Between the decades of 1870 and 1890, fruit gradually replaced wheat as the main crop of California. Reasons for this included changes in market conditions, droughts, and high freight rates. While wheat could be harvested mechanically and required less labor, fruit often had to be hand-harvested and required a large labor force.
Enter the Chinese laborer.
The completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, which had relied heavily on Chinese labor, created a lot of job-seeking Chinese immigrants. These "coolies" were a Godsend for large fruit growers in California, as Chinese laborers would work for very low wages.
According to the California Bureau of Labor, Chinese workers constituted around 80 percent of the agricultural laborers in the state in 1886. Low-paid Chinese labor was a major factor in the early economic success of the California fruit industry.
Large fruit growers faced a problem, however...large-scale and vicious racism against Chinese people in late 19th century America. As early as 1854, a California Supreme Court decision had included Chinese in "a statute which prohibited the testimony of Negroes, mulattos, and Indians, in cases to which white men were parties." According to Carey McWilliams, "Newspapers had stated as early as 1850 that the Chinese were being murdered with impunity."
Anti-Chinese clubs sprang up around California starting in the 1860s. Cities like San Francisco passed discriminatory ordinances making it illegal to carry baskets on the sidewalks or for men to grow their hair a certain length. Chinese people were routinely harassed and expelled from their homes and places of work.
This anti-Chinese sentiment became federal law in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to curtail Chinese immigration to America.
The Geary Act of 1892 continued the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and also provided for massive deportation of Chinese from the US. The language of the Geary Act is eerily familiar. It "forced the burden of proving legal residence upon the Chinese, and required that all Chinese laborers register under the act within one year of its passage."
When these legal measures failed to expel Chinese people as swiftly as people wanted, Californians resorted to vigilante "justice", as shown by the following examples, as excerpted from Carey McWilliams' book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California:
"On August 15 (1893), riots broke out near Fresno: Chinese were driven from the fields and were 'compelled to make lively runs for Chinatown.' Chinese labor camps were raided and fired."
"In Napa Valley, on August 17, a white laborers' union was formed, and a mass meeting protested the further employment of the Chinese in the prune orchards."
"In Southern California, at Compton, the Chinese were barricaded in packing sheds where they were forced to sleep for safety, while 'hoodlums' raided the fields and drove out the Chinese."
"On September 3 anti-Chinese raiders swooped down on Redlands' Chinatown, broke into houses, set afire to several buildings, looted the tills of Chinese merchants, and generally terrorized the Chinese."
"At Tulare, Visalia, and Fresno, hundreds of white men were busy 'routing out the Chinese, terrifying them with blows and pistol shots, and driving then to the railroad station and loading them on the train."
During the years when this anti-Chinese activity was most acute (1893-1894), the United States was in the throes of a major economic depression. During this economic turmoil, Americans sought a scapegoat for their troubles, and found that scapegoat in Chinese workers.