Tacoma and the Chinese Expulsion

Before we moved to Tacoma, I was unaware of one of the shameful periods in the city’s history. I was also unaware of the efforts that have been and are being made to repair some of the damage. This is the story of the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation.

In 1849, Chinese workers began to emigrate to the United States, lured by tales of “Gum San,” the Land of the Golden Mountains. They came seeking a better life for themselves and their families in China. They soon discovered that Gum San was not all they had been told. Oppressive taxes and restrictive legislation were enacted against them by white miners and other workers who feared a tide of foreign labor that would deprive white Californians of their livelihoods.

Additionally, during the early 1860s, ten thousand Chinese laborers were imported to California to complete work on the Central Pacific Railroad. After the completion of the project in 1869, many of the Chinese were without work and had to look farther afield for jobs. 

In 1870, two thousand Chinese were hired to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad line from Kalama to Tacoma. Many Chinese came north, and both legislative and popular persecution followed them. Work that had been available for the Chinese began to dwindle as projects reached completion and the national economy went into a slump in 1873. 

Tacoma residents were beginning to feel the economic pinch, and they looked for something or someone to blame. What better scapegoat than the Chinese: they wore odd clothes, ate different food, and, since they could “live on practically nothing,” sent most of their earnings home to China. 

Several local citizens who knew of California’s efforts to send away the Chinese met with the mayor of Tacoma and members of the school board, the legal profession, the local press, and other influential people. Together, they generated their plan for ridding Tacoma of its Chinese population: not a massacre but an expulsion. This, they concluded, would assure plenty of jobs available for the locals who were without work in a sour economy. Mass meetings were held for public debate on the subject. The rhetoric was passionately in favor of expulsion. 

Final plans were made on the night of November 2, 1885. 

On November 3, at 9:30 a.m., the whistles blew at the Foundry and other mills in the area. Several hundred workers assembled and began their methodical march through Tacoma’s streets where the Chinese had businesses – wash-houses, chop-houses, shops, and residences. On to Chinatown and the waterfront they marched. At each place where Chinese were, the crowd stopped, hammered on the door, and told them to assemble at 7th and Pacific Avenue by early afternoon, for they were to leave Tacoma that day.

About 200 Chinese – young, old, men, and women – were gathered and began the forced trek to Lake View, a suburban railway station just beyond the city limit south of Tacoma. The wind was bitter and the rain driving as the Chinese were marched through the mud.The station at Lake View had only a shed for protection.  After seeing the distress of the Chinese some local people brought food and hot water for tea. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed. 

When the 3 a.m. passenger train came through, some Chinese bought tickets and headed for Portland, Oregon. Later, when the morning freight train came, the engineer said, “Put ‘em aboard. I’ll take ‘em to Portland!” For several days, forlorn Chinese stragglers could be seen walking the tracks southward. 

There were no Chinese in Tacoma until the 1920s, for they were discouraged for decades from coming to town, and Tacomans actively campaigned not to allow Chinese to locate here. Today there is a waterfront Chinese-garden park that in design, signage, and location recalls the event and provides a significant space for both reflection and recreation. Small recompense for all the hardship inflicted on the Chinese.

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