By Janine Gates
Reprinted with permission from janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com
Edited for space and brevity
It was a day of intensely personal and poignant storytelling at an event commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act.
The program was held at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle on Dec. 16.
Stories about the impact of racist and discriminatory federal policies were told in first person by Bettie Luke, sister of Wing Luke, and many others.
Wing Luke, a civil rights attorney, served as a Seattle city councilmember from 1962 until his death in 1965. He was the first Asian American to hold elected office in Washington state.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the immigration of Chinese to the United States. It also prohibited Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. Native-born Chinese American citizens could face exclusion if they left the United States and tried to return. When they returned, they faced extensive interrogations. Subsequent legislation extended and further restricted Chinese immigration and promoted anti-Chinese sentiment and violence.
The repeal act is known as the Magnuson Act of 1943, named after Senator Warren G. Magnuson who proposed it when he was a member of the House of Representatives. Even when repealed, only 105 Chinese per year were allowed to enter the United States until 1965. The exclusionary policies impacted Chinese opportunities for housing, property ownership, and employment for decades.
Many speakers described that those policies can still be felt in their families today. Bettie Luke said she did not hear stories or know much about her heritage while growing up. She described the impact that lack of knowledge had when her mother died.
“I wanted to make sure that she got a farewell that was Chinese. So, I had to ask and ask and ask….It’s so heartbreaking to have to throw away your culture. And so many of us lived that promise that the more white American you became, the more you would be accepted and that’s such a loss.
They located a relative who did know and were able to connect with her mother’s family. Luke said she then found out that her mother once had eight brothers, but three had died of starvation.
Gary Locke, former United States Ambassador to China and Washington State Governor, spoke about the need to show compassion and fairness toward immigrants.
“Our history is filled with prejudice against every wave of foreigners and immigrants that have come here to this country. We need to remember that and celebrate the successes we have had and use that celebration to renew our determination to prevent others from facing that same discrimination and prejudice.
“What has made America great through all these centuries is that beacon of hope and opportunity that has attracted generation after generation of people…whether our ancestors came on the Mayflower or a slave ship or on a boat from China.
Locke then related the story of his grandfather who came over from China and worked as a houseboy in Olympia and later as a chef at Virginia Mason Hospital.
Locke said it was Doctor Mason who told Locke’s grandfather to bring his family to America. When he did so, his grandfather and family members were held in detention at the immigration facility.
“It was Doc Mason who went down to the immigration center to vouch for my grandfather, and got grandfather, my father, and my uncle out….Act of courage. Act of kindness.
“We need to remember that and…show that same compassion and commitment to diversity and fairness to all other groups in America,” said Locke.
The Chinese American Citizens Alliance (Seattle Lodge) co-organized the event.