Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC)
This page was last updated: August 30, 2018
(UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED ALL DATA ON THIS PAGE COMES FROM THE EDITORS' OWN RESEARCH ON PRIMARY SOURCES & ARTIFACTS)
This page discuses property in terms of rights: to land, structures, minerals, movable goods, and monetary instruments. It has two main foci: (1) whether, where, and when Chinese non-citizens could own land, etc., and (2) how Chinese (and other) women gained the right to own land, investments, and cash themselves rather than through husbands, husbands' male kin, and their own male offspring. Although essential issues, they are often misunderstood by Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians. Here we hope to begin to set the record straight.
Could Chinese Own Real Estate in 19th Century America?
Modern Chinese Americans often complain that their parents or grandparents were not allowed to own land or buildings in the U.S. until 1943 or even later, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed. Some claim that the Exclusion Act itself barred Chinese from land ownership, even though that infamous piece of legislation did not mention land or any other form of property. And many in those earlier generations experienced for themselves how hard it was to buy a home outside the local Chinatown. It is understandable that their descendants believe in the former omnipresence of laws preventing them from doing so.
Such laws did exist but were not universal or, in most cases, absolute. Effective prohibitions of Chinese (and other Asian) land ownership were relatively new. Most stemmed from a spate of "alien land laws" dating to the 1910s and 1920a. All denied the right of "aliens ineligible for citizenship" to acquire any sort of land: in California (1913 & 1920), Washington (1921) and Oregon (1923) [Note 1]. The chief targets of such laws were Japanese rather than Chinese and, in the minds of the laws' proponents, applied especially to rural farm land. The laws were often not applied to urban land and buildings, which in many places continued to be owned, bought, and sold by Chinese throughout the 1910s-1940s.
Important loopholes existed in just about all alien land laws, including those of the 1910s and 1920s. For one thing, state legislators seem never to have tried making the laws retroactive: that is, if a Chinese or Japanese person already owned land, it could not be taken away from him. Moreover, the legislators, perhaps worried about setting any such precedent, seem never to have banned acquisition through inheritance. The child of a potato farmer could inherit his farm even though the heir might not be an American citizen.
Moreover, few if any alien land laws were extended to Chinese ownership of mining claims. Federally patented claims, which conferred very extensive rights and which since 1872 Chinese had been allowed to buy but not originate [Note 2], were beyond the reach of state legislatures, and the issue of whether Chinese could hold ordinary state-controlled mining claims, which involved transferable rights but not ownership as such, had already been worked out in the 1860s and 1870s. In most northwestern and western states, initial bans on Chinese mining were rescinded a few years later when white miners realized that Chinese were the main potential buyers for seemingly unprofitable white-owned claims.
Yet another loophole in the alien land laws: sons and daughters who were born in the U.S. and hence citizens could own, buy, and sell real property just like a European American. Attempts to limit this last loophole, for instance by specifying that U.S.-born children could not hold land "in trust" for parents were bound to be ineffective. All one had to do was to pass the land as a gift to a native-born son or daughter and then to carry on as before, confident that the child would treat his or her father as the real owner.
So, could Chinese immigrants own land? Yes. Were there restrictions? Yes again, and the situation got worse before it got better. Was it the same everywhere? No, and that is one of the subjects we wish to explore here.
The other subject is whether, when,and where Chinese women could own anything, including land. As will be seen, the history of Chinese (and other) women's property rights is a disgrace to both Euro-American and Chinese men.
Note 1. See the excellent Wikipedia article on Alien Land Laws, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_land_laws
Note 2: Sue Fawn Chung, 2011, In Pursuit of Gold, p 39.
This Indenture Made the 23rd day of June in the Year of Our Lord One thousand eight hundred and ninety Between E. W. Sawtelle of the City of Marysville, Yuba County, State of California the party of the first part, and Ah Fee and Quong Hop of the same place the parties of the second part, Witnesseth: that the said party of the first part for and in Consideration of the Sum of Five Hundred dollars $500 in Coin of the United States of America to him in hand paid by the said parties of the second part the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, does by these presents grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said parties of the second part and to their heirs and assigns forever all that certain piece or parcel of land situated in the city of Marysville, County of Yuba, State of California, being a part of lot Four (4) in Block One (1) of Range letter “D” described as follows to wit: commencing on the South East corner of said lot [description of boundaries, omitted] . . . Together with all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging, or in anywise appertaining, and the reversion and reversions, remainder and remainders, rents, issues and profits thereof. To Have and to Hold, all and singular, the said premises together with the appurtenances unto the said parties of the second part and to their heirs and assigns forever. In Witness Whereof the said party of the first part has hereunto set his hand and seal the day and year first abovewritten . . . Recorded at the request of Ah Fee June 26th A.D. 1890. At 10 min past 11 o’clock a.m. S. O. Gunning, Recorder.
Chinese Land Ownership in Marysville, 1890
As evidence that Chinese could and did own land in California, we present the following piece of splendid legalese. It comes from Deed Book 39 in the Yuba County Office, Marysville.
That E. W. Sawtelle "grants bargains, sells, and conveys" a piece of Marysville land to Ah Fee and Quong Hop "and to their heirs and assigns forever" seems to mean that Ah Fee and Quong Hop did own that piece of land legally, openly, and definitely.
Part of record of Ah Fee's and Quong Hop's purchase of land in Marysville, 1890.