The Wild West of Yester-Year

Tye Leung Schulze
By Rachel Kovaciny

When Tye Leung was born in California in 1887, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in effect for five years. It allowed no uneducated or unskilled immigrants from China to enter the country, nor very few literate and skilled ones, either. To understand why the country passed an immigration act barring people from a specific foreign country, and how that legislation affected Tye Leung, we need to look at a bit of Old West history.

When the Gold Rush began in 1849, Chinese immigrants flocked to America in search of money and opportunities they lacked at home. Most were young men with few or no prospects for bettering themselves in China. They were born in poverty and likely doomed to live in it. America’s Gold Rush offered them a chance to make money that would help them build better lives at home one day. Most of these immigrants were not interested in staying in America permanently, but wanted to make money to take back to China so they could get married there. Because they planned to return to China and live there, most Chinese immigrants did not assimilate into American culture. They learned little English and kept their native religion, clothing, and food preferences. The lowest wages here were better than the subsistence farming they had left behind, and they would take low-paying, menial jobs others snubbed. They worked mining claims other miners abandoned as being too poor. They accepted even the most dangerous jobs while building railroads across the west. And they spent as little money outside their own circles as possible to take as much home as they could.

Their tendency to take whatever jobs got offered to them became worrisome to other Americans. They feared Chinese immigrants would take all the jobs. The solution? Stop letting them immigrate here and deport a lot of those already in America. That’s what gave rise to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Tye Leung grew up in a world antagonistic toward her and her fellow Chinese-Americans. Her childhood was precarious, as her family struggled to maintain the right to live in the United States. San Francisco had a large and prosperous Chinatown, but even surrounded by others who spoke and looked like her, Tye knew she was different, an outsider. Some Chinese men brought their wives with them, or married Chinese girls whose families had sent them here. Married immigrants were more likely to want to stay and become American citizens. Tye Leung’s parents were among this group who wanted to become Chinese-Americans. She was one of eight children, the youngest daughter, and her family struggled to make ends meet. They sent her at age 9 to work as a housemaid for a prosperous family in San Francisco.

When Tye was 12, her older sister ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage. Their parents offered Tye in marriage to the jilted bridegroom instead. Tye fled too, taking refuge in a Presbyterian mission. They offered her sanctuary and an education if she would convert to Christianity. Tye accepted that bargain willingly and lived at the mission for almost a decade. There, she received a good education and worked as a translator for Chinese immigrants, especially during court cases and other legal proceedings. In 1910, Tye Leung took the Civil Service Exam and became the first Chinese-American woman employed by the American government. They assigned her to the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, where she mainly worked as a translator. In 1912, Tye Leung made national news when she became the first Chinese-American woman to cast a vote for the nation’s president. She may have been the first woman of Chinese heritage ever to vote, since women in China could not vote.

At Angel Island, Tye Leung fell in love with Charles Schulze, an immigration service inspector. California law barred Chinese and white people from marrying, so the couple traveled to Washington State, where interracial marriage was legal, and got married there. When they returned to California, they both lost their jobs on Angel Island because of their marriage. They found other work and lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they raised four children.

Tye Leung saw many changes during her lifetime. Although born in one of the Wild West’s wildest cities, she stepped boldly into the modern era, leading the way for women and Chinese Americans in so many ways. When she died in 1972, she left behind a legacy of determination not to be limited by artificial boundaries or expectations, but to make the most of her gifts and abilities. She made the most of her opportunity to live the American dream in a time when many of her family’s countrymen back in China could only dream of being an American.