Chinese men began coming to the United States in large numbers in the Gold Rush. Residents of southern China began to emigrate to California, and the Chinese population-like the population in general-grew quickly: more than 20,000 Chinese came to the new state in 1852. The dream shared by most men was to earn enough to return to China with wealth sufficient to own some land and to start a family in their home village. But for most, that dream never materialized.
By 1870, over 60,000 Chinese people, most of them men, lived in California. In the Monterey Bay region, the area's early Chinese population had started a fishing fleet in the 1850s. These people created a dried fish industry based on abalone and the bay's other delicacies that they mainly sold to other Chinese residents in California and abroad. Meanwhile, the Central Pacific Railroad- building its half of the trans-continental rail line eastward in the mid-1860s from Sacramento-recruited thousands of workers in south China to help build the right-of-way, including tunnels through granite and tracks on mountain ledges, over the high Sierra Mountains and across Nevada. These recruited workers were all men.
Chinese men, by now well-skilled in railroad building, then worked to construct other railroads in California, including the Santa Cruz line.
By the 1880s, Chinese men formed the backbone of the area's agricultural workforce, and the 'Chinatown' in Watsonville, with a smaller one in Santa Cruz, housed hundreds of residents.
A few Chinese immigrants, ones with more money to pay for passage, brought wives to California in the early part of the Gold Rush before immigration barriers, legal and otherwise, made the arrival of Chinese women difficult if not impossible. These somewhat wealthier immigrants and their wives often went into shopkeeping to earn their living, providing the services needed by the growing communities of their fellow countrymen.
Within the larger male community, a few Chinese began families.
In some of the wealthier Chinese familes in 19th-century coastal California, women's feet were bound, following the old homeland tradition of foot-binding, often called (in English translation) the 'golden lotus' tradition. The idea was to make the visible part of the foot (the part of the foot that appeared below the long, traditionally cut, Chinese woman's formal dress) appear as small as possible. The practice seems strange today, indeed disfiguring, but the goal then was an aesthetic one, derived from ancient culture. If done, the binding process began in early childhood or, in some cases, as late as eight years old. Adult women bound the feet of young ones. Over several years, a foot gradually took the desired shape. (Those interested in more information should consult sources on old Chinese culture.)