America’s Long Sordid History of Anti-Asian Violence

The current wave of anti-Asian bigotry and violence is appalling and horrifying. But it is not a new phenomenon in America. Anti-Asian bigotry and violence have occurred since the first Chinese people immigrated to the U.S. in the 1850s.

In the following piece, I present a timeline of key events in this sordid history. It covers the period from the 1850s to World War II.

1850s   Chinese people start coming to the U.S.

The first Chinese immigrants came to the West to work on the railroads and in mining. These jobs were extremely low-wage and dangerous. However, conditions in China at the time were much worse. In the 1850s, 20 million Chinese died from the Taiping Rebellion and a series of famines.

In 1852, over 20,000 Chinese immigrated to California. This led to numerous race riots.

1854     George Hall shot and killed Ling Sing

George Hall shot Ling Sing in an attempt to rob him of his gold at a mining camp in the Sierras. The jury convicted him and sentenced him to death, but he appealed to the California Supreme Court. In the People vs. Hall, the supreme court ruled that non-white people could not testify against whites. As a result, George Hall got away with murder. And anyone who wasn’t white, including Asian immigrants, became much more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

1862     Anti-Coolie Act

The government tried to appease white anger over salary competition. They passed the Anti-Collie Act, which levied a monthly tax on Chinese immigrants.

1868     Burlingame Treaty

The Burlingame Treaty gave China most-favored nation status. The goal was to improve American business opportunities in China, but it also made it easier to immigrate to the U.S. from China. In reality, it was almost entirely men who came over, working at extremely low wages. Anti-Asian violence increased after this, fueled by racist commentary by employers, industrialists and newspapers, leading ultimately to the Chinese Exclusion Act (see below).

1871     The Los Angeles Anti-Chinese Massacre

The incident started after reports that the Chinese were slaughtering whites in cold blood, including a cop and a rancher. A mob of white and Hispanic people attacked Chinatown. They killed 19 Chinese immigrants. They hanged 15 of them, after first shooting them to death. This represented fully 10% of L.A.’s small Chinese community.

1875     Page Act

The Page Act was designed to prevent “immoral” women from entering the United States. However, the state primarily used it to prevent Chinese women from entering the U.S.

1877     The Great Upheaval (AKA the Great Train Strike)

This was the largest workers revolt in American history up until that time. It occurred during the worst depression the nation had ever experienced. Employers were slashing wages and laying off employees. Over 20% of working people were unemployed. Children were starving. Amidst all this, workers took over the cities of Saint Louis, Baltimore and Reading. They fought pitched battles with militias in those towns, as well as in Pittsburgh, Martinsburg, Chicago. At least one hundred workers were killed by militias and federal troops. Hundreds more were injured. But in San Francisco, instead of fighting the bosses and the authorities, workers launched a violent 3-day pogrom against their Chinese neighbors. They killed four Chinese residents and caused over $100,000 in damage.

The anti-Asian violence of the 1870s and 1880s was promoted by the press and by many politicians and business leaders. However, the two largest unions of the era, the American Federation of Labor, and the more radical Knights of Labor, were also violently anti-Asian. But the biggest instigator of the San Francisco pogrom was the Workingmen’s Party of California. This was a reactionary, nativist organization, with no affiliation to the Marxist Workingmen’s Party of the U.S. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), founded in 1905, was the first major union to actively organize and recruit men and women from all ethnicities and job titles, including Chinese immigrants.

1880     Denver Chinatown Riot

This anti-Asian riot destroyed most of Denver’s Chinatown.

1882    Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was one of America’s most restrictive anti-immigrant laws ever. It prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. It remained in place until 1943, when the U.S. needed China’s assistance in its war with Japan. However, instead of quelling anti-Asian violence, it seemed to foment it, as you can see from the massacres and lynchings that followed. (Sources: WikipediaHarvard University Library)

1885     The Eureka Chinese Expulsion

On February 6, 1885, in the town of Eureka, California, Humboldt County, there was a gun battle between rival tongs. A city councilman was caught in the crossfire and died. The next day, a mob of 600 European-Americans gathered to expel the Chinese from Eureka. They deported all 480 Chinese residents by placing them on steamships for San Francisco. No one died, but Chinatown was razed.

1885     Rock Springs Massacre

On September, 2, 1885, a mob attacked the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killing at least 28 miners and burning their community to the ground. Federal troops were called, but by the time they arrived, all the surviving Chinese people had fled town.

1885     Tacoma Pogrom

In November, 1885, a mob of 500 European-American residents in Tacoma, Washington, rounded up all their Chinese neighbors and ran them out of town. The mayor, sheriff and other city officials led the attack. All Chinese residences burned to the ground the next day.

1886     Seattle Riots

On February 6-9, 1886, mobs led by the Knights of Labor attempted to evict Seattle’s Chinese community, fearing that Chinese workers were going to take their jobs. President Cleveland sent in federal troops to quell the riots. Two militiamen died and several rioters were seriously injured. Over 200 Chinese people were forcibly removed from the city.

1887     Hells Canyon Massacre

A group of white men slaughtered 31 Chinese miners in Hells Canyon, Oregon.

1900-1904        San Francisco Plague

The first plague epidemic in America was centered in San Francisco’s Chinatown, from 1900 to 1904. Governor Henry Gage denied its existence to protect businesses from being boycotted. This significantly worsened the outbreak. Anti-Asian racism was already common before the epidemic struck. Landlords often refused to maintain properties they rented to Chinese people (much as they continue to do today with low-income residents). Consequently, much of Chinatown was run down. This perpetuated the racist stereotype that Asians lived like animals.

Officials quarantined Chinatown without telling residents. They allowed European-Americans to flee, but imprisoned Asians within the ghetto. Initially, doctors weren’t allowed to enter Chinatown to identify the sick. 119 people died, mostly Chinese, largely because of the racist policies of local and state officials.

1907     The Gentlemen’s Agreement

This informal agreement, between the U.S. and Japan, limited the number of Japanese immigrants allowed into the U.S.

1913-1920        Alien Land Acts

This law restricted Japanese ownership of land.

1924     Immigration Act of 1924

This law created a national quota limiting Asian immigration to the U.S.

World War II and Japanese Internment

During the 1940’s, the U.S. forced tens of thousands of Japanese Americans into concentration camps. However, on the Big Island of Hawaii, the U.S. government did not intern Japanese people. Many towns on the Big Island had Japanese majorities. Furthermore, the sugar companies depended on them for cheap labor on their plantations. Consequently, the sugar companies successfully lobbied to keep them free. (For more on the situation for Japanese people living on the Big Island, see “Hawaii,” by Robert F. Oaks, Arcadia, 2003).

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