By Jennifer 8. Lee | July 31, 2007
Jean Pfaezer’s new book: Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans is thoughtfully reviewed this Sunday in The New York Times. The book chronicles the waves of anti-Chinese violence that hit the West in the late 1800s, which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in stages from 1882 to 1902, the only legislation in history (thus far) that specifically banned people based on a national origin. I touch on these themes in one chapter of my book, on the origins of chop suey. When the Chinese first arrived in California, they were in numerous occupations in numerous industries: agriculture, cigar manufacturing, railroad building. They were willing to work for cheap and they ate rice (not meat, as “real men” did). And they drove the working wage down for white laborers. And they were all over the place. At a certain point 1/3 of what is now Idaho’s population was Chinese. And Deadwood, South Dakota (yes, the same Deadwood of the HBO series) was 20 percent Chinese.
Imagine the unease about outsourcing now, except that these were “insourcing” Chinese people to the west. So the laborers came face to face with the people who were threatening their livelihoods. It wasn’t pretty. The results: The Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, the Denver Riot of 1880, the Tacoma Riot of 1885, The Rock Springs, Wyoming Massacre of 1885.
But the most lurid tale was the Snake River Massacre of 1887. The water in Hellâ€™s Canyon in Oregon ran red with blood as more than 30 Chinese gold miners were killed and mutilated by a group of white men who had conspired to steal their gold and force the Chinese out. Three killers were brought to trial. Not one was convicted and the killers kept their souvenirs. A Chinese skull fashioned into a sugar bowl graced the kitchen table of one ranch home for many years.
The oral histories from that era are quite moving, such as Huie Kin, reminiscing in 1930s on San Francisco in the 1870s:
The Chinese were in a pitiable condition in those days. We were simply terrified; we kept indoors after dark for fear of being shot in the back. Children spit upon us as we passed by and called us rats.
The anti-Chinese violence in the west set the scene for Chinese restaurants across the United States in two main ways. First, it drove the Chinese east, away from where the violence was most virulent. So pocket of Chinese showed up in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis around this time and they formed Chinatowns in large part because of safety in numbers. The second reason is that employers were more hesitant to hire Chinese anymore because they feared retribution. So the Chinese went into business for themselve, mainly in two types of businesses: laundries and restaurants. Why? Cleaning and cooking are both considered women’s work.
And thus they were not threatening to the American laborer.
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