Chinese Americans, after fighting for their rights for 130 years, are finally accepted in this country, but anti-Asian sentiments still persist, a prominent Chinese American historian said last weekend at a University of Washington symposium.
Him Mark Lai and two other historian from San Francisco—Judy Yung and Phillip Choy—were among the speakers who came to the February 15 symposium to describe the history of discrimination against Chinese Americans and provide a vision of the future.
Bettie Luke Kan, whose grandfather and granduncle were among Seattle’s early Chinese pioneers, organized the symposium—and a February 8 commemorative march—to educate the public about the contributions of Chinese pioneers and to recognize the 100 year anniversary of the expulsion of 450 Chinese from Seattle.
At the symposium, Him Mark Lai, currently working on a history of Chinese Americans, told the audience gathered at the UW Ethnic Cultural Theater that the history of racism against Chinese Americans has included restrictive immigration law, anti-Chinese violence, segregated public facilities, and lack of access to certain jobs. This discrimination, he said, has “eased up,” particularly for the younger generation.
World War II, he said, was a “significant turning point” for Chinese Americans. Because China was an U.S. ally, Chinese Americans were finally permitted to become naturalized citizens and began to move into the mainstream, working in shipyards and airplane factories, Lai said.
Lai said many Chinese Americans have moved outside of Chinatowns and have entered a range of different professions, leading to the rise of a “more assertive” Chinese American middle class that has become politically active.
A “more politically sophisticated” Chinese American population, learning from history, will have to combat the new “groundswell of anti-Asian violence” and ensure that American democratic principles are realized, Lai said.
Phillip Choy, founder of the Chinese Historical Society, called the concept of American melting pot “a mistake.” Because of white racism, “the melting pot rejected us,” he said. A more accurate concept is salad bowl, where the separate ingredients are tossed up and mixed together, Choy said.
Judy Yung, director of a research project on Chinese American women from 1834 to present, gave a slide presentation highlighting the accomplishments of Chinese women pioneers, including Tye Leung Schulze, the first Chinese American woman to vote in 1912, and Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman who escaped slavery to become a pioneer in nineteenth century Idaho.
Bemis was the subject of “Thousand Pieces of Gold,” a 1981 biographical novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, who last year published “Sole Survivor,” the story of Poon Lim, who survived 133 days on a raft in the open sea.
McCunn, an Amerasian born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, came to Seattle for the symposium and autographed copies of her books.
Benson Wong, an attorney and member of the International Special Review District Board, described his vision of the future of Chinese Americans in Seattle. He said the International District, the historic core of the Chinese community, faces the prospect of greatly increased activity and development in the next 10 to 20 years.
Proposals to build a Metro transit terminal and a new city hall at Union Station, on the east side of the District, could create one million square feet of space at that site, resulting in a “tremendous number of new patrons and tenants” in the area, Wong said.
Wong noted, however, that the Chinese community has become much more diversified in recent years: immigrants coming from different areas of China, speaking different dialects, living in many areas outside Chinatown and holding different political affiliations.
In 1984, he said, Chinese American community leaders, recognizing the need “to speak as one voice,” formed the Chinese Community Coalition Committee to “heal the wounds” caused by factional splits between difference Chinese community organizations.
The Chinese Nursing Home Society, an offshoot of the Committee, hopes to follow the lead of the Japanese community and develop a nursing home to meet the language and dietary needs of the Chinese elderly, Wong said.
The symposium concluded with the staged reading of “Expulsion,” an original two-act play by Maria Batayola, recreating the expulsion of over 1,200 Chinese from Seattle and Tacoma 100 years ago.
On February 8, about 150 persons—including descendants of the pioneers, public officials and members of the local community—gathered in Hing Hay Park in the International District to retrace the steps of the pioneers who were forced out of town by the mob of angry white vigilantes.
Seattle Mayor Charles Royer told the gathering that “diversity and tolerance” should be the “foundation of the city.” State Supreme Justice James Dolliver and Superior Court Judge Liem Tuai called for active participation in the political process to lessen the likelihood that incidents like the expulsion would happen again.
State Representative Gary Locke noted that the Chinese were made scapegoats for the state’s economic depression 100 years ago. Today, he said, Southeast Asian refugees, labeled as “cheap labor,” have also been made scapegoats and have been targets of violence.
“While we must forgive,” Locke told the crowd, “we must also remember.”
Kan noted that the Chinese expulsion occurred in the same year as the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, the Statue had its “back turned” to the Chinese in 1886, Kan said.
The marchers walked to the site of the original Chinatown at Second Avenue and South Washington Street and then to waterfront, near the spot where, 100 years ago, the mob forced many of the Chinese onto a steamer bound for San Francisco.
Steve Goon, whose grandfather was Goon Dip, one of Seattle’s pioneer Chinese entrepreneurs, said, “Going on the march gave me a chance to indirectly trace the steps of our pioneers. It’s important to continually keep later generations aware of the some of the past history.”