The California Gold Rush of the mid-Nineteenth Century coincided with a time of dire economic conditions in China. So it was natural that when they got wind of the gold rush across the Pacific, thousands of young Chinese men migrated to the United States to mine the gold fields. Their industry and teamwork were at first admired and appreciated, but as viable gold strikes played out and fresh mines became scarce, the white majority resented the foreigners (who were forbidden by law from becoming citizens) and laws were passed in an attempt to force the Chinese out of the mining business.
However, a new economic opportunity opened up in the form of the Transcontinental Railroad. This project required many low-paid laborers for dangerous and arduous work; and the head of the Southern Pacific end of the Transcontinental project decided to hire the lean and hungry Chinese of California. They did such a good job that more Chinese labor gangs were hired directly from the homeland.
After the Transcontinental line was built, railroad construction continued to boom in the Western United States, and the now experienced Chinese eagerly took on these new jobs. The population of Chinese men in America swelled.
Unfortunately, this large population was largely bachelors and stuck out considerably. Relatively few Chinese women chose to immigrate for various reasons, and of those many were blocked by laws theoretically in place to prevent prostitution. As anti-miscegenation laws barred Asian men from marrying white women, they had to seek companionship and diversion in other, extra-legal ways. The distinctive queue worn by Chinese men was made mandatory by their homeland's government, and they were barred from re-entry if they had lost it, meaning that most of the immigrants to the U.S., who planned to someday return, could not adopt less conspicuous hairstyles. And as many Chinese immigrants were essentially forced to live in "Chinatowns" for their own safety, many did not learn English very well if at all.
This very distinctive and poorly-assimilated minority stirred fears of a Yellow Peril, and racist discrimination and attacks against the Chinese were common, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1880s, which banned Chinese immigration entirely.
In the fiction of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, this trope often a sinister figure who fills the ranks of a Secret Society and lusts for the pure white women that the hero must protect. About the time of World War II, when China became the United States' ally, the depiction shifted, and the Chinese laborer tended to be shown as the victim of prejudice and needing the help of a white hero to save him from bigots. Modern depictions tend to be a bit more nuanced... we hope.
The generic term for exported Asian laborers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was "coolie." This word was often used as a pejorative, and many people of Asian heritage find it offensive, so it should only be used in its historical context.
The supertrope is Ethnic Menial Labor.
- A Canadian Heritage Moment depicted an old Chinese man telling his grandsons in Flash Back about building the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He volunteered to place a nitroglycerin charge, which went off prematurely. Fortunately, he survived. He goes on to tell his grandsons the legend of "one dead Chinese man for every mile of that track."
- Popped up in Lucky Luke once or twice.
- Chinese "coolies" work a rubber plantation in Red Dust. The whites running the plantation make multiple racist comments about them.
- A bunch of them feature in Shanghai Noon. Interestingly, the foreman in charge of them is himself Chinese, yet he still treats the workers like dirt.
- Chinese laborers also appear in 3:10 to Yuma (2007) on a railroad construction site.
- Blazing Saddles
[Chinese Laborer working on railroad tracks falls to the ground from exhaustion]
Lyle: Dock that Chink a day's pay for napping on the job.
- Miniature Chinese laborer figures come to life and attack Ben Stiller's character in a wild west diorama in Night at the Museum.
- One turns up in For a Few Dollars More, who The Man With No Name orders to clear the Colonel's (the other bounty hunter) room out and to take his stuff out of town. The Colonel intercedes, and a back-and-forth ensues until the laborer freaks out, drops the baggage and bolts into the hotel.
- There's a scene in the Robert Altman film McCabe & Mrs. Miller where a mining company operative details an elaborate mineral extraction scheme involving Chinese laborers and lots of explosives. As you might imagine, the laborers weren't expected to survive.
- Death to Smoochy has Edward Norton's pacifist character explain, "When my brothers played Cowboys and Indians, I was always the Chinese railroad worker."
- While they don't have a presence in the story, in Unforgiven, we are informed that English Bob made a living out of killing them for the railroads.
- Due to a lack of white labour, Chinese labourers work the Central Pacific railroad in The Iron Horse.
- A monk travelling with a group of them in the old West gets to show his zombie-killing talents in The Zombie Survival Guide.
- There's a Laurence Yep series called Golden Mountain Chronicles, after the Chinese nickname for California. It's a series that follows a Chinese-American family over a number of generations, and the protagonists of some of the earlier books were Chinese laborers working on the railroads.
- Chinese miners have a significant role in Stephen King's novel, Desperation: they accidentally discover the entryway to an another dimension, where the Big Bad comes from.
- The works of Bret Harte, set during the Gold Rush in California, have a fair number of these, including a Hop Sing in a play who is the trope originator or codifier of the Chinese Launderer.
- East of Eden has Lee, a Chinese cook and valet (also a stereotype at one time in California), who has a horrible backstory about how his mother disguised herself as a man so she could live and work alongside his father on the railroad, hiding her pregnancy when it came about, until the day she gave birth. Her husband wasn't nearby to help her, and when the other workers realized there was a woman in their midst they basically gang-raped her to death.
- The hardships suffered by Chinese railway workers plays a major part in Henning Mankell's Yellow Peril novel "The Man From Beijing".
- In the last 2 books of the What Katy Did series, Clover and In the High Valley, Clarence Page, Geoff Templestowe, and their wives hire a Chinese cook, Choo Loo. While the Christian protagonists don't quite agree with his use of joss sticks, and "the ways and means of his mysteriously conducted kitchen", he is a "capital cook", and the ladies appreciate the way he likes to decorate the food he serves. In fact, Lionel Young, when setting up his own residence, tells his sister, Imogen, that, "I wish we could have the luck to happen on his brother or nephew for ourselves."
- In Portlandtown, many of the boatmen who offer transportation through Portland's flooded winter streets are Chinese immigrants.
- In the Colleen McCullough novel The Touch, upon emigrating to Australia from Scotland and being given a tour of her wealthy new husband's home, Elizabeth Kinross is surprised to see that everyone of her servants is Chinese—there was a substantial Chinese immigrant population in Australia at the time of the book's settingas she's never even seen people of another ethnicity before leaving Scotland.
- Our Miss Brooks: In "Two Way Stretch", in order to save a "Fawlty Towers" Plot from going off the rails, Miss Brooks pretends to be secretly married to Mr. Conklin. She claims the reason the marriage was secret was that she entered the country illegally in company with "Oriental labourers". It Makes Sense In Context.
- Kwai Chang Caine tended to run into a lot of these while Walking the Earth in Kung Fu; not surprising given his ethnicity.
- On the Pushing Daisies episode "The Fun In Funeral", Wilfrid Woodruff's ancestor was a runaway Chinese laborer who found a Confederate uniform and gave rise to a long line of Asian-American good ol' boys.
- The boomtown of Deadwood features its own little Chinatown, ruled by the ruthless Mr. Wu, whose side business is feeding dead troublemakers to his ravenous pigs.
- Mr. Wu is still a pretty nice guy compared to a competitor he gets later in the story, who brings in Chinese women by the wagonload to act as prostitutes, and keeps them drugged and starves them, since it's cheaper to get new ones than to feed them properly.
- Have Gun Will Travel features hotel porter Hey Boy (and for one season his sister Hey Girl) as a major recurring character.
- In The Wild Wild West, Chinese laborers showed up quite a bit (with The Wild West as the show's setting and all), specifically in the episode "The Night the Dragon Screamed" in which Jim and Artemus have to solve the mystery of Chinese laborers disappearing as soon as they get to America.
- Chinese rail workers figure into the plot of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. as the ones who find the series' MacGuffin.
- On Bonanza, Hop Sing works as a cook for the Cartwrights.
- A British variant on this trope: Chinese immigrants in the UK are best known for working in catering and the food takeaway trade. In controversial sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, the put-upon owner of the local takeaway is the butt of casual racism by both Bill (black) and Eddie (white). Eddie, predictably, calls him Fu Manchu. Bill displays a racist streak - against Chinese - by calling him Mao Tse Tung. Neighbours normally locked in everyday black-versus-white prejudice bond against yellow.
- Our Miss Brooks: In "Stretch to Transfer", in order to save a "Fawlty Towers" Plot from going off the rails, Miss Brooks pretends to be secretly married to Mr. Conklin. She claims the reason the marriage was secret was that she entered the country illegally in company with "Oriental labourers". It Makes Sense In Context.
- An episode of the Radio Drama Have Gun Will Travel had Paladin attempting to keep his friend/servant "Hey Boy" from taking bloody vengeance on a white railroad construction supervisor who'd killed one of his relatives (as there were laws preventing Chinese from testifying against whites in criminal cases, it was nearly impossible to prosecute white-on-Chinese violence in the courts).
- Lee Zen in Paint Your Wagon, who speaks mostly in his native Cantonese.
- British Columbia had a similar labour and immigration situation with regards to abusing the Chinese immigrant workers who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
- Mexico also imported Chinese labor to build their railroads; to this day there is a large Chinese community in Juarez City. Any El Pasan will tell you that the best Chinese restaurants in the area are in Juarez City.
- During World War I the British government recruited the Chinese Labour Corps. Though the men served under British officers, were subject to military discipline, and took casualties from enemy fire, they were not dignified with the status of soldiers, in the same way as normal military engineers. The French government hired Chinese laborers in a similar manner. In total, something like 140,000 Chinese citizens served on the Western front, and are now almost totally forgotten.
- Chinese laborers and work teams were not unknown in the more geographically close Australia either, and many of them participated in the Gold Rush and dealt with the usual amounts of racism. Similar to the US and Canadian situation, the early Australian railways were basically built with Chinese labour.
- The controversial use of Chinese labour in South Africa during and after the Boer War helped bring down a British government when allegations of abuse came out.
- Chinese laborers (along with Japanese, Korean, and Filipino Laborers) were common in the sugar plantations of Hawai'i and the primary reason why to this day, the majority of the State's population is of Asian ancestry.