By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A group of local Chinese Americans are hoping to get the state to pass a bill that would honor and celebrate the accomplishments of Chinese Americans during the month of January.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2021 report, Chinese Americans were the largest Asian origin group in the United States, making up 24% of the Asian population, or 5.4 million people.
Yet, they still don’t have an official month dedicated to their heritage.
Even the Filipino Americans celebrate their history in the month of October and Korean Americans celebrate annually on Jan. 13.
Several local Chinese Americans are hoping to change that and started discussions around designating a month to celebrate the accomplishments and history of Chinese Americans.
Earlier this year, the United Chinese Americans of Washington and Washington Asians for Equality created the initial proposal to celebrate the Americans of Chinese descent in January. However, there was some back and forth between community members around the name and month.
Dr. Connie So, teaching professor at the University of Washington’s American Ethnic Studies
Department, was asked to evaluate whether January is the best month to honor “Americans of Chinese Descent”—the title of the original bill. So created a survey to obtain additional perspectives on the title of the month, and whether January or another month would be the best choice to honor “Americans of Chinese Descent”/“Chinese Americans.”
For this evaluation, in addition to her own expertise, Dr. So solicited the input of four notable local Chinese American historians—Doug Chin, Dr. Chuimei Ho, Betty Lau, and Bettie Luke—each of whom will be paid a small honorarium for their consultation. The consultants were chosen for their expertise on local Chinese American histories and their longstanding commitment to the Chinese American communities of Washington.
Those surveyed included Chinese American academic scholars and local community activists and historians belonging to the primary groups that organized the 2011 Chinese American Remembrance Project, namely Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the Wing Luke Museum, and the OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates of Greater Seattle.
They would help decide on the name of the celebration and which month would be “best” to celebrate Americans of Chinese Descent or Chinese American Month.
The results of the vote
The final votes showed overwhelming support for Chinese American Month over Americans of Chinese Descent, and to a lesser degree, January was chosen as the designated month.
So explained that Chinese couldn’t be naturalized until 1943 so the Chinese pioneers who helped build the Kalama rail line in the 1870s weren’t technically Americans yet.
“American is the noun and Chinese is the descriptor,” So added.
Originally, the United Chinese Americans of Washington wanted to celebrate in January because of Lunar New Year. However, some argue that Lunar New Year sometimes falls in February. Because of that, a split January-February month celebration was also up for consideration.
Based on comments made by the four consultants and So, the following suggested criteria were provided to those surveyed about selecting a designated month:
- Not a summer month (June, July, August) because schools and PTA/PTSA, often the entities following the monthly designations, will not be in session.
- The primary focus should be on Washington state.
- The month chosen should be based on a significant contribution(s).
- While impossible to achieve, the selected month should try not to conflict/overlap with other racial or ethnic group heritage months.
Participants decided between the months of January, February, May, September, and December. There were several pros and cons for each of the months, but ultimately, the group voted for January. A few arguments for January included the existing momentum started by the United Chinese Americans and Washington Asians for Equality, Lunar New Year celebrations often falling on the month, notable milestones for Chin Gee Hee and Goon Dip, as well as Gary Locke’s birthday.
“I like the choice of January because it’s about our contributions as opposed to victimhood. Our contributions, and from what Goon Dip and other Chinese Americans accomplished, should be remembered,” So said.
State Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos shared that the next steps would be for Rep. Bill Ramos, who is the chair of the state government committee, to hold a hearing on the bill, SB 5000, when schedules allow.
“I’m happy about this because it means we will have the opportunity to share the thought process and thoughtfulness of the process in developing the when and developing the why,” she explained.
“At the public hearing, we want people to sign up and express their opinions. We’ve made it easier to participate in government by having both live and remote testimonies available. Then, like every bill, the committee will consider taking action on the bill,” Santos added.
Santos wants the community to know how much she appreciated the input and advice they’ve received, and the work that was done by well-regarded scholars of Chinese American history from our region.
Santos described this bill as a unique one. She said that every other example of recognition is one that we have been in sync with the affected communities across the country—celebrated nationally.
“That’s what makes this one particularly difficult and particularly important to get right. That’s why making sure that we have the scholars with local historical knowledge; because we’re not going to necessarily affect the nation, some of the language of the bill talks about important contributions of Chinese Americans in Washington state. That’s where the strength of this bill comes from—we’re focusing on what was important to Washington state to commemorate and recognize the contributions of Chinese Americans in the state,” she explained.
When asked whether this could potentially impact the country on a national level to celebrate more widely, Santos said it would be rare.
Santos provided the example of the Day of Remembrance that is now celebrated on Feb. 19.
“The first Day of Remembrance was actually held in Seattle in 1978, and that actually did provide impetus for the next 20 years of redress and helped establish the official Day of Remembrance,” she said.
Santos was an active participant of that first Day of Remembrance which was held on Nov. 25 that year. Groups were trying to establish a Day of Remembrance and had considered Thanksgiving weekend of 1978, but ultimately Feb. 19 was decided.
That was the seminal date when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sent U.S. citizens to prison because of their Japanese heritage.
“Washington state started the Day of Remembrance, but we didn’t establish the date that we now celebrate,” she said.
Impact on schools
“This bill is not a mandate around ethnic studies, but it does primarily say that public schools are encouraged to designate time for appropriate celebrations,” Rep. Santos said.
So was formerly PTA president at South Shore PK-8 and Cleveland STEM High School. She mentioned that the PTA is often the group that comes up with ideas to celebrate different cultures throughout the year.
Hopefully in the near future, schools in Washington state will be able to celebrate and commemorate the accomplishments of Chinese Americans in January.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.