by Jennifer H. Lee '01
In the last decades of the 19th century, anti-Asian backlash fueled
by high unemployment which increased resentment against Asian settlers,
anti-Asian legislation, and growing nativism, erupted into violent riots
in Washington State.
Throughout the 1880s, thousands of Chinese laborers were especially
targeted for murder, assault, and forced evacuation all across the state.
The reasoning behind and the implications of these acts of violence
and exclusionist policies were the same all over the West Coast and
almost everywhere Asians settled. In cities such as Seattle and Tacoma,
where much of the anti-Asian sentiments were manifested, the effects
of the early Asian American history are still evident, even if the events
are widely unacknowledged.
Laborers from all across Asia journeyed to the Pacific Northwest, in
search of fortune and freedom. Push factors such as war, famine, and
restricted civil liberties in their homelands drove thousands of Chinese,
Japanese and Filipino citizens to the other side of the Pacific. Although
all these groups contributed widely to the growth of the Washington
Territory, and later, state, it was the Chinese who settled first and
in the largest numbers.
By the 1860s when news of the discovery of gold in Eastern Washington
had reached the distant shores of China, the Chinese were suffering
from severe civil unrest and even famine. However, it was the heavy
tolls of unproductive harvests at home, and heavy recruitment by railroad
and logging firms abroad, that attracted most of the Chinese to Washington.
By the 1870s, Chinese men were already at work prospecting along the
Columbia River in Eastern Washington, working in Black Diamond, Newcastle
and Renton coal mines, and involved in most aspects of building the
state's railways (UW).Chinese laborers also entered the fishing industry,
both as the First non-Indian fishermen in Puget Sound and as the dominant
labor force in salmon canning.
Sadly, it was also the Chinese who were the main targets of mob violence.
Many Chinese were able to find jobs as cheap, unskilled labor in Washington's
new industries. Although it was to the profit of their employer and
labor contractors, the Chinese laborers' willingness to work for low
wages and their frequent use as strikebreakers was to the ire of many
European American settlers who saw Chinese workers as a growing threat
to their own job security.
Early Washington legislation had as early as 1853 excluded the Chinese
from the right to vote (UW). Following the example of California, Washington
also passed legislation such as poll taxes that were biased against
Chinese workers. This resentment grew to a head following the national
economic depression of the mid-1880s. Facing unemployment, many European
Americans viewed the Chinese labor force as a greater threat. Anti-Chinese
sentiments climaxed in the fall of 1885.
The Rock Springs Massacre in September,
which left 28 Chinese killed and 15 wounded in the Chinese-dominated
railroad work camp (Tsai 70), set a precedent of violence that would
proliferate all over Washington. On the 11th of the same month, a Chinese
settlement in Coal
Creak was raided, and the residents assaulted. In the mining
community of Black Diamond, Chinese miners were forced out of town.
Three Chinese men were killed, and two wounded when a camp in Issaquan
was attacked. Angry anti-Chinese citizens formed an Anti-Chinese Congress
in Seattle. The violence continued through October as home after home
was ransacked and burned. Then Governor, Watson C. Squire, recognizing
the danger to the Chinese, recommended that they "quietly withdraw,"
thus "thinning out their number that they will not be offensive" (UW).
On November 3, 1885, the disturbing trend of forced evacuation emerged
in Tacoma, where a 300-man mob drove 700 Chinese out of their homes
and forced into wagons. Waiting overnight in these wagons, waiting for
the Portland-bound train they would be herded into, two Chinese died.
John Arthur of Tacoma, wrote with "genuine delight" to Governor Squire:
"Tacoma will be sans Chinese, sans pigtails, sans moon-eye, sans wash-house,
sans joss-house, sans everything Mongolian" after the Chines in Tacoma
are escorted out of town and put upon freight and passenger trains"
(UW). Hearing the news of the violence, 150 Chinese fled neighboring
Seattle. Not long after, 350 of the remaining workers were forced out.
Although the riots finally ended on November 8, with the help of federal
troops sent in by President Grover Cleveland, the trend of violence
continued (Tsai 71).
A year later on February 7, 1886, 350 Chinese were forced out of their
homes and most shipped to San Francisco. In Eastern Washington, 31 Chinese
miners were executed in 1887 (Chen 152). The same year, Tacoma again
expelled its Chinese residents. This time their number was close to
three thousand (Chen 152).
Chinese and other Asian immigrants contributed greatly to the growth
of Washington State. Of the 20,000 workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad
(which ended in Tacoma), 3/4 were Chinese (UW). Surely, not all Washingtonians
supported the anti-Chinese actions of the mobs, nor the exclusionist
legislation. However, the effects of these mobs and of these pieces
of legislation had a great influence on Washington communities.
No Chinese were allowed to settle in Tacoma for decades after the 1880s
riots. Many mining boomtowns were deserted by their Chinese work force
and became ghost towns instead.
I learned of the anti-Chinese riots in Washington, as I do most of
my learning, through a novel, one by Annie Dillard called The Living.
It was just a brief paragraph, really, about the Congress of Sinophobes
and The Interests, who got together in Tacoma and decided to ship the
Chinese to Portland, just like that. And that's what hit me. The way
in which the wholesale expulsion of an entire community was agreed upon
and executed just as any other action of any other group, in any other
town. But this is where it was different. It was my hometown, Tacoma.
City of Destiny, we call it now. Tacoma has sister cities in Asia, small
industrial ports mirroring its hungry capitalist spirit on the other
side of the Pacific. Tacoma, as I knew it, from the view afforded from
my home in neighboring University Place, was lively, relatively safe...nice.
So the idea of a colored past in Tacoma baffled me. That Tacoma was
once home to a large Chinese population and that it packed her up and
jettisoned her off to neighboring Oregon. I needed to learn more about
this. I'm partly the product of a public school system, past its academic
heyday of national awards, merit scholars and the like, but still holding
onto regular mentions in the Tacoma News Tribune, even if they were
only sports scores. For most of my academic career, I could count the
number of Asian students in my class on my hands. Maybe a couple districts
over you'd find the larger Asian populations that allowed Western Washington
to call itself so multi-cultural. But not in mine. So when I read Dillard'
5 description of Tacoma, I took note. There once was a large Asian,
Chinese population in Tacoma. For most of Washington's 2Oth century
history, it has been Japanese Americans who were the largest group here.
Increasingly it's become the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Thai.
I had grown up watching Tacoma declare itself more and more progressive.
I never learned European History in high school. I learned World Historical
Perspectives. I grew up reading about heritage festivals and cultural
museums. Tacomans knew their history, claim to fame: hometown of Bing
Crosby, local heroes: Dale Chihuly, renowned glass blower, historical
Union Station, the last stop of the Northern Pacific. Nobody until Dillard
said anything about the Sinophobes. I truly believe that the Chinese
expulsion and decades-long exclusion was a factor in why I never learned
of even the presence of Chinese immigrants in Washington. I think that
in those decades after the Chinese were shipped away and the remains
of their existence here had been burned to the ground, Tacomans forgot
why they were gone. And they continued to forget, up to me. I learned
of Chinese communities in San Francisco, along the railroads (but not
the ones in Washington), of picture brides; etc., but never how that
was related to where I lived. In researching for this project, I discovered
that none of the major museums in Tacoma acknowledge these historical
I'm not bitter that I didn't find out about the Chinese presence in
Tacoma until I weeded it out of some fiction. I would just like to be
able to share this information with others. The Chinese, Japanese, Filipino,
and other Asian settlers contributed in so many ways to what Washington
is today. Yet, for too long a time, they were kept (in the case of Tacoma,
physically) from accomplishing contributing even more. Chin Chun Hook
created what is now Seattle's International District, from one general
goods store in 1868 (Chen 152). I can only wonder what other International
Districts there would be in Washington, if so much had not been taken
away by the violence of the 1880s and '90s.
Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishing
Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1986.
The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington
Department of History, and Matthew W. Klingle. A History Burst With
Telling: Asian Americans in Washington State. University of Washington.
24, October 1998.