On February 7, 1886, white mobs invaded Seattle’s first Chinatown (now Pioneer Square), to forcibly expel Chinese residents from the city. Under the pretext that the Chinese residents were violating Seattle’s cubic-air ordinance regulating crowdedness of living spaces, the mob forced some 350 Chinese residents onto wagons toward the Seattle waterfront, where they demanded the Chinese board a steamer for San Francisco.
The 1886 riot was fueled by anti-Chinese racism, which had been intensifying since Chinese settlers first arrived in the western U.S. The Chinese settlers in Seattle worked to lay down the railroad, dig in coal mines, and in the salmon canneries. The riots followed an economic recession in the 1880s, which made jobs scarce, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration altogether.
Seattle’s riot was the latest in a wave of anti-Chinese violence that erupted across the American West. On Sept. 2, 1885, a mob murdered 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, an incident that alarmed local Chinese in Seattle. Five days later, three Chinese hops pickers were killed by a mob in what’s now Issaquah, and four days later, Chinese mine workers were attacked and expelled from the Newcastle area. In November that year, a violent mob in Tacoma carried out a scheme to expel almost all of Tacoma’s Chinese community, killing some and burning Tacoma’s Chinatown to the ground.
“The early Chinese immigrants were seen as intellectually inferior, cruel, heathens, deceitful, and despotic,” according to Doug Chin, historian and author of Seattle’s International District: The Making of a Pan-Asian American Community. “Moreover, they were also seen as unfair labor competition and ‘tools of the Capitalists.’ The ultimate goal of the anti-Chinese movement was to get rid of the Chinese from America.”
Washington’s Territorial Governor called a state of insurrection and declared martial law in response to the riot. Before the riot, Seattle’s Chinese population was around 600. Afterward, few remained until a second wave of immigration.
For much of Seattle’s history, this ugly incident was almost ignored by textbooks and the media, according to Chin. “I went to school here in the 1950s, they had nothing,” he said. “For the longest time, there was no mention in the history books.”
No plaque or work of public art commemorates the riot at the Seattle Waterfront, where it happened — but this could change.
The current Waterfront redevelopment did not fund a dedicated installation commemorating the riot. According to a spokesperson for the City’s Waterfront Program in an email, the program “has provided staff time and technical support of the subject art project at our cost, however it does not grant funds for privately-initiated projects. We don’t anticipate this changing in the future.”
The Waterfront redevelopment will include “a series of interpretive panels that will describe the natural and cultural histories of this place,” according to the Waterfront Seattle Program spokesperson. “The interpretive signage is generally focused around themes, and we weave the stories of different groups of people, including Asian immigrants, into panels about immigration and exclusion, labor and business.”
Instead, a private committee called the Chinese American Legacy Artwork Project Governing Committee (CALAP) has been raising money to fabricate and install a commemorative public installation for the riot at Alaskan Way South and South Washington.
The idea of a commemorative installation came to Chin and civic activist Bettie Luke (sister of the late Wing Luke) when the city announced its re-development plan for the Waterfront.
Luke had organized rallies commemorating the 1886 anti-Chinese riot, including one on its 125th anniversary in 2011. At that event, marchers walked from the waterfront to the Chinatown International District – a defiant reversal of the route the Chinese residents were forced to take out of Seattle.
“[Bettie Luke] raised the question, why do we need to do this all the time?” Chin said. “What can we do to make the public know about this without having a damn rally every few years? So my idea was to just have a memorial, a permanent, substantial memorial so people will know about it.”
Other cities have made efforts to acknowledge their histories of violent anti-Chinese racism: Tacoma created Chinese Reconciliation Park, and a memorial exists for a massacre of Chinese immigrants near the Snake River in Oregon and in other cities.
Luke and Chin attended planning sessions held by the Waterfront Project suggesting that a memorial be installed in the redeveloped waterfront. Eventually, the Waterfront Project agreed to reserve a space along the new Alaskan Way, Chin said. However, it would be up to advocates to fund and install the memorial. “They gave us a place to put a monument, but they weren’t going to pay for it,” Chin said.
Artist Stewart Wong was selected by the CALAP committee to design the commemorative installation. Wong’s other public works include Our Heritage, Our Journey, Our Dreams, installed inside the Wing Luke Museum. In collaboration with artist Cheryll Leo-Gwin, he also designed View from Gold Mountain, a piece located at the Second Judicial District Court Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, which commemorates the 1882 landmark Yee Shun case, a victory in the fight against racism gaining the right for Chinese in America to testify in a court of law.
Wong’s richly symbolic design will feature a narrative plaque and a 10-foot tall X sign (representing the division between the Chinese and the mob and the word “expulsion”). It will feature six-foot figures representing the mob and the Chinese workers standing on opposing sides, and scales of justice tilted toward the mob side, “expressing the inequity of the time,” Wong said. More details of the design plans can be found on Wong’s website: https://bit.ly/45VuY1A.
Wong wanted to design a piece of public art that commemorated “history that’s been kind of erased, or not even included in the textbook,” he said — history that younger generations may not be aware of. Born and raised in Honolulu, Wong said he never learned about the history of Chinese expulsion in the American West until he came to Seattle for college.
Wong hopes the installation will be a destination for school field trips, and form part of a walking tour of CID history. “I want this to bring awareness, to inform people so that history doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. “And the best way to do that is to educate people and to cultivate understanding, understanding and appreciation for diversity and appreciation for our struggles.”
“And to remind people that bullying is not acceptable,” he added. “Because this is really what it boils down to — bullying, right? Power, who’s in charge….Setting restrictions and laws that exclude a particular group of people is a type of bullying.”
Wong’s concept has been approved by the CALAP committee, but the committee must raise more funds before it can be fabricated.
The fundraising goal stands at $500,000 and is in its early stages, according to Cassie Chinn, a member of the committee. Chin resigned from the CALAP committee, disagreeing with the higher budget and skeptical the committee could raise it from private donations, Nonetheless, Chin hopes the committee can secure enough private or public funds to install the piece.
The project went over budget, Wong said, because of materials costs. “I suggested to them that we have this cast in bronze to really express the legacy and the importance of the events,” he said. “And also the fact that we want this to last for many decades.”
For Chin, it’s imperative that the history of Asian Americans, who now make up a significant portion of Seattle’s population, is represented at the Seattle Waterfront. “It’s important for all people of color to have knowledge of their own experience in Washington state,” Chin said, “because they all played a role in the development of this state. When they do that, you get a sense of belonging. I belong here, man, because my people helped build this state. But man, if you leave it out — that’s being marginalized.”
Those interested in donating to fundraise for the installation can do so online at https://bit.ly/3sLJfQk, or donations can be made through the Wing Luke Museum. For online donations, visit www.wingluke.org and click on “Make a Donation.” In the comment box for your donation, add “For the Chinese American Legacy Artwork Project.”
To make a gift by phone, call the Wing Luke Museum at 206.623.5124. If you’d prefer to mail in your gift, please send it to: Wing Luke Museum, PO Box 3025, Seattle, WA 98114. Be sure to indicate that your donation is “For the Chinese American Legacy Artwork Project.”