The Forgotten War Against Chinese-Americans.
I bought the book "Driven Out" a couple of years ago, and tried several times to read it all the way through, but had been unable to because of the very harrowing nature of the work. The book - written by a Jewish-American academic - details the almost continuous barrage of racial attacks, pogroms, and riots, over a period of at least six decades, targeting the early Chinese immigrants to the US, beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century. I've finally, in recent weeks, made the decision of finish the book and I am now almost through it, but it is still not easy reading.
The book covers a period of American history from the 1850's through to the early decades of the 20th century, that has been completely white-washed from the mainstream and Asian-American historical consciousness alike. The first Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the US in the early 19th century following the forced opening of Chinese markets to the West. As is always the case, exchanges of products were accompanied by the transfer of people and communities, so, in part because Westerners began to colonize China and create economic and social disadvantages for the Chinese, many Chinese sought economic security and opportunities in foreign countries that were no longer possible at home. Many indentured themselves - the so-called "coolies" - and found work in far-flung places like South Africa, The Caribbean, Australia, and South America. The Chinese who came to America came as free men in search of opportunities and only a small minority came as indentured servants.
Since almost the beginning of the Chinese presence in the US, they were under attack - and it has to be said that even though it was white Americans who propagated the violence, there was some participation of other minorities. There were cases where Mexicans and Native peoples participated in the violence, and even some African-Americans took sides against the Asian immigrants in editorials in black publications (but it has to be said that other African-American commentators gave support to the Chinese). But the vast majority of attacks were initiated and carried out by whites.
The stories of violence and manifestations of hatred are almost unbelieveable - they are so savage, brutal, and sadistic, that the perpetrators and the violence that they committed sounds like little more than a caricature of a medieval warlord and his mob of rampaging peasants. If one were to write a novel - or make a movie - with these kinds of incidents, most people might find the characterizations to be too far-fetched. But these things did happen, and the sadistic brutality was real, yet, the entire episode has almost disappeared from the American consciousness. Certainly, I have heard people talking about the prejudice against the early Chinese, but it has always seemed to be strangely sterile in the telling - even Asians seem to downplay the sheer savagery of the violence. Even worse, this hugely significant episode in American, and Asian-American, history has been given no place in the consciousness of Asian-American cultural output, when in my opinion, it should form the basis for the ontology of Asian-American culture.
It is impossible to document all of the attacks against the Chinese in a single blog post - there were literally hundreds of episodes that affected thousands of Chinese - such was the level and degree of violent depravity of America's pioneers in the West.
Having come to America lured by the promise of work, or riches in the gold mines, the Chinese quickly established themselves as a more reliable and cheaper alternative than white workers in many of the West coast's fledgling industries. Fairly soon, small communities of Chinese - mostly men - sprang up throughout the West Coast. Almost just as soon, anti-Chinese sentiment began to emerge. Driven by labor movements, and local authorities, but legitimized by xenophobic politicians, the anti-Chinese sentiment played upon the sense of white entitlement to whip up hatred towards the peaceful Chinese. Significantly, then as now, the media played a huge role in galvanizing and promoting anti-Chinese feeling - using stereotypes, caricatures, and a general strategy of defamation, the media succeeded in dehumanizing the Chinese such that few people saw a moral contradiction between the brotherly love of their Christian faith, and the culture of murder and disenfranchisement that they allowed to occur in their towns, and in which many were happy to participate.
Laws came into being that made it illegal for the Chinese to own property, and they were "discouraged" or forbidden from renting near whites - the so-called "Chinatowns" were actually ghettos, that served as a means of racial segregation, in run down and decrepit parts of town, and in buildings often considered too dangerous for human habitation. Special "taxes" and "fees" were introduced with the aim of specifically targeting Chinese workers and business owners. Still, the Chinese endured. They made these areas their own, and soon Chinese merchants were in operation, providing services and products for the community. But this segregation didn't satisfy the bloodlust of the West Coast's white population. Anti-Chinese sentiment, given momentum by xenophobia of politicians, and fueled by a media campaign of dehumanization, stereotyping, and defamation, soon flared up into a full-scale ethnic cleansing that would last into the 20th century.
What is unsettling is how these actions of hatred and the methods and attitudes that drove them, seem echoed in the modern-day experience of Asian-Americans. Then, as now, American society exhibited a moral acceptance of dehumanization of the Chinese - most would not act on it, but seemed to be either apathetic about the moral dilemma at best, or at worst, willing to justify or downplay prejudice. Then, as now, Asians could build communities and businesses, and the mostly apathetic mainstream would go along with it without much fanfare. Yet, most often in the 19th century American West, a handful of determined people were able to galvanize public action, such that white Americans who had lived, worked, and become friendly with their Chinese neighbours in towns all over the west coast could either turn on them, or simply look the other way while mobs of angry white men burned Chinese communities, forced Chinese people to leave town, or simply beat and murdered them.
White agitators would protest the presence of Chinese communities in their towns, galvanize the support of the local community and its authorities, made businesses and landlords sign petitions promising to never employ or rent to the Chinese, made those who already employed or rented to the Chinese - through intimidation or simple persuasion - to promise to fire or evict them. Boycotts of Chinese businesses were used as a weapon (as it is today against Asian merchants and powerful Asian economies) to financially ruin successful businessmen. Once this base of support had been solidified, then the campaign against any given Chinese community would usually become violent and brutal. Mobs of men (but sometimes including women and children) would enter Chinatowns, forcing the Chinese out of their homes and businesses, they would be beaten (or killed) and then made to walk miles to the coast or railway stations where they would be forced onto trains and ships and removed from the town. Then the homes of the Chinese would be ransacked and burned. In some instances, Chinese homes and dorms would be set on fire with the Chinese men still inside, who were then shot at and murdered as they tried to escape the flames.
Often, local authorities would serve notices to the Chinese communities informing them of the decision to have them removed from town, and in some instances the Chinese agreed to leave, yet, sometimes, violence took place even when the Chinese agreed to leave town. By providing violent racism with the veneer of legalism, America made ethnic cleansing of the Chinese a respectable and justified endeavour. With only the most flimsy of justifications, Chinatowns throughout the west coast were eradicated, ransacked and burned, and the Chinese men who populated them were beaten, killed, or falsely imprisoned. In the six or so decades between the 1850's and the early 20th century, there were hundreds of such incidences, that drove Chinese communities out of dozens of American West Coast towns, killing many Chinese men and injuring thousands more. Following the so-called "dog-tag" laws in the 1890's that required the registration of all Chinese, the idea was floated that any Chinese who could not show that they were legal should be placed in "enclosures" - a disturbing foreshadowing of Japanese internment.
Yet, the Chinese were never passive in the face of this hostility, not only did they resist, they went on the offensive. They fought back with acts of civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, and even used lawsuits and the legal system to win recompense for their material losses. Across the region, groups of Chinese men armed themselves with rifles and pistols, and defended their homes and properties. In some towns - such as San Jose - after repeated arson attacks that destroyed Chinatown, the Chinese community rebuilt in brick and stone, and surrounded their community with a high retaining wall accessible through a single guarded entrance gate. When local thugs tried to harass the local shop-keepers, the Chinese bought lawsuits against the perpetrators. These acts of self-defence and defiance sent clear statements of intent that they would not be intimidated into leaving, and that they were asserting their rights as American residents.
Lawsuits bought by the Chinese against local and federal authorities - several of which they won - served as the legal precedent for reparations paid to the Japanese for internment and to several native American groups. A lawsuit bought against the state of Califıornia by a Chinese family is considered one of the most important civil rights decisions in American history - it forced the states to provide public education for all of its children, regardless of their race or origin. Chinese resistance also tested the 14th amendment's provision for equal protection under the law. Yet, these civil rights precedents have disappeared form the American consciousness, and even worse, it has been forgotten or ignored in the Asian-American consciousness.
The experience of the early Chinese immigrants set the tone for America's attitude towards its Asian populations ever since. Subsequent populations of Asian immigrants - almost all male - like the Japanese and Filipinos, faced a similar campaign of violence. Both these groups faced segregation, violence, lynchings, and exclusion. Mobs attacked their neighbourhoods, and campaigns to prevent them from gaining employment and places to live were often successful. And even the big "Driving Out" - Japanese internment - can be viewed as simply a manifestation on a larger scale of the policy of excluding or driving out Asian populations from American towns.
It is almost a mirror image of the manner in which the Chinese were brutalized; agitation from local people, coupled with xenophobia from federal policymakers, resulted in notices being served that the Japanese would be driven from their homes and businesses, and their property would be basically ransacked and stolen by the white population. Japanese internment, violence against the Filipinos, and the driving out of the Chinese, reflect a single line of political and racial thinking that, because it has been forgotten or whitewashed from history, presents obstacles to any meaningful understanding of the attitudes and hatreds that lie at the foundation of anti-Asian racism that still inform America's attitudes towards Asians in the present.
It is eerie to realize that American culture still maintains this culture of dehumanization towards Asian people, that normalizes racism, and creates an attitude of low-grade resentment that can be manipulated to justify racist behaviour and violence. In this way, genuine engagement with the Asian community is never required, and society can distance itself from any moral consideration of Asian humanity, when political convenience, or economic resentments, necessitate the need for demonization of Asian people.
The latest episode in this decades-old cultural practice of maintaining moral distance from Asians, saw its most recent manifestation in the LA riots of 1992. America's cultural propagation of anti-Asian resentment of the 1970's and 80's, and the normalization of demeaning behaviours and dehumanizing stereotypes, created an environment in which a pogrom against Korean merchants and their businesses was largely deemed to be morally justified by the mainstream. There was little sympathy and almost no empathy for the Koreans, and they were even castigated for defending themselves. It is difficult to sympathize and empathize with a group of people about whom that racial mockery, and dehumanizing resentments, are the standard manner of conceiving of them.
Understanding the experiences of the first Chinese immigrants, should help us to see how the attitudes that drove anti-Chinese violence were founded on a basis of low-grade, but pervasive, derogatory stereotypes that enabled communities to distance themselves from any moral consideration towards the Chinese. Although hatred drove the violence, it was the equally important culture of dehumanization that made possible the apathy, acquiescence and assistance of the majority. This culture of dehumanization of Asians is still going strong to this day, and the experiences of the Chinese shows me that even if you are an established community, this dehumanization leaves open the possibility for the kind moral distancing that makes violence inevitable.
I do not think that it is coincidental that this early history of struggle by Asian immigrants has largely disappeared from the cultural consciousness of both Asian-Americans because these histories involved mainly Asian men, and in modern day America, it is the feminine voice that is the acceptable voice of Asian-America. As we all might agree, the feminine voice of Asian-America, generally defers to the importance the white male presence in Asian existence, whereas the facts of history of Asian-America implicitly marginalizes the white male as a vindictive, frightened, and violent savage, who attempted to murder, or persuade others to murder, his way to ethnic purity, and economic hegemony. This leaves no room for a history that not only shows that America engaged in ethnic cleansing against Asians, it also leaves no room for the preferred narrative in which Asian men are not the weak timid creatures who are easily pushed around. The early Chinese fought back in any way they could think of. That is probably why mainstream America prefers to forget, and Asian-Americans who strive for mainstream inclusion at all costs, generally acquiesce to pretending this history never happened.