The Chinese Must Go

The Chinese Gardens, an experimental documentary, will draw connections between past and present race relations in this country. At a time when the scapegoating of immigrants in this country is in full effect, it’s important to recall that the racist rhetoric currently employed against Latino immigrants in Arizona and Texas eerily echoes the vitriol used against the Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1877 Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party famously stated, “The Chinese laborer is a curse to our land, is degrading to our morals, is a menace to our lives, and should be restricted and forever abolished, and the Chinese must go.” Although Chinese Americans are often cast as the so-called model minority, in fact the history of Chinese in the U.S. is fraught with discrimination, racial violence, and oppression. The Chinese Gardens will document some of this historical discrimination when the Chinese were brutally repressed and driven out.

Recently I spent a month in Port Townsend, Washington, searching for traces of its Chinatown. Though Port Townsend once had a significant Chinese population, it had virtually disappeared by the time of my visit. Port Townsend is located at the extreme northeastern end of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Nicknamed “The City Of Dreams,” in the 1870s & 80s it was projected to be the hub of the Northern Pacific Railroad. However, the railroad bypassed the town in favor of Seattle and Tacoma and thereafter its population and economic growth declined. Now Port Townsend is a town of about 8,000 people whose main industry is a paper mill. It has recently become a popular haven for retirees and artists who have transformed the town, with its many intact Victorian buildings, charming commercial district and gently sloping hills, into a popular tourist destination.

Chinese massacre, Rock Springs, 1886

Port Townsend’s first Chinese immigrant arrived in 1870 and by 1889 its Chinatown spanned two blocks of downtown. At the Chinese Gardens just outside of town, many of these immigrants made a living raising vegetables to sell to Port Townsend’s residents. The Chinese Gardens, however, also had another, more covert significance to the Chinese populace. Discriminatory immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had forced many Chinese to adopt inventive schemes in order to enter the U.S. The Chinese Gardens were Washington State’s main portal for Chinese clandestinely entering the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through a subrosa identity-swapping strategy, many Chinese immigrants were able to pass through Port Townsend on their way to other destinations on the West Coast. Apparently, although a large number of different Chinese immigrants briefly passed through Port Townsend, the total number of Chinese at any one time working at the Chinese Gardens remained constant. The most recent immigrants simply replaced those who had arrived and moved on before them, taking their names and relying on the failure of the white populace of Port Townsend to be able to differentiate between the various Chinese. Here the old adage that “all Orientals look alike” was creatively utilized to the advantage of the Chinese. Thus the Chinese Gardens became an early site of resistance for the Chinese to fight back against restrictive and discriminatory immigration laws.

Anti-Chinese riot, 1886, Seattle, WA,

In the 1880s, the Pacific Northwest suffered a spate of anti-Chinese violence, with more than one hundred Chinese killed and thousands forced to flee. In September 1885, the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming left 28 Chinese killed and 15 wounded in the Chinese-dominated railroad work camp. Three Chinese men were killed and two wounded when a camp in Issaquah, Washington was attacked. In November 1885, white residents of Tacoma organized to drive the local Chinese community from the area. In Seattle in February 1886, 350 Chinese were forced out of their homes and shipped to San Francisco. In Eastern Washington, 31 Chinese miners were executed in 1887. That same year, Tacoma expelled the remainder of its Chinese population, numbering nearly 3,000 residents.

Port Townsend’s Chinese population, which reached its peak in 1890 with 453 people, was spared these extremes of violence but within fifty years of their first arrival, most of the Chinese had gone. A fire in 1900 swept through downtown and firemen only saved white establishments, leaving Chinatown to burn. After the fisheries closed in 1915, the rest of the Chinese departed. The 1970 census showed two Chinese residents. As of the 2000 census Port Townsend population of 8,334 is now 1.27% Asian, or about 105 people.

Anti-Chinese riot, 1880, Denver, CO

This experimental documentary will use observations from my visit to Port Townsend as the basis for my investigation of the fate of the Chinese there. It will include images of the remains of the Chinese Gardens and Chinatown. It will also include interviews with the few Chinese Americans currently residing in Port Townsend.

Through found footage, text, interviews, and voiceover it will recount the history of Port Townsend’s Chinese and will illustrate the virulent anti-Chinese violence in the Pacific Northwest. The project will resurrect an aspect of U.S. history that has been lost, outlining the discrimination the Chinese faced and the lengths they went to in order to overcome it. Though the Chinese are well-established in the U.S., their disappearance from places like Port Townsend suggests that not all of their struggles to settle here have succeeded and not all of their undertakings have flourished.

Though generously described as a meadow in Port Townsend’s tourist literature, the Chinese Gardens are now mostly a brown patch of marshy weeds. I’d like to explore the metaphorical significance of that image, as a symbol of the decline of the once-vigorous Chinese community in Port Townsend.

The Heathen Chinee

My primary audience has been the Asian American community in the United States, as my work deals directly with issues relevant to Asians living in the U.S., such as identity formation, representation, and culture. However, The Chinese Gardens also has the potential to reach a wide, diverse audience as it addresses topics of historical and cultural significance in the United States and brings to light a story that may be unfamiliar to many people. In this way the project will help to increase the visibility and representation of the Chinese American community, which has historically been underserved in mainstream media.