retaliate if the Geary law should be enforced were denied also by Secretary of State Gresham. A Star editorial of MayWalter Gresham 30 mentioned Gresham’s denial and praised the  attitude of China’s government as “patient, conservative and dignified and fully worthy of imitation by the great Christian nation with which it seems anxious to maintain friendly relations. ”[42] Yet the next day the Daily Journal published an alarming story claiming that the Chinese government had ordered a census of resident Americans: “Certainly means retaliation” proclaimed a subtitle, if the Geary law is enforced.

 The Times was as always eager to throw down the gantlet: “accept the Chinese ultimatum and see by a few years experience what comes of it…. America is a great market for the principal articles of commerce offered for sale by the Chinese,” and the Emperor of China, “in the face of the native love for gain,” will not cut off one his country’s best customers. 

The Times editors returned to their favorite theme that the whole issue had to do not with racial prejudice or political opportunism but the right of the Six Companies to do business: “It is to offset the work of the Six Companies that the Geary law was framed.” They cited in evidence the opinion of the San Francisco Examiner, a leading proponent of anti-Chinese legislation, that there was no intention of harassing Chinese legally in the country: “That the Geary law has made trouble for the resident Chinese,” wrote the Examiner, “is solely due to their own stubborn and stupid defiance of it. The Geary law is all right, and the Chinese who were here before its passage would have been all right, too, if they had had sense enough to obey it.” The Times editors conclude by recommending that “Chinamen who have their wits about them will comply with the Geary law and go about their business.” [43]

And so the battle continued between Kansas City’s newspapers and political factions. The day after the Times’ editorial the Journal published a resounding riposte beginning “What right have we to demand of any country that which we deny to it?” If Chinese authorities are ordering a census of Americans there, how is that different, they ask, from what Americans are doing to the Chinese in the U.S.? The editorial, remarkably prescient in the context of its fervently racialist and expansionist time, is worth quoting almost in full:

The simple truth is, we have acted on the plane of ignorant and self-important assumption – that we, the youngest nation on the globe, were superior in all things to the oldest nation in the records of history. We have nothing that was not borrowed from China, or at least was old there centuries before we could even read or write or know enough to make clothes.
All the so-called disabilities of Chinamen, as we know them, are from the needs and conditions of dense population…. the long experience of China with dense populations has enabled them to manage things better than we do with our want of experience and organization. That is all. And before we are a century older, unless we mend our conditions between labor and capital, we will have to become learners of this ancient people upon all economic questions….
We have forced ourselves upon them, using cannon as the first argument, looting and pillage and the torch in the next place – we mean the Western nations – and now we deny them domicile and then protest that they shall not refuse it to us. This is only the cowardly plea of the spoiler – the excuse of the wolf to the lamb – but down in the heart of all real Americans this is what we expect, and what the manly people of the country will commend China for doing. She will lower herself in our estimation unless she does so. And this every honest man feels. There is only one way left for us to do, and that is to repudiate the wrong and do what is right.
The demagogue resort that the repeal of the Geary act means unconditional immigration is not the truth – for laws already existing regulated that matter satisfactorily. But that law was pure and simple demagoguery before election, which the average politician had not the nerve to vote against. It was the duress of the coward, and the American people repudiate it. It is a lesson that we needed, and if China would send every American out of that country it would be an object lesson in civilization that we need and would profit by.
The real trouble with Chinamen is that they don’t want to vote, and attend to their business too strictly, keep out of jail and the alms house so thoroughly that they have excited the enmity against a clean shirt that belongs to one grade of our politics and one class of our politicians.

Demands for immediate enforcement of the Geary law were brought to an end at the beginning of June by Treasury Secretary Carlisle’s call to his collectors for enforcement of all parts of the law except section 6, the crucial registration requirement, leaving things essentially as they had been before the Supreme Court decision.[44] 

Supporters of Chinese deportation continued to rail: at the Cleveland administration for disregarding the Congressional will – the San Francisco Examiner said the administration was to blame for the behavior of anti-Chinese mobs in California by setting an example of lawlessness[45]; at the Six Companies – a Star editorial denounced their “absolute rule. Their discipline is perfect, their resources abundant”[46]; and at the Chinese themselves. A New Hampshire Congressman, Henry Blair, whose appointment in 1891 as Minister to China had understandably been rejected by the Chinese, told an audience that the Chinese “come to stay and to debauch the moral influences that now exist.”[47]

The Cleveland administration had decided to extend the time limit for registration. A bill to that effect was put forward in September under theJames McCreary name of Congressman William Everett of Massachusetts, but it was widely believed to have been drawn up by Assistant Secretary of State Josiah Quincy at the urging of President Cleveland, who was anxious to avoid further irritating the Chinese government.[48] Debate on a revised version of Everett’s bill, now named for James McCreary, the Kentucky congressman who introduced it, began in October. It proposed to extend the registration deadline by six months, and substitute the requirement of “one credible witness other than Chinese” for the “one credible white witness” of the Geary law. 

Thomas Geary, opposing the bill, raised the customary objections to Chinese immigration, including the money Chinese laborers sent out of the country, the competition they posed to white labor, and how unfair it all was to ignore the wishes of the West coast. He launched a furious attack on the Cleveland administration for not enforcing the law: “He was a Democrat and loved the Democratic party, but if that party permitted the men of its selection to violate the laws it had no right to ask for a continuance of public confidence….” He suggested, amidst laughter and applause, that “Mongolian diplomacy” had been at work, and that “the Chinese minister, the secretary of the treasury and the attorney general had put their heads together in order to get up the McCreary bill.”[49]

Geary also took the occasion to criticize churches who had called for repeal of the Geary law: “What right, he asked, had any church to ask Congress to do anything. He had supposed the line between church and state was sharply drawn in this country. He did not deny the sacred right of petition but the churchmen must petition as individuals and not invoke the influence of the church,” an observation for which he drew more applause from members of Congress.[50]

In subsequent debate, the section in the McCreary bill requiring three photographs of the Chinese applicant, put there at the insistence of Thomas Geary, was criticized. As Anna Pegler-Gordon points out in her study of the use of photography in immigrant documentation, photographic identification at this time was inherently discriminatory since it was proposed only for Chinese immigrants; the “stringent visual regulation of the Chinese,” she writes, “reflected widespread American beliefs about Chinese racial inassimilability, inferiority, and inherent criminality. These beliefs included concerns that most Chinese immigrants entered the United States illegally, using fraudulent immigration certificates. In implementing expanded photographic identity documentation, legislators and immigration officials drew on existing police practices for documenting criminals. They argued that photographs were necessary on Chinese documents because all Chinese looked alike and all shared criminal inclinations.”[51]

In the House debate, Henry Blair defended the bill’s photograph requirement, saying “No honest man would refuse to give his picture,” and adding irrelevantly that the Chinese “had established a Sodom in San Francisco and a Gomorrah in New York and the people wanted to get rid of them.”[52] While some Congressmen joined Blair and Geary in opposing the McCreary bill, the final vote in its favor was 120 to 10, with the Senate following suit.

The Chinese would be given an additional six months to register while the machinery of enforcement was set up, although Congress adjourned without making an appropriation to carry out the new law. Registration forms were printed and “Chinese inspectors” appointed to cities around the country in preparation for registering Chinese residents. These were mostly patronage positions awarded to faithful democrats or Union Willim Hogartyveterans, two of them with Kansas City associations: William Hogarty of Kansas City, Kansas, a decorated veteran,[53] who was assigned the inspectorship at Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho,[54] and J. G. McCoy, a pioneering livestock buyer, assigned to Wichita.[55] Under provisions of the revised law, the category of laborer had at Geary’s insistence, been defined to include “all classes of skilled and unskilled manual laborers, including Chinese employed in mining, fishing, huckstering, laundrying and peddling,” and the category of merchant limited only to those “engaged in buying and selling merchandise at a fixed place of business conducted in his name….” Owners or part owners of a mercantile establishment were no longer to be considered merchants,[56] in order to exclude those who might claim merchant status by depositing money with a merchant. Those few who had registered under the original law were required to re-register under the new one.

Now the question was, as a story in the Daily Journal put it, what would the Chinese do? Would they register under the amended act? “There had been no reason to suppose they would refuse to register under the Geary act, but they did refuse,” defied the law and went into court “with all the temerity of native Americans. They attempted to use the law with usual Chinese shrewdness to get a few of their aged people deported to China without expense to themselves, but otherwise displayed a stolid indifference to their fate.”[57] Notice was served to Chinese residents by the new collector of internal revenue for the Kansas City area, Webster Withers, to register by May 3, 1894, six months from the amended law’s passage, but the Star predicted the battle would be fought again: “a clash seems inevitable.”[58]

In Kansas City, however, Gam Lee assured a Daily Journal reporter that the city’s Chinese would not resist the new law: “all the Chinese in Kansas City will register …,” he said, “without causing Collector Withers any trouble…. At San Francisco, the principal office of the Six Companies in this country, they have been told to register. Under the old law the Chinamen did not register because the Six Companies organization was fighting the law in the courts. It will be easy to have the Chinamen register here. I can have them all register in a day.” Lee promised to see the new Collector to arrange a time for Kansas City’s Chinese, whom he estimated at 150, to register; he was confident none would try to escape by claiming they are not “laborers.”[59]

Lee’s visit with Withers did not pass without comment on American racial prejudice, however. Scanning the application blank which required the applicant to register the color of his eyes and complexion, he smiled, “in a way that was childlike and bland,” and asked of the form, “Who gottee up?” Told that Secretary Carlisle had been involved in writing the questions he commented, “Klile a dlam fool… Chinese eyes and compleckshun alle same one kind.”[60]

It was an appropriately witty and ironic observation, rendered in stereotyped pidgin – which Lee seemed able to pick up and drop at will --  on the failure of many white Americans to see and treat Chinese as individuals, a failure which arguably continued at least until the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws in 1943.

[1] “An Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States.” Fifty-Second Congress. Session 1. 1892.

[2] “An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese.” Chap. 126, Forty-Seventh Congress, Session I, 1882.

[3] This is the number given in an article in the Kansas City Daily Journal (“More than Mere Sentiment," November 25, 1893, p. 4). 1890 U.S. census figures are  107,488 (

[4] “It will be fully enforced.” Kansas City Daily Journal, March 23, 1893, p. 1.

[5] “Chinese Will Not Register.” Kansas City Times, March 28, 1893, p. 5.

[6] “Throttle the Six Companies.” Kansas City Times, March 30, 1893, p. 4.

[7] “Chinese Will Not Fight.” Kansas City Star, March 27, 1893, p. 2.

[8] Kansas City Star, May 2, 1893, p. 4.

[9] “Chinese Will Not Register.” Kansas City Times, March 28, 1893, p. 5.

[10] “The Chinese Not Worried.” Kansas City Star, May 1, 1893, p. 2.

[11] “Done for Political Effect.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 5, 1893, p. 4.

[12] “Their Own Mistake.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 23, 1893, p. 4.

[13] “The Other Leg Boot.” Kansas City Daily Journal, November 3, 1893, p. 4.

[14] “Against the Exclusion Act.” Kansas City Times, May 22, 1893, p. 1.

[15] The Six Companies: The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, based in San Francisco, consisted of six Chinese district associations. “Among their early efforts, they attempted to deter prostitution in the Chinese community, to encourage Chinese immigrants to lead moral lives, and to discourage what they described as excessive continuing Chinese immigration creating hostility toward Chinese already in America In 1875, they endorsed the position that continued Chinese immigration was resulting in a general lowering of wages, both for whites and for Chinese already in America.” Source: Accessed May 30, 2012.

[16] “Opposed by the Six Companies.” Kansas City Times, May 27, 1893, p. 4.

[17] Kansas City Star, May 30, 1893, p. 4.

[18] “Mongolian Assurance.” Kansas City Times, May 19, 1893, p. 4.

[19] “Silver and Chinese.” Kansas City Times, October 27, 1893, p. 5.

[20]Displacing Chinese Labor.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 16, 1893, p. 1.

[21] Kansas City Times, July 19, 1893, p. 4.

[22] George E. Paulsen, “The Gresham-Yang Treaty.” The Pacific Historical Review, 37:3 (August 1968), pp. 281-297.

[23] “Test Cases Agreed Upon.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 6, 1893, p. 1.

[24] “Argued the Chinese Law.” Kansas City Times, May 11, 1893, p. 1.

[25] J.H. Ashton was a former U.S. Assistant Attorney-General. In that capacity he had unsuccessfully opposed the determination of President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, to fire Walt Whitman from his clerkship position in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1865. Harlan judged Whitman’s poetry immoral. []

[26] “Chinamen Must Register.” Kansas City Star, May 15, 1893, p. 1.

[27] David Brewer had served as a justice of the Supreme court of Kansas. He served on the Supreme Court from 1889 until 1910 and was known as a staunch defender of the rights of minorities, including Chinese and Japanese immigrants [].

[28] “Geary Act Upheld.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 16, 1893, p. 1.

[29] “Can Keep Out Chinese.” Kansas City Times, May 16, 1893, p. 1.

[30] As of 1893 there were said to be 1,153 U.S. citizens in China, of whom over 400 were in Shanghai. Nearly 600 were missionaries. Ref: “China is able to fight us.” Kansas City Times, May 28, 1893, p. 19.

[31] “What Will China Do.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 17, 1893, p. 1. Ng Poon Chew was editor of Chung Sai Yato Po (Chinese-West Daily) in San Francisco. He participated in local and national conferences debating immigration policy. []

[32] “Tackled a Hard Job.” Kansas City Times, May 19, 1893, p. 1.

[33] “What will be the effect?” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 18, 1893.

[34] “The Law May Be Revoked.” Kansas City Star, May 17, 1893, p. 1.

[35] “It is Very Perplexing.” Kansas City Times, May 17, 1893, p. 1.

[36] Kansas City Times, May 18, 1893, p. 4.

[37] “Chinese Exclusion Problem.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 19, 1893, p. 1.

[38] “Tackled a Hard Job, Kansas City Times, May 19, 1893, p. 1.

[39] “Mongolian Assurance.” Kansas City Times, May 19, 1893, p. 4.

[40] “What’s to be done with him?” Kansas City Times, May 28, 1893, p. 5.

[41] “China is able to fight us.” Kansas City Times, May 28, 1893, p. 19.

[42] Kansas City Star, May 30, 1893, p. 4.

[43] “China would be the loser.” Kansas City Times, May 31, 1893, p. 4.

[44] “Chinese and the Geary Law.” Kansas City Star, June 1, 1893, p. 7.

[45] “Because law is not enforced.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 19, 1893, p. 1

[46] “A Tremendous Problem.” Kansas City Star, June 15, 1893, p. 4

[47] “Blair on the Chinese.” Kansas City Times, July 24, 1893.

[48] “A Deportation Conference.” The New York Times, September 14, 1893. Accessed May 31, 2012.

[49] “Amendment of the Geary Act.” Kansas City Daily Journal, October 11, 1893, p. 4.

[50] “Excluding the Chinese.” Kansas City Times, October 12, 1893, pp. 1 & 4.

[51] Anna Pegler-Gordon, In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009, p. 25.

[52] “McCreary’s bill passed.” Kansas City Daily Journal, October 17, 1893.

[53] “Hogerty gets a Job at Last.” Kansas City Daily Journal, June 28, 1893, p. 4

[54] “Captain Hogarty is Home.” Kansas City Times, July 13, 1893, p. 3.

[55] “Chinese Inspector for Wichita Named.” Kansas City Times,  September 22, 1893, p. 3.

[56] “Chinese Certificates.” Kansas City Times, November 24, 1893, p. 4.

[57] “What will the Chinese Do?” Kansas City Daily Journal, November 28, 1893.

[58]The Chinese Must Register.” Kansas City Star, December 14, 1893, p. 2.

[59] “Chinese Will Register.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 12, 1893, p. 3.

[60] “Will Probably Register.” Kansas City Times, December 24, 1893, p. 5.

June 1, 2012