Skip to Main Content

Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965

At age seventeen, while still beardless, Munshi Singh joined his cousin and seven other Sikhs from his native village on a trip to Canada. His father gave him 400 rupees for the trip and Munshi arrived in Vancouver on the "Empress of Canada," Oct. 14, 1908. Munshi found Canada too cold and after six days crossed the United States border into Seattle. From Seattle, Munshi and fourteen other Sikhs rode the freight cars to Chico. None of them could speak English, and Munshi recalled the strange looks they received as people peered at their turbans and beards and listened to their Hindustani language. -- Allan Miller, "An Ethnographic Report on the Sikh (East) Indians of the Sacramento Valley," 1950

Chapter 2: Passage to California

chapter 2


Sikh immigrants

Many of the Indians received money from relatives or mortgaged land to pay the fare of Rs. 300-400 from India to North America. Most saw their move as a temporary strategy and planned to return home after making enough money to clear debt or to purchase land. These men usually went by steamship from Calcutta to Hong Kong, a journey of twelve days, and then from Hong Kong to Canada or the United States, another eighteen or nineteen days. As immigration restrictions tightened in Canada, more immigrants came directly to California, passing through Five Indian immigrantsthe Angel Island station on their way to San Francisco. While they were being detained at the station, prospective immigrants were housed in barracks, crowded and sometimes unsanitary. In 1910, Luther Steward, Acting Commissioner for the Immigration Service in San Francisco said: "If a private individual had such an establishment, he would be arrested by local health authorities."

Around 2000 Indians were in the United States in 1899, mostly students or businessmen. Indian immigration to the United States peaked during 1907-1908 and again in 1910, but the numbers were always small in comparison to East Asian immigration. Each year approximately ten to twenty women entered as immigrants, regardless of the number of male immigrants and the percentage of Indian women to men was the lowest for any group immigrating from Asia. The Immigration Act of 1917, prohibiting immigration from an Asian "barred" zone and imposing literacy restrictions, along with the Three oarsmenOriental Exclusion Act of 1924, banning most immigration from Asia, slowly stifled immigration from India. During this period many Indians entered the country illegally, going first to Panama and then coming up through Mexico and crossing the border. For a fee, an established network would facilitate the border-crossing. Joginder Singh, however, found that he had to pay a double fee. Jog, as he was called by everyone, "entered the United States in 1922 through Mexico at the cost of $400. The usual price for smuggling at that time was $200 if the alien would shave off his beard and remove his turban so as to hide his East Indian identity. Jog refused to cooperate, however, and was smuggled across the International border at the higher price."

Luddan ferries Ranjha across the River ChenabAfter the passage of the Luce-Celler bill in 1946 immigration increased and between 1945-1965, from India 6907 and from Pakistan 1497 immigrants were admitted. After the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 the number of immigrants from South Asia rose steadily, with around 40,000 immigrants per year admitted during the decade of the 1990's.