Word derived from two Chinese words, "koo" meaning "rent" and "lee" meaning "muscle", and referred to unskilled laborers. These laborers ranked in Chinese society above merchants but below scholars and farmers.

When large numbers of Chinese from this class arrived in California in the first half of the nineteenth century, they used this word to describe themselves. Anti-foreign sympathizers soon use the word to describe a contract laborer who was bound to a master in China and worked in the U.S. at an atypically low wage, ruining the local economy. This low-wage contract laborer was fictitious, but then, bigots rarely need to be bothered to check their facts.