Study reveals how Chinese migrants in LA forged their own economy amid racism

Study reveals how Chinese migrants in LA forged their own economy amid racism
via Christina Boemio on Unsplash
Michelle De Pacina
February 27, 2024
A study of Los Angeles Chinatown reveals that Chinese migrants in the late 1800s established a self-reliant economy by engaging in pig-raising and pork distribution. 
About the study: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, anti-Chinese sentiment became prevalent in the United States, particularly among working-class laborers who perceived Chinese workers as a threat after many had migrated to California to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite discriminatory policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, researchers Jiajing Wang, an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, historical archaeologist Laura Wai Ng and Tamara Serrao-Leiva, curator of anthropology at the San Bernardino County Museum, found that these migrants found a solution to counter discriminatory policies in creating their own economic system. 
The study, which was published in the journal American Antiquity, examines and details the pig-raising practices in Los Angeles Chinatown during the Chinese Exclusion Era by utilizing archaeological evidence, specifically pig bones from Old Chinatown, to uncover the dietary habits of the pigs owned.
The pork production system: Chinese butcher shops played a crucial role by selling pork, likely exporting higher-value cuts for additional income while consuming cheaper cuts locally. Through dental calculus analysis and archival research, the study reveals that Chinatown residents raised pigs using food waste and rice by-products. The study suggests that Chinese migrants maintained their cultural traditions and established a self-reliant food system, including partnerships with butchers exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act. 
“What has been recorded in historical narratives was written by the people in power, so the records don’t say much about the real-life struggles of early Chinese migrants,” Wang told Dartmouth. “So, archaeology contributes to that picture because we are recovering material remains that record the everyday life of people who normally would not have had a voice in public records.”
Resisting racism: Chinese butcher shops not only provided a meat source but also offered employment, housing, banking and immigration support. This research underscores how pig raising became a means for the Chinese community to resist racism, showcasing the development of a comprehensive pork production system that addressed social and financial needs amid discrimination. 
“The archaeological data shows that Chinese migrants had been getting their own food, growing rice and raising pigs, and maintaining their traditions, despite the racist environment,” said Wang.
What’s next?: To delve deeper into this research, the research team plans to work on another project that examines the evolution of food practices before, during and after the immigration of individuals from China to the U.S.
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