At 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1885, a mob of several hundred men marched through Tacoma’s Chinese community, rousting its last 200 residents and herding them nine miles south to the Lake View train station, in what is now Lakewood, as policemen and sheriff’s deputies looked on. After spending a cold, rainy night, many in partly open outbuildings, the Chinese were forced onto trains bound for Portland.
Chinese workers were instrumental in the construction of the nation’s transcontinental railroads in the 1860s and ’70s. By the early 1880s, however, the major railroad lines were nearing completion, and Chinese laborers were moving to the cities of the West to find other work, according to Ed Echtle, a Pacific Northwest historian specializing in Asian immigration. As other immigrant groups arrived from Europe, the competition for labor intensified. Unions began to organize unskilled workers and tapped into their aversion to the Chinese.
Anti-Chinese discrimination became federal policy in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. immigration law designed to bar a specific nationality.
The Chinese became kind of a scapegoat for low wages because they were charged with working for less, undercutting white labor,” Echtle said. “And then in the 1880s there was an economic downturn, which sort of exacerbated things, so that the Exclusion Act was a political response to the pressure from constituents to ban unskilled Chinese labor from coming in to compete with white labor.
Yet, it was not all about labor and wages: Newspapers at the time alluded to foreign heathenism, to rats and squalor in the Chinese sections of towns, to foul smells that nauseated patrons at neighboring white businesses, to opium use and prostitution. A spark was being struck, and many Tacomans – from underemployed railroad and mill workers to smug storekeepers and social-climbing politicos – were eager to grab torches.
On Sept. 28, at an anti-Chinese rally in Seattle, it was resolved that the Chinese had to get out of Washington Territory by Nov. 1, and white-owned businesses were called upon to dismiss their Chinese employees. In Tacoma, where only a few people (Washington pioneer Ezra Meeker was one) spoke out against the agitators or defied their demands to fire their Chinese workers, about 450 Chinese boarded trains or ships or left by other means; the remaining 200 were marched out to Lake View on Nov 4. Historian Murray Morgan in his book “Puget’s Sound” described the procession: “Teamsters cracked their whips, the wagons lurched forward. The elderly and the sick Chinese were permitted to ride. The rest trudged after the wagons, wrapped in blankets against the cold rain, duffle slung on poles over their shoulders or in laundry bags on their backs. Their sandals sucked mud; some took them off and went barefoot. Many were crying. Armed whites on horseback rode beside the refugees, herding them like cattle, and a guard of club-carrying whites brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers.”
They spent a miserable night, some in the station waiting room, where there was a single stove, others in freight sheds. According to Jules Alexander Karlin in a 1954 article in Pacific Historical Review the Chinese would maintain that the ordeal drove one woman, a merchant’s wife, insane, and that two of their number later died from their prolonged exposure to the weather.
Two days later, arsonists set fire to the vacated Chinese shops and dwellings of Little Canton. Tacoma’s Chinese community was effectively erased.
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Tacoma was by no means the only American city to evict its Chinese residents; in fact, as University of Delaware professor Jean Pfaelzer reveals in her book “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans” (hardcover published by Random House in 2007; paperback published by University of California Press in 2008), there were nearly 200 expulsions of Chinese populations from American communities in the American West and Northwest from the early 1850s to 1906.
White Protestant nativists – as well as immigrants whom the nativists vilified – were vocal in their objections to Chinese living in their midst, even as the latter were helping to build the railroads, working as launderers and domestics and laboring in mines, in canneries, in logging camps and on ranches. Notes Pfaelzer, “The white man’s racial rhetoric was, in fact, about himself: the Chinese worked too many hours; the Chinese worker was drugged on opium; the Chinese worker was slovenly; the Chinese debased the town and created the need for civic jobs; the Chinese ate rats; the Chinese were renters; the Chinese lived in overcrowded housing; the Chinese demanded the right to own property; the Chinese were expected to send scarce money back to their homeland. The Chinese were also derided as “sojourners,” people with unbreakable ties with their empire across the ocean and incapable of assimilating and becoming good, loyal American citizens – even if white Americans would have them. The assaults on life, liberty and property that resulted from this mind-set ranged from the spontaneous to the systematic: from armed gangs of resentful white prospectors evicting their Chinese counterparts from the California gold fields, to average citizens joining in boycotts to deprive their resident “celestials” of their livelihoods.
For example, in Eureka, Calif., in early 1885, an unfortunate incident in which a city councilman was shot to death during a dispute between two Chinese turned into an excuse for vigilantes to round up more than 300 Chinese residents, imprison them in warehouses, then force them onto ships bound for San Francisco. The eviction conducted in Washington Territory in November of that year would follow Eureka’s model.
By contrast, in late 1885 and early 1886, the white citizens of Truckee, Calif., sought a more peaceful means of expulsion by boycotting Chinese businesses and those that employed Chinese workers. Never mind the fact that Truckee’s Chinese were “renters, shoppers, and low-paid laborers, and white agents made money from their legal, real estate, and commercial transactions,” and that “seemingly, this interracial relationship benefited everyone,” writes Pfaelzer: The so-called Truckee Method, while slower than the Eureka Method, achieved the same goal.
Pfaelzer’s scholarship is exemplary, not just because it reveals that expulsions of Chinese were common exercises in ethnic cleansing – rather than just a few isolated incidents – in small towns and large over a period of more than 50 years, but because most of this information was there all along for the sifting, in newspaper accounts and public documents. No newly uncovered treasure trove of documents, no long-buried diaries suddenly brought to light: Rather, Pfaelzer took what others missed and added an essential and long-overdue chapter to our nation’s past.
But Pfaelzer gives us much more than a litany of shameful events: She shows that beleaguered Chinese were willing to stand up for themselves by using the legal system to sue for reparations, by testifying to the injustices that they were subjected to, by striking for fair wages and refusing to supply goods to hostile businesses – even purchasing arms to defend their homes and their lives. Certainly, the Chinese understood the rights and duties that American citizenship entailed; what they were denied was the paperwork that would give them that legal status.