Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2015 Nov. 4.
The following article was originally posted on Nov. 4, 2015, to the Mississippi Delta Chinese Facebook Page, in response to an earlier post by Raymond Seid.
[Alfred Waud. “Chinese Cheap Labor in Louisiana – Chinamen at Work onThe Millaudon Sugar Plantation, July 29, 1871.” Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
On July 4, 1870, 141 Cantonese contract workers from California arrived in New Orleans to work on the Millaudon Sugar Plantation in modern Gretna, on the Westbank of Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans. They were not the first group of plantation workers in Louisiana. By 1870, hundreds of Chinese were already living on multiple Louisiana sugar plantations, including another plantation downriver in Plaquemines parish, and more plantations in the Atchafalaya River basin.
However, the Millaudon Chinese were the best documented Chinese plantation workers in the South, receiving nationwide news coverage upon their arrival, and they were followed by New Orleans newspapers almost daily for the next few weeks. Millaudon was the third largest sugar plantation in Louisiana before the Civil War, it was across the river from New Orleans, and it had been recently purchased by investors from Boston. Also, Millaudon was controversial because many Northerners thought the planters were exploiting the Chinese as a new form of “coolie” slavery.
This woodblock print was drawn one year latter in July of 1871, by the famous Civil War artist Alfred Waud, who was touring Reconstruction-Era Louisiana for the Boston magazine Every Saturday. According to the accompanying article by Ralph Keeler, half of the Chinese had broken their contracts and had abandoned the plantation over the past year (Waud and Keeler, Every Saturday (1871 Jul. 29), p. 113, 116-118). The remaining Chinese were fed up with the way they had been treated by the planters and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
According to the newspapers, by 1872, the Chinese were gone from the plantations. Many former Millaudon Chinese ended up at a cotton mill in Baton Rouge, another group was making cigars at a factory in New Orleans, another group were repairing levees in South Louisiana, and others had moved to other states. The earliest Chinese merchants also came to New Orleans in 1870, apparently to supply and provide other services to the hundreds of Chinese workers in the region. These same merchants will eventually establish New Orleans Chinatown. One of the newspapers I read from 1871 had the title “CHINESE INVASION!” because so many Chinese could be seen in New Orleans for the first time, and everything happened in less than a year. In regard to Mr. Seid’s question:
 The first plantation workers in the late 1860s apparently came from the sugar plantations of Cuba and the Caribbean, but there weren’t enough Chinese there to supply the demand for Chinese labor in the U.S.. The vast majority of plantation workers were hired from California or directly from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. 1870 is around the same time the Chinese were hired as strike-breakers in the factories of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, which is apparently how Chinese settlement began in that region, and also the railroads being built in Alabama and Texas, and the mines in Utah and Colorado.
 It’s not like the Cantonese knew anything about sugar or railroads or mining in Guangdong province. These were skills they had learned in North America. Besides, only the foreman needs to know what he’s doing, everyone else is just a manual laborer. The Cantonese laborers would take any job anywhere, as long as they thought the job would pay well, and they were willing to travel great distances to get to those jobs. Both the demand for Chinese labor and the number of Chinese in North America was exploding at this time. According to Census numbers, in 1870, there were 63,000 Chinese in the U.S., 50,000 in California. In 1880, there were 105,000 Chinese in the U.S., and 75,000 in California, so another 30,000 Chinese were in another state, many who had just arrived from China (Rhoads, Stepping Forth into the World, p. 4). That number levels off in the 1890s, before collapsing in the 1900s because of Chinese Exclusion.
 New Orleans was a major port of entry, like San Francisco and New York. There was a shipping route between New Orleans and Liverpool, England, and every week, a ship carried southern cotton to western Europe, and came back with European immigrants. The Sicilians could travel across the Atlantic directly to New Orleans, where many stayed. Half the population of Jefferson Parish seems to be their descendants. But many others took the steamship upriver to Vicksburg, Natchez, or Memphis, and the majority of the Italians in Mississippi probably passed through New Orleans first. Many Chinese arrived by railroad in St. Louis and took the steamship downriver, but many others took the steamship from San Francisco or New York City and arrived in New Orleans, before staying or moving somewhere else.
 I’ve never met anyone in New Orleans whose ancestors were plantation workers. Most of the modern Cantonese families had fathers who migrated to New Orleans from other cities in the 1900s, so they had been in the U.S. for years, if not decades, before moving to Louisiana. Many families were in laundries, some in shrimp drying, Alfred Hew was a Hakka from Hawaii who graduated from Tulane Medical School in the 1930s and married a girl from Chinatown, and Ed Lee’s family owned a macaroni factory in the French Quarter.
The reality is that there were multiple paths to migration in the South, and most importantly, the Chinese were very transient. After 1870, the New Orleans Chinese community was permanent, but the Chinese weren’t. Nearly all Chinese in the 1800s were either bachelors or married men with families in China, and new Chinese were always moving in as earlier Chinese were moving out. The Cantonese even called themselves “sojourners” 留客. Only after the 1900s do you see permanent families for the first time, when women began joining their husbands in the States and raising their children in New Orleans. That’s over 30 years after the Chinese first came to Louisiana.
Waud, Alfred, and Keeler, Ralph. Every Saturday (1871 Jul. 29), p. 113, 116-118). [You can find digital copies of Every Saturday on HathiTrust].
Cohen, Lucy. Chinese in the Post Civil War South. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press, 1999. Pages 94-104.
Jung, Moon-ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2007. Pages 185-187.
Rodrigue, John C.. Reconstruction in the Cane Fields. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press, 2001. Pages 136-137.
Wei, William. “Coolie Labor.” Harper’s Weekly, The Chinese American Experience: 1857-1892. http://immigrants.harpweek.com/ChineseAmericans/2KeyIssues/CoolieLabor.htm