On a late Saturday night in February, a mob invaded the Chinese quarter of Seattle. So reads an article from the March 6, 1886 edition of Harper’s Weekly:
“[They] forcibly but quietly entered the houses, dragged the occupants from their beds, forced them quickly to pack their personal effects, and marched them to a steamer. The mob was thoughtful enough to provide wagons to convey the baggage of its victims. Some had money enough to pay their fare to San Francisco, and many did not, but the mob made no distinction. The few policemen that had become aware of the wrong-doing had no power and slight willingness to prevent it, and before the sleeping citizens of the town or the county officers knew what was going on, 400 Chinamen were shivering on the dock.”
This “deliberate and determined effort” to expel Chinese from Seattle led to the ousting of most of the city’s Chinese population. Many had already fled, frightened by violence in Tacoma where a mob drove 700 Chinese people from their homes.
The stage for these riots had already been set at institutional levels. There was the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, effectively prohibiting Chinese immigration; the Washington Territory legislation instituting a poll tax and barring Chinese people from owning property; and the discriminatory Seattle City Council laws of 1885 regarding living space, commercial licenses and public laundries — all meant to squeeze them out of the city.
One hundred and thirty years later, on Aug. 3, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing regret for anti-Chinese policies of the past, acknowledging the contribution of the Chinese to Seattle and reaffirming the city’s commitment to civil rights.
“We shouldn’t bury our history,” said Councilmember Nick Licata, the resolution’s sponsor. “Awareness and recognition of shameful policies in our history is the first step to moving forward together.”
The resolution received a standing ovation from Chinese-American community members, including representatives of the oca Asian Pacific American Advocates and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, which both spearheaded the effort.
“With these acknowledgments and commitments, the Chinese here will feel that they truly belong here and deserve to be here,” said Doug Chin, a well-known journalist, activist and historian.
Community members say the act, though symbolic, is crucial for ensuring past mistakes are not repeated.
“I think it was a very emotional moment for all of us, to see that injustice acknowledged,” said Ron Chew, former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. “I think people sometimes pooh-pooh the importance of this. They say ‘Well, that was something that happened long ago.’ But what happened long ago impacts a community for generations.”
For many Chinese-American Seattleites, that rings true. Bettie Luke, a community activist who has helped organize two marches in remembrance of the 1886 riot, once asked her father about it. He said her great-uncle was in Seattle during the riot, but was allowed to stay.
“I asked why,” Luke said, “and my dad told me he was the mayor’s houseboy.”
Chinese immigrants were the backbone of much labor in the 1800s, building Seattle’s infrastructure and working in canneries, sawmills, agriculture and timber. Of 20,000 workers on the Northern Pacific Railway, three-fourths were Chinese. As barons profited off cheap labor, anti-Chinese sentiment from white laborers grew to a boiling point.
During Seattle’s riot, which drew a mob of about 2,000, Governor Watson Squire proclaimed martial law while privately advising Chinese to “quietly withdraw … thinning out their numbers that they will not be offensive.”
Community advocates said they believe many people are oblivious to that ugly history, and to the many ways Chinese contributed to Seattle. Chew’s uncle fought and died in World War II, even while the federal exclusion law prevented his father from bringing Chew’s mother to the U.S.
Luke, who has been involved in multicultural education for 35 years, said she hopes the resolution leads to more education and awareness.
“A lot of [my work] has to do with equity, respect, understanding history and not shying away from those marks that are negative in history,” Luke said at the council meeting. “We have to teach to that, from that, about that, so that people do not repeat.”
Many Chinese Americans grew up hearing stories of the deeply-rooted racism their parents and grandparents overcame while operating some of the city’s first businesses. Betty Lau, of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, said her parents decided not to continue in the restaurant business because of the way customers treated them, spitting and snapping their fingers. They opened a laundromat instead.
“I think about my parents, my grandparents and what they went through to try to make a life here,” Lau said. “They had a lot of grievances, but they didn’t complain about it. They just endured.”
Their family histories are ultimately stories of success and resolve, and several said they would like to see a memorial, plaque or park commemorating the contributions of Seattle’s Chinese people.
With the recent shooting death of Donnie Chin, beloved local leader and founder of the International District Emergency Center, the resolution comes at a time when the community is in need of healing.
“Every community has its hero,” said David Leong of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “And when a hero goes down, it hurts everyone. We are all mourning Donnie, and he fought his entire life for justice for the community, but he would have wanted us to continue forward. He would have been very happy that this resolution passed.”