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Chinese Immigrants Maintain Ties with Home

Thomas Chinn (1909-1997) was the founder, publisher, and editor of the Chinese Digest, the first English-language weekly newspaper for Chinese Americans in the United States, and later the Chinese News. In this excerpt from an interview, he describes how Chinese immigrants communicated with friends and family in China, using a system of interpreters, small Chinese-owned businesses, and messengers.

I must tell you how the Chinese in America, in the beginning, managed to maintain correspondence with their folks in China. When they first arrived here, unable to understand English or how to start making a living, it was through the handful of Chinese who were able to speak some English who guided the new arrivals and helped them get started. These "interpreters" were also the ones who helped those Chinese who were unable to write letters to their families back in China to do their letter writing for them. Of course, they charged for this service, but generally not much.

Then there was the matter of letters from China. How were they addressed, when their men were constantly moving around in their need to make a living as well as to send money home? That is where the Chinese stores come into play. The Chinese generally looked for business houses run by relatives or people from their own village in China. These business houses also acted as "bankers," receiving money from busy laborers who had "messengers" from small Chinese groups working too far away to come into town to run their errands. These messengers would deliver the money or letters to the business house designated to act for these laborers. The address written from China used the business house address and then kept these letters until the addressee was able to come to the store to pick up the mail. In return, aside from actual cost of stamps or money orders, etc., which was naturally reimbursed to the store, it was expected of each laborer that he would patronize the store for all of his needs.

Source | Ruth Teiser/Thomas W. Chinn, "A Historian's Reflections on Chinese-American Life in San Francisco, 1919-1991: Oral History transcript/Thomas Chinn" Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1993, from Calisphere,
Interviewer | Ruth Teiser
Interviewee | Thomas W. Chinn
Rights | Used by permission of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “Chinese Immigrants Maintain Ties with Home,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 13, 2021,

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