A History Bursting With Telling: Asian Americans in Washington State
A Curriculum Project for Washington Schools
Matthew W. Klingle
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest
University of Washington Department of History
Table of Contents
One story of Washington state is a story of immigration, but it is not the simple tale of assimilation or acculturation. Immigrants brought pieces of culture from their native lands to Washington state, where they melded them with pieces taken from American culture. Immigrants did not remain unchanged or melt into a common society, however. Instead, Washington is a mosaic made of different peoples coming together to create new lives in a new land. The Asian American experience is part of this mosaic. The documents that accompany this essay demonstrate how Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos came to Washington, struggled against discrimination, labored to earn their living, and created distinctive cultures and identities. These documents chronicle, in a small way, how some Asian immigrants became Asian Americans. "Asian American" is, by necessity, a broad term that lumps different peoples together. Because of space restrictions, this project focuses on Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans, the three largest and oldest groups in Washington. Other groups, notably immigrants from Korea, the Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia, receive limited attention here. It is hoped that students and teachers alike will use this project as a guide for building their own collections on other Asian Americans.
The documents are organized by three general themes: migration, labor, and community. Migration is the process of people moving from place to place. Why people move away or are pushed out from where they lived, and why they are pulled to settle somewhere else, are the central questions behind migration. Once in the United States, Asian immigrants often migrated to and from places of work; others, after living abroad for a time, returned to their native lands. Asians, like all immigrants, were a people in motion. Labor refers to the act of working and the social associations that workers create through their shared experience. Most Asians came to Washington state to fill a need for workers in the rapidly developing Pacific Northwest. Limited by discrimination and economic factors, Asian immigrants often worked menial jobs in hazardous industries for little compensation. But work was also a source of group pride and political activism; labor was a catalyst for social and cultural change. Community stands for how Asians and Asian Americans struggled to define their social and cultural place in the larger American society. The creation of community is not a simple process, however. Generational tension, racism, and economic concerns all worked to pull Asian and Asian American communities apart. But these communities, like other immigrant groups in U.S. history, responded creatively to hardship. Applying for U.S. citizenship, opening businesses, running for political office or lobbying for social services are just some of the ways that Asians and Asian Americans worked to create dynamic communities in Washington state.
What follows is a brief overview, written to help teachers navigate through this material. Those interested in learning more should consult the bibliography for appropriate books and resources. A timeline of significant dates in Asian American history, with a focus on Washington state, also follows. Additional details for specific documents are provided in the concordance and index included here.
Migration is one theme that unites the histories of Asian American peoples in the Pacific Northwest. Like immigrants from Europe during the nineteenth century, Asians were part of a global stream of people flowing into the United States. While Asian immigration reached its high-water mark on the West Coast, it transformed America, adding diversity to an already multicultural society.
The Chinese were the first Asians to migrate in significant numbers to Washington state. In the mid-nineteenth century, China seemed on the verge of collapse. The Taiping Rebellion nearly tore Chinese society apart, British warships devastated China's major ports during the Opium War, and periodic flooding and famine wrecked the countryside. South China, primarily the area around Guangzhou (Canton), suffered the most; and it was from here that the vast majority of immigrants came. Initially drawn to work in California's gold fields or Hawai'i's sugar plantations, Chinese were also drawn to work in the Pacific Northwest. By the 1860s, news of a gold strike in eastern Washington brought Chinese immigrants here; by the 1870s, Chinese were recruited to work on railroad construction as well as in logging camps and salmon canneries. Immigration was illegal before the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, but labor contractors and immigrants conveniently ignored such restrictions.
Similar push and pull factors drew Japanese immigrants to Washington state. Following the forcible opening to Western trade in the 1850s, Japanese society underwent wrenching economic and cultural transformations. The Meiji government, bent on industrializing the country as quickly as possible, adopted policies that forced Japanese farmers off of their lands, forcing many to work as migrant laborers on Hawai'ian sugar plantations. By the mid-1880s, Hawai'i relied heavily on Japanese contract labor. After Hawai'i was annexed by the United States in 1898, and after the passage of the Organic Act in 1900 that created the Territory of Hawai'i, many Japanese living on the islands traveled to the mainland. Others, driven out by worsening economic and social conditions at home, attracted by high pay and a demand for labor in the Pacific Northwest, followed directly from Japan. Like the Chinese before them, Japanese migrants picked produce, cut and milled trees, built railroads and butchered fish.
Filipinos, who arrived in the third wave of Asian immigration to Washington, were a comparatively unique case. The Philippines were an American colony, acquired after the 1898 Spanish-American War, and remained under American jurisdiction until after World War II. Filipinos were recognized as U.S. nationals, a status just below full citizenship, and allowed to migrate anywhere within the states. As with the Chinese and Japanese, Filipino migrants were pushed out by economic hardship at home and pulled to migrate by economic opportunity abroad. Changing land tenure patterns following U.S. annexation limited prosperity in the Philippines, and labor remained in short supply in the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, Filipinos educated in American-run schools after the war considered themselves American and entitled to all the privileges that entailed. Filipino women married American soldiers and returned with their husbands to the United States; other Filipinos came for jobs in agriculture and the salmon fisheries. By the 1920s, Filipinos were a major segment of Washington's Asian American population.
For many Asian immigrants, working and living in Washington state was a temporary condition. The first wave of Chinese migrants, almost exclusively men, called themselves sojourners; they came to earn income, then return to China with their earnings. Early Japanese and Filipino migration followed a similar pattern. But economic hardship in the United States, together with restrictive labor contracts and new commitments in America, compelled many to stay. The pull of remaining in their new home often overwhelmed the tug of returning to their native country. And for nearly every immigrant who stayed, the opportunity to work in the United States was a major reason why they made their home here.
Labor is another theme that characterizes the Asian American experience in Washington state. Asian immigrants filled an important need in the resource rich but labor poor Pacific Northwest, providing the muscle that helped to develop the region. Indeed, without Asian labor this region would have remained isolated, undeveloped, and poor well into the twentieth century. Asian immigrants helped to create the transportation links, industries, and wealth that made the Pacific Northwest.
Mining was one of the first industries to employ the Chinese, who prospected for gold along the Columbia River in eastern Washington and hauled coal from pits in Black Diamond, Newcastle, and Renton in western Washington. Chinese laborers also built rail lines that connected the territory to eastern markets; indeed, the Chinese were instrumental in building almost every major rail connection in Washington before 1900. Likewise, Japanese migrants worked on the railroads, first in construction, later as porters and foremen.
Community is a broad theme that encompasses both the hostility Asians faced by white society as well as their ability to create new societies in the United States. It is the process by which Asians identified themselves as Americans. Ironically, this process begins with discrimination. Singled out by white Americans because of their putative "racial" characteristics, Asians relied on their own institutions and initiative to advance their interests. In resisting discrimination, Asians found opportunities to build community—and opportunities to claim America as theirs.
Asian immigrants faced discrimination almost upon arrival in the Pacific Northwest. In 1853, the newly created Washington territorial legislature barred Chinese from voting; later legislation enacted poll taxes and restrictions on testifying in court cases against whites. These laws were modeled on similar legislation in California (which remained the most popular destination for Chinese immigrants well into the late nineteenth century). As agitation against the Chinese escalated on the West Coast, national lawmakers began to take notice. Eventually, Congress, bowing to public pressure and prevailing racial stereotypes, acted to limit the immigration of Chinese labor.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 set the tone for later laws designed to exclude further Asian immigration. It also fundamentally altered the shape of Asian communities in the United States by banning women immigrants. By 1890, the ratio of men to women among Chinese Americans nationwide was approximately thirty to one; not until 1940 would the ratio drop to less than two to one. In Washington state, the Exclusion Act permanently stunted Chinese American communities, which were never able to rival similar groups in San Francisco or Vancouver, British Columbia. The Exclusion Act became an instrument of violence against Chinese. The anti-Chinese movement that swept across the American West was especially extreme in Washington. An economic depression in the mid-1880s, which left white workers competing for dwindling jobs, fueled animosity. In 1885, white Tacoma residents expelled 700 Chinese (some forcibly) from that city and torched Chinese residences and businesses; the next year, Seattle residents hauled their Chinese neighbors by wagon to waiting steamers. Elsewhere, whites attacked Chinese in Walla Walla and Pasco.
Japanese and Filipino immigrants became the next targets. Since 1789, nonwhites from overseas could not become citizens; the question now swung on who could immigrate to the U.S. The 1907-08 "Gentleman's Agreement" between Japan and the U.S. prohibited further male immigration but allowed in women, along with relatives and children of Japanese aliens living in the United States. The category "aliens ineligible to citizenship," dating from 1789, used race to restrict naturalization. The 1924 National Origins Act, which distinguished Asians from other immigrant groups, extended this logic and further restricted all Asian immigration. The 1924 law left the door open for Filipinos, however, who were U.S. nationals. But the new act severely limited Japanese and Chinese immigration for over four decades. Upheld by legal precedent, the 1924 act had local effects on Asians living in Washington. The 1889 state constitution, in Section 33 of Article II, already prohibited resident aliens from owning land. In 1921 and 1922, the rule was extended to leasing, renting, and sharecropping of land. The 1924 Act sanctioned further discrimination, especially against the growing Filipino population. Filipinos themselves were the object of racist fears over mixed marriages and dwindling jobs. In 1927, whites expelled Filipino farmers from Toppenish in the Yakima Valley. In 1933, white farmers and workers in Wapato demanded that area growers stop hiring Filipino workers.
Again, as with the Chinese and Japanese, federal action spurred greater discrimination in the states. Filipino immigration was virtually stopped in 1934 by the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which made the Philippines a commonwealth and promised full independence within a decade. Filipinos, now defined as resident aliens, were limited to a quota of fifty annually. But attacks and recrimination against Filipinos did not end there. Filipinos, who married white women in numbers larger than their Chinese and Japanese counterparts, aroused the ire of whites obsessed with racial purity. In 1937, the Washington Legislature tried to pass a law banning mixed race marriages. Filipinos were added as resident aliens under state law in 1938; and the anti-alien land laws directed against them and other Asian Americans were not repealed until 1966.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of racial fears against Asians was the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, bowing to public pressure on the West Coast, signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the removal of all persons of Japanese descent from coastal areas (except Hawai'i). Claiming military necessity, Japanese and Japanese Americans were forcibly expelled from their homes and businesses; no action of similar magnitude was taken against German Americans or Italian Americans. Most of those evacuated were American citizens, born in the United States and fully entitled to constitutional rights and privileges. Most Washington residents were relocated to Minidoka located near Hunt, Idaho; other West Coast Japanese went to inland concentration camps in California, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Arkansas. Japanese internment did not go unchallenged, however. Gordon Hirabayshi, a University of Washington student, was charged with resisting evacuation orders; his conviction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943. But despite the obvious injustice of internment, many American-born Japanese, known collectively as "Nisei," volunteered for combat duty in Europe. The all-Nisei 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were some of the most highly decorated units in American military history. Yet not until 1988 did the federal government apologize and remunerate internee survivors and their families.
Even under the harsh circumstances of concentration camps, Japanese Americans relied on community organization to endure. Interned Japanese formed consumer cooperatives, baseball teams, and literary societies. Such responses were rooted in long-standing experience with adversity. Prior to the war, Japanese in Washington came together through kenjinkai, social associations that drew members who came from the same village or county in Japan. Kenjinkai helped new immigrants find jobs, make business contacts, and practice speaking their native language. Local branches of the Japanese Association of North America ran Japanese language schools. Most of these organizations catered to the foreign-born generation, or Issei. American-born Japanese, or Nisei, established the Japanese American Citizens League to promote unity and lobby for civil rights. Sports, too, were another part of the Japanese community network, with baseball a widely popular pastime. Japanese communities throughout the Pacific Northwest fielded baseball teams and played against white competitors. Religion played a part, too, as Christian and Buddhist churches provided spiritual and social comfort.
The Chinese, though smaller in number, also relied on community organizations to strengthen ethnic ties in Washington. Family associations, district associations similar to the kenjinkai, and tongs (secretive fraternal orders that also served as trade guilds) formed the framework of the Chinese community. Concentrated primarily in Seattle, benevolent family associations like the Gee How Oak Tin offered business loans, language instruction, and social activities to eligible members. In 1910, Seattle Chinese chartered the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, a coalition of local groups and businesses, to administer Chinatown politics and support Chinese causes. Prominent businessmen like Chin Gee Hee and Ah King, both labor contractors, protected new immigrants while establishing important ties with white Seattle elites. And churches, notably the Chinese Baptist Church on Seattle's First Hill, also served to unite immigrants and older residents through ministry and community outreach.
Filipinos, largely comprised of bachelors, also found community through adversity. Large groups of single men created new "families" based on local affiliations from the Philippines. Often, Filipino women served as surrogate mothers, aunts, and sisters for men with no immediate family in the United States. Filipinos were also active in the labor movement, organizing unions to protect their interests. The harsh conditions of canning salmon inspired Filipino workers to form the Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union Local 18257 in Seattle in 1933. One of the most militant unions on the West Coast during the Depression, the CWFLU struggled to shield Alaskeros from exploitation. Unions and social clubs also fought against restrictive land and property laws. The Filipino Community of Yakima County, Inc., after protracted battles, eventually secured leasing rights on the Yakima Indian reservation, a privilege already granted to whites. In 1939, Pio DeCano, a recent immigrant, successfully fought the 1937 Washington state alien land law all the way to the state Supreme Court. Perhaps more than any other Asian immigrant group, Filipinos made their greatest gains through legal challenges and union organization. And as with other Asian communities, religion, notably the Roman Catholic Church, drew Filipinos together in a common faith.
The postwar period saw the beginnings of a newer sense of identity, however, one based on a hybrid sense of Asian and American heritage. In 1952, immigrants were allowed to become naturalized citizens but restrictions against Asian immigration remained. Reforms to immigration law, culminating in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, spurred a sharp increase in Asian immigration. Newer immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands added greater complexity to Washington's Asian community. New faces forced old residents to confront the issue of who passed as American -- and who passed as immigrant.
The civil rights movement, spearheaded by African Americans in the South, also affected ethnic politics in Washington state. In Seattle's Central District, where Asian Americans and African Americans had lived in close proximity for nearly six decades, community leaders crossed ethnic lines to fight together for public housing, tenant rights, election reform and employment opportunities. While ties between Seattle's Black and Asian communities frayed by the late 1960s, the city was unique on the West Coast for its multiethnic civil rights campaigns. Asian Americans, long stereotyped as passive laborers, also made political inroads of their own as well. They became an increasingly vocal constituency in Washington state politics. In 1963, Wing Luke became the first Chinese American elected to the Seattle City Council; Ruby Chow, the first Chinese American woman, was elected in 1973; and in 1996 Gary Locke, then King County Executive, was elected as the first Chinese American governor on the mainland United States. Such victories were made possible by political coalitions that united Asian Americans of all orientations. In political as well as cultural terms, Asians began referring to themselves as Asian Americans, or Asian/Pacific Americans, reflecting an identity that transcended previous ethnic bonds.
But the growing diversity of the Asian American community also threatened this communal harmony. Resettlement of Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, and Hmong refugees introduced new problems. In 1960, two-thirds of the state's Asian Americans were native born; by 1980, two-thirds were foreign born. Most of these refugees settled in areas with an established Asian presence, usually in Seattle, Tacoma, and the Yakima Valley. Fleeing war and extreme poverty, they faced the residue of anti-Asian feeling; moreover, they often faced resentment from those Asians already established in the United States.
Generational and class conflicts also divided and split communities. By the 1970s, Asian Americans nationwide were hailed as the "model minority" because of their academic achievement and gains in the workplace. But such gains often masked deep tensions between young Asian Americans, who seemed to assimilate fully into traditionally white institutions, and older Asian Americans, who worried about the survival of old ways and customs. The relative achievement of some also masked the difficulties facing newer arrivals from Southeast Asia, Korea, China and the Pacific Islands.
Despite such tensions, however, Asian American communities are indisputably central to Washington's social and cultural fabric. Discrimination continues but its effects are blunted by the prominence of Asian Americans in business, politics, the arts and education. Compared to the blatant racism of a century earlier, Asian Americans have achieved remarkable gains. Still, the dynamics of community building continue. As before, the forces that rip communities apart also are the source for their renewal. Seen one way, divisions within the Asian American community over language instruction, immigration policy, and social welfare are tears in the social fabric. Seen from another angle, they are the seams that bind communities together.
Today, Asian/Pacific Islander immigrants and Asian Americans in Washington are citizens not sojourners. They have been and will remain an integral part of the state's diverse history. Migration brought Asians to the Pacific Northwest, labor defined their social status while providing opportunities for advancement, and communities emerged out of struggles to preserve old customs in new places. While Asians faced persistent, often brutal, discrimination they were not merely victims. Instead, they made their own history and influenced the history of others. As scholar Ronald Takaki says, their "history bursts with telling." These documents are only fragments of their stories.