Excerpts from a March 17, 2022 speech by Doug Chin at the Seattle-International District Rotary Club
In recent times, anti-Asian hate has been a national and local issue. Weeks ago, there was a rally in the Chinatown-International District (CID) focused on the 1886 anti-Chinese riot in Seattle—the worst race riot in this city’s history.
It came about because of the anti-Chinese movement, which began soon after the Chinese arrived in America in 1849. Indeed, the “Chinese Problem” was a major issue from the time Washington became a territory in 1853.
By the mid-1860s, after a small number of Chinese began to appear in the area, territorial lawmakers passed additional anti-Chinese laws. One law barred Chinese from testifying against whites in court. Another measure, titled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese in the Territory,” resulted in a poll tax levied on every Chinese.
Over the next decade, however, hostility against the Chinese was not always evident. In railroad construction, for example, whites generally reacted without animosity to the employment of Chinese in Washington. The lack of white labor was too evident to cause even the most ardent anti-Chinese to resent their employment on the railroads. On occasions, the arrival of shiploads of Chinese laborers was greeted by cheers. It signaled economic progress for the area.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, which (1) prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S., (2) denied Chinese the right to become naturalized citizens, and (3) required Chinese laborers already legally present in the U.S. who later wished to re-enter to obtain “certificates of return.” In effect, the Exclusion Act curtailed Chinese immigration to the U.S. for decades.
Meanwhile, a severe economic downturn in the 1880s meant jobs were scarce.
White settlers began to call for the removal of all Chinese from the Territory. Even though the Exclusion Act barred the further entry of Chinese laborers to the United States, the white working men wanted no less than the total removal of the Chinese.
The anti-Chinese movement reached a crescendo in Seattle and the rest of Washington state after the completion of the railroads. The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1883 with the construction of the east-west connection at Pasco. Two years later, the Canadian Pacific Railroad was also completed. As jobs decreased in outlying areas, the Chinese laborers came to Seattle to seek work.
The immediate spark that precipitated the anti-Chinese outbreaks in Seattle was the riot in September 1885 at Rock Springs, Wyoming, where 28 Chinese were murdered and over 500 driven out of town. News of the event made an impression on locals.
On the night of September 5, a group of whites and Native Americans, armed with rifles, ambushed 35 Chinese at a hop farm in Squak Valley (now Issaquah), a few miles east of Seattle, killing three and injuring three. The attackers—five whites and two Native Americans—were acquitted after an eight-day trial.
On Sept. 19, the Chinese were driven from the coal mining town of Black Diamond, southeast of Seattle. Nine Chinese were injured in that incident. At the end of the same month, another coal mine east of Seattle ousted its Chinese workers. In yet another clash, a party of masked and armed men entered the Franklin mines and forced the Chinese onto a special train to Seattle. Similar occurrences were reported at Newcastle and Renton. In all these incidents, no one was brought to trial.
The anti-Chinese forces in Seattle quickly split into two groups. One group favored the direct and immediate removal of the Chinese from the city. The second group—called the “Law and Order” group—favored a more orderly process of removal through legislative action. The first group was led by labor unions and laborers. The second group was comprised of business leaders and other civic leaders. Both groups agreed that the Chinese should be removed—they simply disagreed about how to do it.
On Oct. 24, 1885, about 2,500 of the City’s residents participated in an anti-Chinese demonstration.
On Nov. 3, in Tacoma, a mob of hundreds, armed with guns and clubs, marched to the Chinese shanties that dotted the city’s business district and along the waterfront. Smashing doors and breaking windows, they told the Chinese to pack and to grab their belongings while kicking and dragging them out of their quarters.
A group of club-carrying whites escorted them to the railroad tracks and put them on box cars. All of the Chinese were directly removed from Tacoma by the anti-Chinese mob. But to make sure that the Chinese would not return, some of the mob went back to burn down the Chinese quarters along the waterfront. Some 700 Chinese were brutally removed from Tacoma that day.
Back in Seattle, some 150 Chinese, justifiably frightened, decided they couldn’t leave fast enough. They left by ship during the next three days following the Tacoma riot.
Over the next several months, the citizens of Seattle waited for legislative action to remove the Chinese and awaited the outcome of conspiracy trials of leaders of the anti-Chinese direct action group. Seventeen people were charged with conspiring to deny Chinese their legal rights. Following 14 days of testimony, the jury deliberated for 10 minutes and handed down a “not guilty” verdict.
The Seattle City Council, meanwhile, passed three ordinances to make it harder for Chinese to stay in the town, but these did little to diminish the cry to get rid of the Chinese. On Feb. 7, an appointed committee and their followers, a mob of some 1,500, invaded the Chinese quarters and notified the Chinese that they were going to be sent away that afternoon on the steamer Queen of the Pacific.
Most of the 350 Chinese were forced on wagons and hauled to the dock. From that point, according to one account, “most of the Chinese were eager to get abroad and away from Seattle, but had no funds. The majority of them were in Seattle because they could not find employment in the mines or mills, had no money to move on, or were in debt to the local bosses for their passage from China.”
Their departure was delayed a day because a writ of habeas corpus was sworn out by a Chinese merchant who charged that his countrymen were being unlawfully detained aboard the steamer. Undaunted, the direct action group raised sufficient funds to pay the fare of 188 Chinese at $7 per head. Eight Chinese managed to pay their own fare. Thus, 196 Chinese—the legal limit of passengers permitted on the ship—waited for their departure the next day.
Meanwhile, the remaining Chinese marched back from the dock to the Chinese quarters. During this time, shots were exchanged between the Seattle Guards or the militia and the crowd. One man was killed and four injured. No Chinese were killed or injured.
The incident provoked Governor Squire to proclaim a state of insurrection, declare martial law, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and request federal troops. President Cleveland sent eight companies of troops.
When the next steamer arrived on Feb. 14, 1886, another 110 Chinese boarded. The remaining Chinese were scheduled to leave on the next steamer. One week later, civil law was restored, but it was not until July that the federal troops left. By that time, only a handful of Chinese merchants and domestic servants remained in the city.
The persecution and attacks against the Chinese continued in the state well into the next decade.
One year after the Seattle riots, 25 Chinese working near China Camp in Kittitas County were attacked. One person died.
In 1892, the Columbia County Farmers’ Alliance and Knights of Labor contemplated forming a mutual aid society. Calls were made on Chinese homes and occupants were ordered to leave.
A month after the Columbia County incident, at a meeting in the Trades Council hall at Spokane, a “secret” anti-Chinese League came into existence, formed by businessmen and labor groups. The farmers of Moran Prairie, near Spokane, wanted to forcibly remove the 18 Chinese market gardeners who were seen as unwelcome competition.
When the Northern Pacific Railroad dismissed a white section crew late in 1895 and replaced it with Chinese workers, attacks were made on the Chinese quarters in Walla Walla and Pasco.
Humiliating, berating, harassing, assaulting, and murdering of Chinese were so commonplace that newspapers rarely bothered to print stories about such horrific events.
The anti-Chinese movement of the 1800s led to oppressed Chinese communities in America for many decades. In 1890, there were 3,260 Chinese in Washington state. In 1930, there were 2,195, and in 1950, there were 3,408.
It was not until WWII that things changed for the better. The alliance between the U.S. and China in the war against Japan led to a marked change in the public image of the Chinese and a reconsideration of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Politicians suddenly came to understand that the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were harsh and that such treatment towards the Chinese in America—when China was an ally—was contradictory and could be used by the enemy in their propaganda campaigns.
Two years after the U.S. declared war against Japan, U.S. Representative Warren G. Magnuson sponsored a bill to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts. The Magnuson Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Roosevelt in December 1943. The Act permitted the naturalization of Chinese and established a quota of 105 Chinese immigrants to the U.S. The law allowed those who became naturalized citizens to have their wives come over from China and Hong Kong.
Four years after the repeal of the Exclusion Acts, the War Brides Act was amended to allow wives of U.S. servicemen to enter the U.S. on a non-quota basis.
The repeal of the Exclusion Acts and the amendment to the War Brides Act resulted in the arrival of 2,000 Chinese immigrants by 1960, which helped bring the total population of Chinese in the state to some 5,500.
While the repeal of the Exclusion Act was helpful, it still allowed for only an extremely small number (105) to enter the U.S. on a yearly basis.
It was not until the 1960s that the biggest, most impactful change occurred affecting the lives of Chinese in America. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Immigration Act of that year, which allowed for 20,000 per country, doing away with small quotas allocated to China and other Asian countries. The Act opened the doors to mass Chinese immigration to America resulting in a doubling of the Chinese population in Washington state every passing decade. In 1970, the Chinese population in this state numbered some 9,200. It now numbers well above 100,000.
The Immigration Act of 1965 was passed in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act benefited all racial groups, including the Chinese. And the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act paved the way for limited English-speaking citizens to vote more easily. The conditions of Chinese in America greatly improved, which brings us to the current situation of Asian hate.
Anti-Asian attacks have been on the rise since the onset of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate crimes took a turn for the worst in the second year of the pandemic.
Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans increased by 342% across eight major cities in 2021 compared to the prior year—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.
New York City saw the greatest jump—30 in 2020 to 133 in 2021, San Francisco and Los Angeles had the second and third highest numbers of anti-Asian crimes—60 and 41, respectively. Washington, D.C. had the highest percentage increase.
More than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported since March 2020.
Locally, according to Seattle Police Department (SPD)’s reports and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, there were 14 anti-Asian hate incidents in Seattle and 59 in King County in 2020. SPD notes that the CID was previously targeted by white nationalists in April 2020, who left “jingoistic stickers” on businesses throughout the neighborhood.
The causes of anti-Asian hate is due to the complex interaction of international relations and social-economic conditions, including race relations and the portrayal of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” Greater media attention and programs on anti-Asian hate are needed to reduce such incidents. At the same time, we all need to take more steps to make America a more tolerant and inclusive society.
Finally, as for the CID, we need to ensure greater public safety, especially to protect the many elderly there, by providing a greater police presence in the area.
Wendy Tokuda says
Great article! I grew up in Seattle but had never heard much of this. I hope this is shared and read widely.