Ethnic cleansing in the American West in "Driven Out"
Special to The Seattle Times
"Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans"
by Jean Pfaelzer
Random House,400 pp., $27.95
Imagine a place where the Richard Butlers and white supremacists of the world were not marginalized extremists but part of the respectable mainstream, backed by the power of law and public opinion. This describes much of the American West in the last half of the 19th century, and the primary victims of this intolerance were Chinese immigrants.
Jean Pfaelzer begins her devastating account of discrimination and violence against Chinese Americans, "Driven Out," in Tacoma, where in November 1885 an armed mob forced 200 Chinese from their homes and businesses and onto waiting trains. In town after town in the West, particularly in northern and central California, the Chinese were subject to ethnic cleansing in the form of roundups, expulsions and killings. Chinatowns were routinely burned to the ground.
In perhaps the most outrageous incident, a crowd of angry whites lynched 17 Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871 after a dispute over a runaway Chinese prostitute. In February 1886, a mob of 1,500 white men in Seattle forced 400 Chinese city residents onto a boat in Elliott Bay.
Laws seemed to matter little. Sawmill workers who pressured a Northern California mill owner to fire and expel Chinese employees said "they were acting under the 'force of public sentiment which is higher than any written law.' "
The agitation against the Chinese began in the early 1850s. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused a huge influx of fortune seekers into the state, Americans and foreigners alike. During and after the gold rush, white farmers and land owners felt the competitive heat from diligent Chinese immigrants, who worked in the labor-intensive industries of timber, agriculture and railroad construction.
Whites expressed their resentment in an almost hysterical race hatred. They formed anti-Chinese clubs and leagues. They agitated for and achieved many legal restrictions against Asians, who couldn't become citizens, own land or marry whites, and were forced to pay a steep miner's tax. The federal government restricted and then banned most immigration from China.
Pfaelzer's research is scrupulous and extensive. She provides the significant context of white violence against freed black slaves in the post-bellum American South and against Native Americans nationwide. Her recounting of specific names and circumstances not only makes her descriptions more vivid, it has the effect of bearing historical witness.
The author also breaks new ground by her chronicling of Chinese resistance in the form of boycotts, lawsuits seeking reparations for lost property, and the quest for public education for their children. In the 1890s, after Congress passed the Geary Act requiring all Chinese to wear identity cards, Chinese-American leaders urged their countrymen to defy the law, resulting in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the U.S.
Pfaelzer's well-written account reminds us that the sacrifice of these early immigrants was not limited to hard work and economic struggles. Chinese immigrants lived in often miserable conditions in the face of unrelenting hostility. Against the odds, they remained and even thrived in this country, and helped build the American West.
David Takami is the author of "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company