Chinaman's chance

Chinaman's chance

The expression a Chinaman's chance means someone has no chance at all of accomplishing or successfully doing an action.

The original phrase, from the California gold rush, was that one had only a Chinaman's Chance in Hell, but it morphed through usage into its current state.



The historical context of the phrase comes from the old railroad and Goldrush days of pre-California, where many Chinese came to work as laborers for the First Transcontinental Railroad, especially the Central Pacific Railroad. In this employ, they were sought out for the demanding and dangerous jobs involving explosives, often for half the pay of the Mexican workers. Yet the Chinese faced higher taxes, denials of citizenship and could not testify in court for violence against them.

Clouded origins

The Chinaman's chance originated from the early 19th century potentially from several events. One explanation is that at that time, Chinese migrant workers in the U.S. were sent into mines and construction sites to ignite dynamite, potentially with disastrous consequences. They were also lowered over cliffs by rope and boatswain's chairs to set dynamite to clear mountain and other obstructions to make way for the railroad construction. In this work, if they were not lifted back up before the blast, serious injury or death would result. Therefore the phrase a "A Chinaman's Chance" may have been coined in this context.

Another explanation for the phrase is the California Gold Rush 1849. The travel time for news of the gold rush to reach China was quite long, and by the time Chinese from China arrived to prospect, many of the rich mines were already taken. These Chinese immigrants who missed out time-wise had to work with only those lands which had already been exploited or which were rejected by others, meaning these "Chinamen" had a slim chance of success. The historical record, however, indicates that many Chinese combined efforts with each other and did very well in the goldfields, introducing mining techniques then unknown to non-Chinese.[1]

According to Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose, his book on building the railroad, the phrase was cemented by murders of Chinese that were condoned by state law. "In 1854, in a case heard in Nevada County, George W. Hall was convicted of murdering a Chinese man. On appeal to the State Supreme Court the decision was overturned because all of the evidence against him was from Chinese individuals." [2]

See also


Additional reading

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