Hidden history of anti-Chinese violence

May 31, 2020, 3:07 PM | Updated: Jun 1, 2020, 10:28 am

The Seattle waterfront is the city’s photogenic front porch. It’s a tourist attraction, and a camera-friendly place to capture the essence of Seattle, while ferryboats blow their horns and cars speed or crawl by on the viaduct. The city’s raw and un-curated history is on display here up high or just beneath the surface, from its early days as a 19th century settlement on Elliott Bay to its more recent skyscraper years as a cosmopolitan tech and retail hub. The waterfront has it all.

According to Bettie Luke, however, at least one important thing is missing.

“We feel very, very strongly that there should be some sort of monument or commemoration on the waterfront at the docks around Washington Street to commemorate and acknowledge the courage of the Chinese,” Luke said.

Bettie Luke is a civic activist in her 70s. She’s Chinese-American, and has lived in Seattle all of her life. Her late brother is museum namesake and former Seattle City Councilmember Wing Luke.

Darkest, most violent period in Seattle history

The courage that Bettie Luke thinks should be commemorated at the foot of Washington Street was demonstrated by a few hundred Chinese who were living in Seattle in February 1886 during one of the darkest and most violent periods in the city’s history.

That period has in the past been called the “Anti-Chinese Riots” or the time of “Chinese agitation.” It’s a complicated and complex story, and it defies the easy telling or myth-like qualities of the Great Seattle Fire or the city’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush. But it’s a story that should be better known, especially in a time when Seattle is struggling with growth and change, and the nation is still struggling with immigration and discrimination.

To understand what happened in Seattle in February 1886, you have to go back a few months earlier to the late summer of 1885. All over the West, whites began taking violent action to force Chinese out of their communities. Jobs were scarce. Chinese laborers, who’d been helping build the transcontinental railroad, were now looking for other employment, and were perceived as an economic threat. A new federal law, passed in 1882, legally excluded most Chinese from entering the United States.

In Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory on September 2, 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed by a mob of whites. It’s not clear if the Wyoming incident played any direct role to incite violence in Washington Territory, but soon after, on September 7, 1885, three Chinese hops pickers were killed by a mob in what’s now Issaquah. Four days after that, a group of Chinese mine workers were attacked and driven out of what’s now Newcastle.

Preventing violence

In Seattle that fall of 1885, labor organizations and ad hoc groups of white residents and outsiders began organizing, holding meetings and debating what to do with the city’s Chinese population. Almost everyone agreed that the Chinese needed to leave, but authorities at the Territorial level in Olympia, and in Seattle and King County, the record clearly shows, were at least committed to maintaining order and preventing violence.

The complexity of the stance taken by public officials during this era is best summed up in a letter from Territorial Governor Watson Squire to Whatcom County Sheriff F.W. DeLorimer, written in October 1885.

“The danger has been that the feelings which we all have shared in regard to our wish to be rid of the Chinese evil,” Governor Squire wrote, “were likely to be fanned into a flame to such an extent that some man or men, more zealous than the rest, might commit acts of violence that would plunge a whole community into such trouble as occurred at Wyoming recently.”

The situation with this “Chinese evil” in Tacoma, in particular, worried Governor Squire.

The governor wrote a letter to Pierce County Sheriff Lewis Byrd, also in October 1885, about reports of “a strong possibility of a disturbance in your county in connection with the present Chinese agitation.” Governor Squire reminded Sheriff Byrd of his “duty under statute to preserve peace and order in your county.” After all, Governor Squire wrote, “it will be very humiliating to you, as well as to me, to have to call upon the military arm of the Government to preserve order in a county so well advanced as Pierce County.”

Further, Governor Squire wrote, “It would take a long time to recover from the bad effects if such an outbreak should occur.” From other correspondence, it seems that Governor Squire was worried that bad press about violence in Washington Territory would, among other things, further delay statehood.

Despite Governor Squire’s appeals to Pierce County Sheriff Byrd, in the early days of November 1885, about 200 Chinese residents of Tacoma were violently removed from their homes and marched to the railroad station and forced onto trains that took them south to Oregon. Then, violent expulsions were reported in Olympia, Snohomish, Carbonado, Bellingham, Franklin, Black Diamond and Port Blakely.

Federal help

Fearing a similar outbreak of violence in Seattle, Governor Squire telegraphed a dire message to Washington, D.C., about what he and Mayor Henry Yesler perceived to be a deteriorating and dangerous situation:

“Success now emboldens them at Seattle, and within a few hours the situation has entirely changed from its peaceful phase. A repetition of the Tacoma affair is threatened. Furthermore, the plans of agitation apparently now extend to Olympia and Portland, and it would seem if the movement is not promptly checked it may extend itself to all the towns on this northwest coast.”

At Governor Squire’s request, President Grover Cleveland issued a grave proclamation from the White House.

“An emergency has arisen,” the presidential proclamation read, “and a case is now presented which justifies and requires, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, the employment of military forces to suppress domestic violence and enforce the faithful execution of the laws of the United States.”

The president further commanded that, “all insurgents, and all persons who have assembled at any point within the said Territory of Washington for the unlawful purpose aforesaid, to desist therefrom and to disperse and retire to their respective abodes.”

The “military forces” in the form of Army troops from Fort Vancouver arrived in Seattle on November 8, and stayed through November 17. The trouble had passed, at least for the time being.

But just a few months later, early on the morning of Sunday, February 7, 1886, a mob of an estimated 1,500 white men forced approximately 300 Chinese residents from their homes in Seattle’s “Chinese Quarter,” which in those days was centered around Third Avenue and Washington Street. The Chinese were marched or driven in horse-drawn wagons, with their belongings, to the public pier at the foot of Washington Street — the place where Bettie Luke would like to see a monument dedicated.

When King County Sheriff John McGraw arrived at the pier around mid-morning, about 90 Chinese had already boarded the steamship Queen of the Pacific, with 200 or so remaining on the dock.

Sheriff McGraw didn’t have enough deputies and volunteer militia to break up the mob, but somehow he got aboard the ship and managed to delay its departure. Then, the district court ordered all the Chinese aboard the ship to appear before a judge, so that the court could determine if they were being “unlawfully deprived of their liberty.”

“During that afternoon and night,” McGraw later wrote, “I placed and maintained an armed guard around all the Chinese houses in the city; and during the night I place a strong force in charge of the dock where the Chinese were congregated.”

By midday on Monday, February 8, the court proceeding was over, and the Queen of the Pacific departed for San Francisco with 193 Chinese aboard. Plans were made for another ship to take away the remaining 100 or so in about a week.

When those 100 were allowed to head back toward their homes in the Chinese Quarter that Monday afternoon to wait for the next ship, the mob rose up and tried to divert the Chinese to the railroad station. A violent confrontation broke out in the intersection of what’s now First Avenue and Main Street, and one of Sheriff McGraw’s volunteers shot and mortally wounded one of the rioters. Two other rioters were also wounded by gunshots.

Martial law

Not long after, Territorial Governor Watson Squire declared martial law in Seattle, and once again President Cleveland issued a grave proclamation. As had happened before in November, U.S. Army troops were again ordered to Seattle from Fort Vancouver. They arrived by train late on the evening of Wednesday, February 10. By then, the worst of the violence was already over.

Though no monuments mark the places where these violent acts and courageous responses happened, the places themselves remain, waiting for their stories to be uncovered and told. Sometimes that uncovering happens completely by chance.

Tim Greyhavens is executive director of a Seattle-based not-for-profit organization. In his spare time, he’s also a photographer who’s spent decades taking nature photographs around the West.

A decade or so ago, Greyhavens was planning to take nature photos in Hell’s Canyon near the Oregon-Idaho border when stumbled on a story about the murder of Chinese workers there in the 1880s. Greyhavens had never worked as historian, and had no personal connection to Chinese history, but he was intrigued.

“I started finding more and digging into it. I’d not really had any awareness of this part of our history, of the Chinese exclusion and expulsion, and history of violence against Chinese,” Greyhavens said. “The more I dug into it, the more I researched, the more both fascinated and appalled I became, that this was such a widespread part of the American history but I didn’t know about it.”

Inspired to retell history

Greyhavens was inspired to create a website for something he calls the No Place Project, his one-man effort to document the hidden history of violence against Chinese, and to share contemporary photographs of places where the forgotten violence occurred.

Some places are easy to find, Greyhavens says, like the foot of Washington Street in Seattle. Some places are much harder to locate, like the site of the murder of those three Chinese hops pickers in Issaquah.

“No there’s no marker anywhere, and I’ve made a best guess about where I think it took place just based upon historical descriptions,” Greyhavens said.

Greyhavens says that newspaper accounts at the time said that the Chinese workers were camped on a peninsula in the creek that runs through what’s now called Issaquah, but was then known as Squak Valley.

“I’ve walked every foot of that creek, up and down there, looked through historical maps, went through all the newspaper and historical records I could find,” he said.

Greyhavens believes the murders took place right in the middle of downtown Issaquah. He also says there has been some discussions with the Issaquah Historical Society about putting a marker in place, but that he knows of no firm plans to do so.

Further complicating an already complicated story is the fact that some Chinese were allowed to stay in Seattle in 1886 if they weren’t seen as a direct threat.

Bettie Luke says that she once asked her father about their family history and the violence in Seattle in the 1880s.

“I asked my father at one point, ‘Were the Lukes involved or did they know anything about the 1886 Seattle expulsion?‘ And he said, ‘Yes, there was a Luke uncle, and he, during that time that the Chinese were expelled, along with a handful of other Chinese were not sent away.’”

Bettie Luke says she was fascinated, and that her mind raced with the possibilities of an ancestor who’d made a brave stand. “Oh, they must have held them off,” she remembers thinking. She asked her father, “Did they have weapons?”

“No,” Luke’s father said. As it turned out, her father told her, the Luke uncle who was in Seattle in 1886 had no weapons, and held off no attackers. “He was the mayor’s houseboy,” Luke’s father told her.

A handful of other Chinese were also allowed to remain after the attacks, according to Bettie Luke, because they were viewed as having contributed to the city and were considered civic and business leaders.

“Among some of the Chinese that were allowed to stay were leaders,” Luke said. “They were leaders not just in the Chinese American community, but leaders in Seattle.”

Chin Chun Hock

One of these leaders was Chin Chun Hock. His great-great granddaughter Teresa Woo-Murray grew up in Seattle in the 1950s and 1960s, but now lives in California where’s she a graphic artist. She’s been researching her family history since she was a teenager.

Woo-Murray says that Chin Chun Hock was the first Chinese person to settle in Seattle, arriving sometime in the 1860s.

“He worked for Yesler’s Mill, he worked for the Rentons as a cook, he worked in the timber camps, and eventually he got enough money together to start his own store called the Wa Chong Company, on Mill Street just south of Yesler’s Mill,” Woo-Murray said.

Chin Chun Hock was an entrepreneur. He managed a labor contracting business, and he built brick buildings in downtown Seattle. Woo-Murray says that Seattle’s original Chinese Quarter grew up where it did because of the Wa Chong building that her great-great-grandfather built at Third and Washington.

Woo-Murray says that Chin Chun Hock was back home visiting China during the violence of 1885 and 1886, but that he had no difficulty returning to Seattle, where he contributed to the rebuilding of the city after the Great Seattle Fire of June 1889, and the digging of the original channel between Lake Washington and Lake Union before the ship canal was built.

“I think he was an exception,” Woo-Murray said. “They [the laws] excluded laborers, not merchants. He was a merchant and had been there so long, he had a lot of respect, a lot of people knew him. He behaved like he was a Seattleite. He built buildings. He invested a lot of money into the city. He didn’t take it all back to China,“ she said.

Bettie Luke says that other Chinese found it more difficult to return to Seattle, or to come here or anywhere in the United States for nearly 60 years after the violence of the 1880s.

“From 1882 until 1943 with the exclusion of Chinese being enforced,” Luke said, “Chinese were not allowed to come over with the exception of three categories: students, businessmen and diplomats.” It was only after her father had been here long enough to establish a laundry business in the University District in the early 1930s that Luke’s mother and oldest brother were able to join him here.

Other than the personal connections of people like Bettie Luke and Teresa Woo-Murray, and the random yet deep connection that Tim Greyhavens found, there seems to be a collective gap in community consciousness about the anti-Chinese violence that happened here, and about what it all means to greater Seattle, circa 2016.

Tacoma has Chinese Reconciliation Park , but King County has no such places to commemorate the troubling era and to bring its lessons into the present and future. But this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been attempts here to come to terms with this complicated part of the local past.

Bettie Luke says that a community remembrance that she helped organize in Seattle to mark the 125th anniversary in 2011 was particularly meaningful.

“We had a presentation and lecture in the evening, we had music, we had a rally and a march,” Luke said. She calls that last activity a “reverse march,” since it went the opposite direction of the route taken by the Chinese who were forced to leave the city in 1886.

“We gathered at the dock, and so we marched into Chinatown,” Luke said, demonstrating that while Seattle’s Chinese American community may have once been violently expelled, “We’re here, we’re still here.”

Luke also says that a few years ago, a local activist she collaborates with named Doug Chin worked with the Seattle chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance and former Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata to pass an important piece of symbolic legislation.

“The City Council and the Mayor passed a resolution that apologized for the treatment and recognized the past contribution, and the continued contribution, of Chinese in Seattle,” Luke said.

Down on the waterfront, the ferryboats come and go and the cars and trucks jostle for space in what nowadays feels like a permanent construction zone. Amidst the cries of seagulls and the splash of waves against the seawall, a storied spot at the foot of Washington Street silently stands watch over its secrets.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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