Chinese Laborer
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Basic Information

Around the same time that The Wild West was seeing it's Gold Rush fever, China was experiencing economic woes, so it's only natural that many Chinese men immigrated to the US. The Gold Rush didn't last forever, but the greedy Railroad Barons found a use for cheap labor that was willing to work in hard locations. Large sections of the Transcontinental Railroad was built by Chinese Laborers. These labourers may also be referred to as coolies (derived from either the Hindi quli - "serf" or the Chinese kuli "hard labour") but this is considered derogatory, both at the time and in the modern era.

Even when not working long days of back-breaking labor, the immigrant workers faced many hardships. Racism and bigotry were common, and the laws of the time just reinforced it. (See Exclusion Act of 1882, Anti-Coolie Act of 1862, and the trope Yellow Peril). For information on the social structures that built up around Chinese Laborers in the American West, see Chinatown and Tongs. Another common line of work for Chinese men in this era was Laundry.

Chinese Laborers of the 19th Century will typically be depicted as wearing their hair in a long braid called a Queue, and over that a conical straw hat.


Game and Story Use

  • The plight of the immigrant worker is one of the features that can signal how a Western game is going to approach historical accuracy and the modern lens. A game that's just seeking to emulate old cowboys and indians movies will probably shy away from the topic. A game with more modern sensibilities may attack the subject head-on.
    • In the later case, using such a plot (or at least foreshadowing it) early on will help set the tone of the campaign for the players. Besides, in this era of economic distress, we all want to take aim at Robber Baron Big Bad Evil Guys, don't we? Perhaps the players can organize a Labor Union or an angry mob to face down the Villains.
    • Alternatively, the labour union may regard the Chinese as scab labour and be at the forefront of the campaign against them - your PCs may be drafted into a Pinkerton style operation to protect the Chinese from harassment.
      • Okay, my Inner Skeptic is twitching at the idea of a Railroad Owner who is so concerned about the Rights of Poor Oppressed Minorities that he'll hire a private army to protect them; but I'll grant you that setting workers seeking better wages and working conditions versus the new immigrants who are just looking to survive in a strange and hostile country and then plopping the PCs between them has the potential for some interesting ethical dilemmas.
      • He'll hire the private army to protect the worksite, protecting the labourers is an incidental part of that - if the Chinese have been brought it to undercut the indigenous labour (as was done in the Welsh coalfields in the same sort of era) then it's not unreasonable to expect that the local Unions would be hostile to them - and if British unions were quite capable of killing "scabs" (and they were), how much more so their better armed American cousins? Violence against completely alien foreigners being, of course, much easier than violence against people from your own community. Add plot related tension by limiting the PCs remit to inside the camp - if they develop a sense of duty toward the Chinese, then annoy them by having some of them stray outside the work camp and be lynched or die as a result of sabotage, contamination of the water supply etc. Sub-plots might include a blockade of the camp, saboteurs sneaking onto site to booby-trap the work face and the possibility of having to capture landmarks on the route from camps set up to block it. If the GM doesn't want a monolithically evil 'Union mob' as an enemy, have several factions opposing them - a more sympathetic and mostly peaceful one working by picketing and passive resistance, a more covert, violent one and a majority swinging between the two dependant on the progress of the plot. Perhaps when the Marshall or the Sheriff intervenes after an attack by the violent faction he's more likely to take the easy option and arrest one of the prominent members of the peaceful faction. The PCs may then be faced with the unpleasant choice of either seeing a (basically) innocent man hang (and thus possibly strengthening the violent faction) or upsetting their employer by helping him out - and finding he's ungrateful at the end of it all anyway. Also, add NPC colleagues who are quite happy to engage in random sniping at pickets and/or raid striker's camps - they'll not be there when the mob arrives; the guard will have changed and the PCs will need to clear up the last shift's mess. Ideally there will be a way for the PCs to avoid a massacre - but a minor war would not be ahistorical.
  • Though it pushes into stereotype territory, the local immigrant population might possess ancient lore, martial arts or other resources the PCs might need to solve mysteries and beat the bad guys.
  • As Jackie Chan has demonstrated, this offers a good way to introduce a martial arts based character to a Western campaign (since some players insist on ramming them in everywhere).
    • David Carradine did something like that too, but then again, he wasn't actually Chinese.
  • These guys also show up in WW1 as well - once China joined the Entente, it was unable to meaningfully contribute military resources and so supported its allies with some raw materials and large numbers of labourers, who were deployed to undertake pioneer work. Whilst you won't find any of them in America, they do show up extensively in France - again, laying railway, handling cargo and building fortifications.
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