- Kalyn McCall
Conflict of the Races: Chinese in Gospel Swamp
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
Throughout the 19th century, anti-Chinese sentiment fomented in the state of California, culminating in the federal passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major law restricting immigration to the United States, was aimed to curb the influx of Chinese migration, particularly to California. Decades of violence and concerns about white “racial purity,” declining wages, and a poor economy led to the United States government declaring Chinese people ineligible for naturalization.
While many of Orange County’s founders were elite entrepreneurs and men of industry, from wine to citrus to shipping, in the years before Orange County was a county, several areas attracted white workers, itinerants, and squatters. One such area was Gospel Swamp. The swampy lands drew humble white working people with a penchant for fire and brimstone evangelical tent meetings (hence the name Gospel Swamp). But its fertile soil made it a “veritable Egypt” renowned for its abundance and rich soil for crops. Its desirous farmlands set the stage for tension between white workers and white farm owners who employed Chinese labor in the field. From the 1870s well into the 1910s, periodically, bouts of violence sprung up around Orange County wherever white and Chinese labor came into contact. But in 1877, the Anaheim Gazette recorded that the tensions in Gospel Swamp had escalated into a “Conflict of the Races.”
During the summer of 1877, one of the worse incidents against Chinese labor in the state of California went down in Gospel Swamp. According to the Gazette, in order to prevent any delays in the hop harvest, J.B. Raine contracted Chinese labor through the Anaheim labor boss Sin Si Wo (also referred to as Sin Si Wau). Raine had contracted the labor far in advance, aware of the abundant possibilities of delay in agriculture, and expected them to work for about fifteen to eighteen days. According to the Gazette, when he hired the Chinese laborers, he had no idea he could get white men to perform the work. However, when the Chinese laborers arrived, they were met with an organized blockade of white citizens. On August 2, local residents made the Chinese workers aware that they would not be allowed to enter Raine’s workshop. Chinese labor had put them in dire straits, with many families with no “bread in the house for two weeks, their sole subsistence being upon potatoes.” Swampers then “notified Mr. J.B. Raine that he will not be allowed to employ Chinamen in gathering his crop of hops this season.”
Some residents were appalled at the behavior of the “swampers,” professing that they had no love for the Chinamen but that employers have the right to hire who they like. Others justified their actions given their poor situations. Anonymous letters signed by “Many Citizens” reached Raine, asking him to reconsider his actions. Letters to Raine warned him that “consequences will be disastrous to yourself and to the Chinese” if did not desist in employing “Mongolians.” Letters to Sin Se Wo made it very clear that he and other Chinese were not welcomed:
“... there is a strong sentiment in this country against the people of your race, and it is growing stronger daily; in the next place, the settlers of this county are in a terrible strait for money, and if you are permitted to gather the crop in the place of hard-working, honest, poor white people, I am certain that it would cause trouble that would end disastrously to your race.”
Receiving these missives, Raine “of course was anxious to employ white labor, and began to make inquiries as to whether he could secure deficient men to harvest his crop.” He told the swampers that hiring them would be cheaper than hiring the “Mongolians” after all and that he would be open to annulling his arrangement with Sin Si Wau. During his meeting with settlers, it is reported that the swampers agreed that if Raine could not find all the white men necessary to fill his ranks, they would allow him to employ Chinamen to finish the work. By the end of the agreement, the Gazette reported Sin Si Wau was going to report a loss after paying for the passage, clothing, and necessities of the Chinese workers. But everything was solved - until it wasn’t.
On August 15, only thirty of the sixty whites who agreed to pick Raine's hops showed up to work. Unable or unwilling to perform the work, deal with the heat, or keep up, after a few hours half of them quit and half decided to demand higher wages. The Gazette emphasized that this "kind of work will strengthen the demand for Chinese labor." White residents demanded Raine fire his Chinese employees and hire them. Raine consented, and white residents quit, putting him in the position of needing to hire Chinese labor once more. As he had indicated, Raine then moved to fill in the ranks the white laborers refused to, hiring both Indian and Chinese labor. And things got worse.
Sin Si Wau fulfilled his part of the bargain, bringing in more Chinese workers to gather the crops. As they arrived, a white swamper decided to throw a potato, striking a Chinese workman in the back. Angered, the Chinese man looked for the assailant and ultimately named the wrong man. Someone threw the potato. He knew he had been hit, but not by whom. The white man he had accused denied the charge and called him a liar. In response, the Chinese man drew a pistol and fired a shot at the white man who had insulted him. Raine disarmed him. The Chinese man drew another pistol. Raine disarmed him again. But there was no going back.
The Chinese had to go. According to the Gazette,
"They told the Chinamen to leave, and their command must have been very emphatic because the Mongolians in their haste forgot to take their cooking utensils with them. These the settlers smashed into smithereens. And so endeth the second chapter in this conflict of races."
Raine had hired Chinese workers and then fired them. He then hired white workers who then quit. He rehired Chinese workers who were then driven out by white workers. And all the while, his hops remained unharvested.
To end this story, Raine still needed someone to pick his hops. Therefore, he replaced all of the Chinese laborers (who had replaced the white laborers who had replaced the Chinese laborers) with white laborers and indigenous workers from Mission San Gabriel in Los Angeles. While the papers complained of the natives being drunk, eventually the crops were picked by early September.
This was not the first or last time Asian labor, be it Chinese or Japanese, was driven from the area or threatened with violence. While Orange County would famously go on to drive anti-Chinese activist Denis Kearney from the region, it was not because they disagreed with his sentiment but because he insulted some town fathers. Before rebuking Kearney, locals had formed their own branch of the Workingman's Party. Chinese workers were still needed and were still brought in from time to time across industries. But the indignities, threats of violence, and lack of recourse remained and placed them in precarious circumstances.