On January 3rd, 1852, 195 Chinese laborers arrived in Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. They were the first foreign contract workers in the islands.
The workers were initially recorded as Hong Kong citizens, but it was later discovered that they came from Xiamen, then known to westerners as Amoy. Their arrival was permitted by the Masters and Servants Act passed in 1850. The name of that law is telling; if plantation overseers were dissatisfied with the work of their laborers, they were able to punish the workers without much in the way of functional accountability, including extending or changing the terms of the contracts. Workers had little to no avenue for appeal.
The workers were called “coolies,” an Englishified pronunciation of the Chinese word 苦力 (kǔ-lì), which literally translates to “bitter strength” but is more regularly used to refer to difficult manual labor. The term was used derogatorily to distinguished their lesser status as indentured servants.
The impetus for the laborers’ journey was purely economic. Sugar produced for export had skyrocketed — from 8000 pounds in 1836 to 750,238 pounds in 1850 — and cheap labor was needed to keep up with demand. Talks of recruiting laborers from Europe were quickly dismissed, as China was closer and workers were cheaper.
The first attempt to retrieve workers from China ended in bizarre circumstances. G.F. Hubertson, a merchant who had previously lived in China, received a $10,000 advance — roughly $330,000 today — to bring back 200 Chinese laborers. After he left Hawaii, he was never heard from again. A year later, Captain John Cass made a second attempt. This time he returned, though five workers died on the voyage to Hawaii.
It’s not clear how exactly the laborers were found. Some scholars believe they were fleeing the Taiping Rebellion, while others suggest they were lured with promises of economic abundance and paradisaical living, as was often the case with plantation and hacienda workers.
Each of the 195 workers agreed to a five-year contract for $36 a year (about $1185 in today’s money). The contract laborers were not the first Chinese people in the islands — records show Chinese residents in Hawaii by the end of the 1700s. The workers were reputed to be wild and disagreeable by missionary standards; they smoked, drank, gambled and resisted efforts to convert to Christianity, according to Reverend William Speer’s writing at the time. Though it is worth noting, few such condemnations were written about the harsh and grossly unequal conditions under which they lived and worked.
Though not every laborer elected to stay in Hawaii after their contract was fulfilled, the arrival of these contract laborers marked a rapid increase in Chinese residents in Hawaii, from 364 in 1853, to 25,767 by the turn of the century, to over 200,000 today. Today, many of the contract laborers and their descendants are buried in Hook Chu Cemetery in Honolulu.
Notable Births on January 3rd
Father Damien (1840): Priest who spent his adult life in Hawaii taking care of sufferers of Hansen’s disease.
Bryan Clay (1980): World champion decathlete who grew up in Hawaii and attended Castle High School. He won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Anya Rozova (1989): Fashion model who grew up in Hawaii and attended Waipahu High School. She was the runner-up on the tenth cycle of America’s Next Top Model.