I’ve been looking at some archival documents, and I came across an interesting issue that was discussed by American government officials in 1899 concerning Chinese in the Philippines.

In 1899, the US was fighting for control of the Philippines. At that time there were thousands of Chinese living in the Philippines. In the US, meanwhile, a law had been signed in 1882 (the Chinese Exclusion Act) that prohibited any more Chinese from immigrating to the US.

Chinese exclusion act

So as the Americans extended their control over the Philippines, what was their plan for the Chinese there? Apparently some business people wanted to bring in more Chinese as “coolies,” or indentured laborers. These people argued that the Filipinos would not work, and therefore, it would be essential to bring in Chinese to “develop” the islands.

Other people, like US consul in Manila Oscar Williams, disagreed. On 21 February 1899, Williams sent the American Assistant Secretary of State a letter about this issue that began as follows:

“I esteem it my duty to place before the Wash[ington] Gov’t. through the Dept. of State certain facts which became known to me as to the efforts of European agents of ship companies, manufacturing houses and capitalists to secure here the two conditions of ‘Open Doors’ or Free Trade, and Chinese importation or Coolie labor.


Williams stated that “I am unqualifiedly opposed to both.” However, the importation of Chinese coolie labor really bothered him, and he wrote quite a bit about what he thought about Chinese and their potential influence on the Philippine islands. In this letter, for instance, he stated that,

“Chinese importation is as offensive to Filipinos as it is in America to the Irish, Ger[mans] or other elements and for the same reasons. They monopolize the wages of labor – work night and day – live at trifling expense and return to China with such accumulations as can be saved.”


Meanwhile he defended the ability of Filipinos to work in another letter when he stated that,

“It is ridiculously false as well as monumentally unjust to say Filipinos do not and will not work. And while Chinese practically enslave their women tasking them with [the] severest and most degrading labor, Filipinos treat theirs kindly and with the delicate consideration of enlightened peoples.”

“The Chinese are polygamists each keeping, if rich, as many wives as he is able to provide for! And if poor, as many as he is capable of employing for his ease and profit.”

Chinese in Phils

So according to Williams, Chinese were bad for the economy and bad for society. He therefore appealed to the US government to keep further Chinese out of the Philippines.

“Let us firmly stand by exclusion of Chinese and announce a policy helpful to struggling Filipinos and Peace will come as soon as the people learn our plans. But let the people learn that if the Americans flag flies here Chinese may come unhindered and these people will fight us to annihilation.”

“No other question has been more discussed between [Filipinos] and me and I only reflect their earnest protests and appeal for them to the U.S. Gov’t. for protection against the hordes of Chinese who but for the American exclusion act would swarm to these shores and strangle [?] every effort our natives can make to elevate, benefit and civilize these islands.”

mixed group

So Williams clearly made an impassioned plea to the US government to exclude Chinese from the Philippine Islands. I was curious to know what the outcome of this was.

Then today as I was looking at some documents from the British Colonial Office, I found that a British official in Singapore had asked about this issue in 1901. He wondered if “British subjects of Chinese descent” (i.e., ethnic Chinese from places like Singapore) could travel to the Philippines.

His query went to London and then to Washington where an answer was finally provided – “no.”


In particular, David Hill, Acting Secretary of State at the time, stated that,

“1. Chinese persons are to be excluded from the Philippines ‘whether subjects of China or any other foreign power.’”

“2. That such exclusion is a military measure adopted to meet existing military necessity. Being a military expedient, it is not to be considered as in any way affecting the permanent policy of the Government of the Islands under conditions of peace.”

“3. The military order relating to said exclusion did not extend the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the United States Congress, to and over the Philippine Islands, as a law of the United States.”

So a way had been found to keep any more Chinese from coming to the Philippines. They were to be excluded by “a military measure adopted to meet existing military necessity.”

And what exactly was that “military necessity”?

[The pictures above come from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive at the University of Michigan.]

[I will upload the letters tomorrow.]