1906 Ethnicity in the stockyards: why Chinese in Chicago weren't at the bottom of the ladder

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:58 Amy Gwilliam
Upton Sinclair wrote many so-so novels and one great one, The Jungle.  The book is an angry and detailed expose of the meatpacking industry for which Chicago was famous. 

No Chinese worked in Chicago's stockyards and slaughterhouses even though these were less than two miles from the South Side Chinatown.  The wages were too low and conditions too miserable.  However, it seems likely that work in the packing plants did have an effect on the public image of Chinese immigrants.  In California, racists could claim that Chinese were fit only for the lowest, dirtiest jobs. But in Chicago, tens of thousands of whites and blacks worked under conditions so dangerous and degrading as to make a Chinese laundry look like a playground.  And what is more, every few years a new ethnic group arrived in the stockyards to crowd onto the bottom rung of the social ladder.  The average Chinese laundryman or restaurant waiter made more money than (and was at least as respected as) these constantly replaced hordes of immigrant white meatpacking workers.

Image: Union Stockyards Gateway, W Exchange Ave & Peoria St, about 2 miles SW of South Side Chinatown.  Built 1875.

Sinclair described stockyard employment in terms of ethnicity:

"The first family had been Germans.  The families had all been of different nationalities--there had been a representative of several races that had displaced each other in the stockyards ... the workers had all been Germans then--skilled cattle butchers that the packers had brought from abroad to start the business.  Afterward, as cheaper labor had come, these Germans had moved away.  The next were the Irish--there had been six or eight years when Packingtown had been a regular Irish city ... The Bohemians had come then, and after them the Poles.  People said that one of the packing plant owners was responsible for these immigrations; he had sworn that he would fix the people of Packingtown so that they would never again call a strike on him, and so he had sent his agents into every city and village in Europe to spread the tale of the chances of work and high wages at the stockyards. The people had come in hordes; and the owner had squeezed them tighter and tighter, speeding them up and grinding them to pieces and sending for new ones.  The Poles, who had come by tens of thousands, had been driven to the wall by the Lithuanians, and now the Lithuanians were giving way to the Slovaks ..."

As noted elsewhere on this site, there was a German phase in the history of Chinatown as well.  The Germans had replaced Swedes and were themselves replaced by Italians and then Chinese.  The Italians also ranked low in Chicago's social system.  But neither Italians nor Chinese worked in the slaughterhouses, and in the 1900s both seem to have been higher in status than most Lithuanian and Slovak immigrants.