Not Without a Fight
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans
By Jean Pfaelzer
Random House. 400 pp. $27.95
Between 1850 and 1906, thousands of Chinese were systematically expelled from roughly 100 towns in the Pacific Northwest. Chinatowns were burned to the ground, their residents sent on forced marches to the next settlement. Chinese laborers were murdered at work or in their beds. Some were lynched. Others were starved out as white citizens fired them from their jobs and refused to sell them food.
"The term expulsion doesn't fully represent the rage and violence of these purges," writes Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of English, East Asian studies and American studies at the University of Delaware, in "Driven Out," her comprehensive account of these events. "What occurred along the Pacific Coast, from the gold rush through the turn of the century, was ethnic cleansing." Words such as ethnic cleansing and pogrom, which she also uses to describe the purges, clang unpleasantly against the ears of Americans, conjuring as they do faraway, foreign violence, but Pfaelzer makes the strong case, as do several recent books about expulsions of African Americans, that the words accurately convey America's bloody racial history.
The Chinese had no fear of racial violence at first. They'd traveled to the American West for the same reason most everybody else had -- gold fever. Shipping companies recruiting miners promised that Americans "want the Chinaman to come and will make him welcome." Fleeing poverty and dangerous warlords, the Chinese made their way across the Pacific to America, where "money is in great plenty and to spare." But it wasn't: Most miners came out of the gold fields poorer than when they'd started. Instead of making their fortunes, writes Pfaelzer, the Chinese "became the workforce for California's new manufacturing industries and construction projects -- road building, irrigation, land reclamation, in canneries, jute mills, and cigar-rolling factories, and large-scale agriculture on the new vineyards and orchards."
For reasons both racial and economic, whites came to loathe them. The Chinese, many of whom maintained their traditional dress and hairstyles, looked more foreign to Americans and Europeans than other immigrants did. And the federal government passed laws to keep them foreign, forbidding longtime residents from becoming naturalized citizens, unlike all other immigrants. They could not vote or testify in court. Cities, including San Francisco, passed cubic air ordinances -- limiting the number of people who could live together -- that were aimed directly at the overcrowded Chinese in Chinatown. So were laws forbidding laundries in wooden buildings and the use of shoulder poles to carry baskets.
In an echo of today's immigration debate, the Chinese had become caught between big business and the working man. Big business, which controlled industries such as mining, timber and agriculture, wanted cheap Chinese labor, but white laborers believed the Chinese kept everyone's wages down. "White workers who had come west with dreams of opportunity, individualism, rugged endurance, and equality," writes Pfaelzer, "faced instead corruption, radical disparities in political power, and an increasing concentration of wealth." It seemed easier to attack the Chinese competition than the powers that pulled the strings. "For the many unemployed white laborers, the Chinese became a hated surrogate for absentee factory owners and distant landlords." Organizations with names such as the "Supreme Order of the Caucasians" and the "Anti-Coolie Union" sprang up, determined to drive the Chinese out.
The white workers had more power than they realized. When it came to the purges, the businessmen always caved, though it went sorely against their economic interests. According to Pfaelzer, "The roundups were also led by mayors and governors, judges and newspaper editors, wealthy timbermen and ranchers willing to betray their needs for cheap labor in order to mark their common whiteness." In Truckee, a lumber town high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the editor of the newspaper organized a boycott of all the businesses that still employed Chinese. Almost every Chinese worker was fired, several were murdered, and the Chinatown was destroyed. Within 10 weeks, the second largest population of Chinese immigrants in California had dispersed.
But in hardly any of these incidents did the Chinese succumb without a fight. Indeed, the most interesting thread of this exhaustive book is the Chinese immigrants' sense of entitlement to justice and equal treatment. Chinese residents under threat of a purge would organize small but potent acts of civil disobedience: refusing to sell much-desired vegetables to whites, for instance, or to pick crops at harvest time, and returning laundry folded but still soiled. And it was a given -- the municipalities trying to expel them knew it -- that Chinese immigrants would sue for damages if they were forced out. Despite the legal system's built-in biases, and with the help of good lawyers, they often won. The Chinese had the benefit (and sometime curse) of being beholden to the Six Companies, Chinese merchant organizations based in San Francisco that controlled immigration and trade and had "learned how to negotiate with state and town governments on behalf of the overseas Chinese, thus providing them an institutional buffer unavailable to African Americans or Native Americans," according to Pfaelzer.
The expulsion of the Chinese is recorded encyclopedically in "Driven Out," with many towns earning their time in Pfaelzer's harsh spotlight. And the research Pfaelzer did to recount each step along the way toward "ethnic cleansing" in Eureka, Truckee, Tacoma, Shasta, Chico and elsewhere must have been grueling. But so, regrettably, is the reading of this worthy catalogue of injustice, for expulsion methods did not vary much from town to town. The terrible details amass, and their power to shock diminishes. What a shame, for we need to be reminded how easily the law can be twisted away from justice and how quickly communities can turn toward hate.