More than 125 years ago, in the fall and winter of 1885 and 1886, angry mobs of anti-Chinese activists in Seattle and Tacoma drove thousands of Chinese immigrants out of their homes and communities.

Throughout the Puget Sound region, and as far south as Olympia and north as Whatcom County, lawless white citizens, including laborers and civic leaders, followed a wave of anti-Chinese hysteria in a rampage of violence. In Tacoma, mobs burned the homes of immigrants and destroyed their belongings. In Seattle, bands of rioters rounded up Chinese and forcibly removed them by steamship.

In Olympia, rioters terrorized the Chinese community, which was spared expulsion only because some white citizens, deputized by the sheriff, acted swiftly to avert another tragedy. Taken as a whole, the mob violence that occurred following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act represents one of the darkest chapters in Pacific Northwest history as well as the history of the American West.

In the decades following the expulsion, repressive laws and sporadic outbreaks against Chinese and other Asian immigrants persisted in the West, leading up to the establishment in 1910 of the Angel Island Immigration Station in California, which detained upwards of 300,000 immigrants at its height.

On Feb. 7, the King County Council passed a resolution commemorating the 125th anniversary of those events by designating Feb. 10, 2011, as Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Day.

On Saturday, Feb. 12, Puget Sound-area citizens marched from South Washington Street and Alaskan Way South to the Wing Luke Asian Museum for a program featuring Chinese American community leaders and historians.

“In Pioneer Seattle, racism and hostility toward immigrants fueled a mob to drive Chinese settlers out of town,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine last week. “One-hundred-twenty-five years later we march to make the point that immigrants built and continue to strengthen our community and our nation. It is fitting that Saturday’s march reverses the route on which these residents of Seattle were forced to walk to the docks and get on a boat.”

The goal of the 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project, according to its organizers, is to foster a wider awareness of the past and provide a better context for understanding immigration and the consequences of unchecked intolerance. Project leaders see parallels in today’s vitriolic debate about immigration.

“How do we remember this vicious and tragic part of our local history? It’s by re-educating each generation to the fact that it happened,” said Ron Chew, executive director of International Community Health Services Foundation and past director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. “The seeds of intolerance and bigotry that gave rise to the Chinese exclusion still exist today.”

Some state political leaders like Congressman Jim McDermott recognize that anti-Chinese discrimination not only reflects antipathy towards immigration but also economic anxiety at home and abroad.

“Anxiety about China has grown in recent years. In Congress, I’ve seen this play out in debates, especially as China’s economy has grown while the U.S. economy has struggled to rebound,” he said. “As Seattle commemorates the 125th anniversary of the Chinese expulsion, it is important for us to remember that our country’s diverse population has been, and will continue to be, a key factor in growing our economy and creating jobs.”

“The Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project is doing a great job of deepening this understanding and fostering the necessary conversations to push back against this ethnic intolerance.”

Last week’s observance of the Chinese expulsion included a program at Cleveland High School featuring former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice, Charles Z. Smith. Smith stressed the importance of the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project.

“It is a recognition that cruelty can exist regardless of the ethnic or racial group involved. It is difficult to accept the fact that a group of people, in particular Chinese Americans, were sent away in droves by vigilantes,” he said. “For me personally, it is a disgrace to the United States of America not only that it was a time of Chinese discrimination, but because it reflects the fact that we are dealing with the same issues in immigration today. The pattern is not that much different than it was with the relocation of Japanese Americans and the Chinese expulsion,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest was not immune to the racial turmoil that was endemic in the southern states, he said. Americans need to be vigilant if ethnic recriminations are to be avoided in the future, Smith added. “We cannot accept a United States that can be disrespectful of citizens because of their ethnicity. We need to come up with a solution consistent with the purposes of democracy, which holds that everyone is entitled to dignity and the blessings of liberty.”

Another speaker at the event, Pramila Jayapal, OneAmerica executive director, echoed Smith’s statement. “It’s crucial that we not forget that American history is scarred by worker exploitation and racial discrimination, and the Chinese community knows this history explicitly. The Chinese Expulsion Remembrance serves as a vital reminder as we undergo another wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and resentment today.”

The pattern of racial discrimination that Smith alluded to continues today with immigration reform at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Immigrant detention has gotten worse rather than better, according to historian Judy Yung in an Examiner interview. “It is the fastest growing form of incarceration in the country today. In 2008 alone, 407,000 immigrants – mostly U.S. residents – were detained by the U.S. government, with incarceration periods that ranged from 37 days to 10 months, and under much worse conditions than at Angel Island.”

Yung, the author of a new book about the Angel Island Immigration Station, said that the infamous detention facility represents the best and worst of American immigration history. “While it is a story of men, women and children who crossed the Pacific Ocean to establish new lives in the United States, it is also a story of harsh and discriminatory immigration laws and of immigrant perseverance.”

“As we try to fix a broken immigration system with comprehensive immigration reform today, we need to be sure that the negative aspects of Angel Island’s history are not repeated, and that we uphold our values as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws,” Yung said.

“As immigrants from around the world continue to come to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity, we must ensure that they be treated fairly and with dignity and respect… [America needs] to reckon with its past legacy of adopting and enforcing discriminatory immigration policies that belie its ideals of liberty and justice for all,” Yung writes in her new book, coauthored with Erika Lee, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America”.

One of the goals of the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project is to foster a community dialogue about Chinese-American history and the legacy of racism. Project organizations hope such discussion will enable a new generation to better understand the important role of Chinese immigrants, and immigrants in general, in the Pacific Northwest.

Ron Chew and budding Seattle filmmaker Pei Chou devised several ways to enhance that understanding. The multi-media video produced by Chou evokes the voices and thoughts of Chinese Americans today reflecting on racism, identity and history.

In a companion project, Chew worked with University of Washington museology students to create a freestanding exhibition about the expulsion. By integrating images and historical facts with a look at the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment today, Chew hopes that UW exhibit will provide a broader context for understanding intolerance and bigotry today.

“Xenophobia becomes especially pronounced during times of economic turmoil, when it’s tempting to single out people whose language, culture, and appearance make them easily identifiable targets,” Chew explained. “That’s why remembering the hateful attacks on the Chinese is especially relevant now.”

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