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Chinese laborers in Hawai`i

A Chinese presence in Hawai'i dates almost as far back as Captain Cook's arrival in 1778. As early as 1789, Chinese arrived aboard trading ships and by 1794 a Chinese was reportedly living in the Islands. With increasing trade between China and North America, Hawai'i became a regular stopover for ships. Once Hawaii's sandalwood forests became a trading commodity, brisk traffic began. In China Hawai'i was referred to as Tan Heong Shan, or Fragrant Sandalwood Mountains.

During the early 1800s, a handful of Chinese took up residence in the Islands and tried their luck at agriculture. Wong Tze-Chun arrived in 1802 and set up the first commercial sugar operation with equipment he brought with him from China. Though the venture was short-lived, it was a harbinger of Hawaii's largest industry before the advent of tourism.

The greatest influx of Chinese arrived as contract laborers to work on sugar plantations. Sugar growers looking for plentiful and cheap labor found a match with southern China where population had outstripped the production capacity of local farmlands. During the years of immigration, most of the Chinese arriving in the Islands came from Kwangtung province, the area of China suffering the greatest hardships. Immigrants were mostly single males. Some returned to China at the end of their contracts; many others stayed on to establish businesses or farms of their own and found local wives to begin their families.

The first Chinese laborers arrived in 1852. The period of heaviest immigration continued into the 1880s. In addition to work on sugar plantations, many Chinese worked in rice production, an industry that boomed in the 1870s and 1880s. As a result of the vast economic and cultural changes of the 1800s, many Hawaiian farmers abandoned their taro fields which were then planted in rice.

In 1882, although Hawai'i was still ruled as an independent kingdom, the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act put a damper on the flow of Chinese to the Islands. Plantations recruited new workers from Japan instead.

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