The Seattle Riot. Harpers Magazine, March 6, 1886
The Seattle Riot. Harpers Magazine, March 6, 1886. Image from the UW Digital Collection.

Go back in time about 125 years ago. It’s between 1885 – 1886 in the Puget Sound region. In Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham, white “native” rioters force Chinese immigrants to flee their homes because of competition for jobs and the economic downturn. Chinese immigrants suffered discrimination on an unprecedented scale that engulfed the entire region. In Bellingham, media and civic leaders gave the Chinese a deadline of November 1, 1885 to permanently leave the area. The reason for the expulsion, which has relevance in today’s economic and anti-immigration climate: the Chinese immigrants were perceived to be taking away jobs from the majority. In an effort to preserve the economic supremacy of the majority in the region, white leaders organized an all-encompassing plan to rid the area of Chinese immigrants. The exact number of Chinese expelled is unknown, but it is estimated that 200 Chinese in Seattle (a significant number in the region during that time) were forced to leave on ships bound for China, leaving 150 Chinese immigrants stranded in the area.

Recently, Tacoma and Bellingham commemorated the 125th anniversary of the Chinese expulsion on October 30 (Tacoma) and Nov. 8 (Bellingham). Seattle’s commemoration is slated for next year, in February 2011 — to remember Seattle’s own terrorism on its Chinese inhabitants.

Leading the charge to remember those unjust days are the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project (CERP) members. Bettie Luke, the chairperson for the CERP in Seattle, said the event was inspired by the centennial of the expulsion twenty-five years ago.

“At that time, community leaders got together to commemorate the centennial,” said Luke. “As it approached this year it occurred to me that it would be worth bringing up the project again. We would like people to learn about the issues.”

The idea of re-commemorating the expulsion was met with resounding support by the Seattle community.

“There has been more enthusiastic response than expected,” said Luke. “Over and over again I would encounter people who did not know about it, wanted to know more . . . It was all the more incumbent on us to put that information to people.”

In Bellingham, the chairpersons for that city’s event, John McGarrity and Paul Englesberg, faced formidable obstacles that made the planning of the event more difficult.

“One of the obstacles in Bellingham is there isn’t a very large organized community of Chinese Americans in the Whatcom community,” said McGarrity.

The CERP resonates strongly with today’s economic downturn and anti-immigration policies. Even now, after the progress made by the civil rights movement and an increasingly diverse U.S. population, an undercurrent exists that tolerates racial profiling and even blatant racism. As a result of the 9/11 terrorist act, ethnic profiling for Middle Easterns from FBI investigations continues to plague their communities in the U.S. Asian Pacific Islanders must also grapple with immigration policies that limit the number of APIs and other minorities from gaining entry into the U.S. and acquiring citizenship.

The CERP was created in part to address these troubling trends in contemporary American culture.

“As we are facing global competition there will be an increase in hostility toward Asians because of China,” said Luke. “China has been blamed a lot for taking jobs away from Americans. I think that there needs to be a renewed sense of awareness regarding these issues.”

An important lesson that we can glean from the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project is the importance of standing up for one’s rights when encountering racially intolerant attitudes and policies. A well-organized ethnic community, continued dialogue on discrimination, awareness of legal action that can be taken when necessary, all contribute to the highest principles of our American democracy. The dialogue triggered by events like the CERP’s strengthen the sense that there is unity in diversity and strength amid struggle.

The Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project (CERP) will host the Seattle events on Feb. 10 & 12, 2011. Olympia’s will be held in March 2011. With funding of $20,000 from the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the CERP will organize a march and rally that will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Chinese expulsion in Washington state.

Visit CERP

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