The Chinese experience in the United States began primarily in the mid-nineteenth century. While Chinese immigration to California began as early as the 1830s, it expanded rapidly after 1850 due to the discovery of gold in California, and again in the 1860s with the building of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Chinese immigrants, like many other immigrants, often came to the United States in the nineteenth century to acquire wealth with the intent of returning to China. They faced immense discrimination in the U.S., as many white Americans perceived Chinese language, culture, and religion to be too different for assimilation to white culture in the United States. Others feared the influx of cheap Chinese labor would prove too competitive and prevent American citizens from acquiring jobs. The media exacerbated American stigmatization of Chinese people, often drawing on false pseudoscientific ideas about the innate inferiority of nonwhite peoples and portraying them as inhuman and unintelligent in magazines, newspapers, and political cartoons.

In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to ban Chinese immigration for ten years, which it renewed for another ten years with the Geary Act of 1892. Despite the high level of discrimination against them, Chinese laborers contributed heavily to the expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century by their labor on railroad building projects, mining for gold and other minerals, and contributions to the settlement of the American West. Chinese Americans developed communities, starting in the West but spreading to the East, that preserved many elements of Chinese culture while contributing highly to the growth of American society in the nineteenth century and beyond. (Library of Congress, "Chinese")

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