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Author recounts Chinese expulsions

By Hillary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

It's not a pretty book for light, summer reading.

A Los Angeles native who now teaches English and Asian studies at the University of Delaware, Jean Pfaelzer decided to write it after she started teaching at Humboldt State University in the 1970s and noticed a lack of Asian students. Chinese American families, she learned, refused to send their children to the school because of the county's past.

"This very troubling story behind a wonderful, beautiful place," Pfaelzer said of Northcoast history.

She began reading old newspaper accounts. Eureka's tale, she found, repeated itself in cities and towns along the West Coast from Seattle to Crescent City to San Diego and east into Wyoming, Nevada and Idaho.

"I realized I was sitting on a story of ethnic cleansing in the U.S.," Pfaelzer said. "It was systematic. It was deliberate. It was all over the place."

Pfaelzer wound up with "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans." She read from the new book Friday night and spoke with more than 40 people who attended the event at Northtown Books in Arcata.

"I kept assuming someone else would do the story," Pfaelzer said. "I doubted my skill, right and ability to tell the story."

The book chronicles brutal forced expulsions and racist acts in various western communities, as respected community leaders drafted zoning and employment laws to ban Chinese residents. Labor organizers sought to protect mining and other jobs for white settlers. City mayors, county supervisors, a high school principal and newspaper editor led anti-Chinese movements. White residents rounded up Chinese families at gunpoint and loaded them onto ships in winter. Town residents looted or auctioned off the goods that Chinese people left behind after forced evacuations.

Besides oral and written accounts, the book includes a map marking more than 200 roundups of Chinese people in California. A timeline details the purges. Copies of old posters and propaganda feature racist cartoons. Notices for town meetings call for ideas on crafting legal methods to evict Chinese people, while ads boast of Chinese free towns. The federal Exclusion Act of 1882 would ban Chinese immigrants from the U.S. until it was repealed in 1943.

"It was a story that had to be told," Pfaelzer said.

Chinese fought back

Pfaelzer also found resilience among the Chinese settlers and she documented the ways that they fought back.

"Every single episode was met with resistence," she said.

After being forced from their Eureka homes, Chinese people filed the first lawsuit in America for reparations. They organized a militia in Amador and a vegetable strike in Truckee in response to evacuation attempts. Chinese workers on the railroad line won the right to keep their own cooks who boiled water for tea and saved their health as diseases spread among whites.

In an 1885 roundup in Tacoma, Wash., town leaders forced Chinese residents onto a train to Portland. Those who couldn't pay hiked the 140 miles. Upon arriving, the Chinese sued Tacoma's government leaders.

Eureka's roundup in 1885 followed the death of a city councilman, caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out in Chinatown. A local crowd wanted to kill all of the city's Chinese residents and burn down Chinatown. Leaders settled on immediately driving them out by loading them onto boats for San Francisco.

When they arrived, the Chinese sued Eureka for racism.

"It is an instance of formidable resistence," Pfaelzer said of the action that also sought damages for their lost wages, fishing vessels, crops and horses. "They sue for being the objects of mob violence, the intangible hatred that has come down on them and forced them out of Eureka."

Learn from the past

Pfaelzer wants the issue and her book to focus more attention on current immigration problems.

She pointed to communities in the U.S. that have forced out Latino residents, through rental laws and other means. She also noted the recent raids on immigrants in the Eureka area.

"It is happening again," Pfaelzer said.

She compared rules that called on the Chinese to carry photo IDs to possible future requirements for U.S. citizens to carry passports. Chinese residents at the time refused.

"I hope that we have the courage to do this, too," Pfaelzer said.

She also wants to see more open and public tellings of the Northcoast's painful past. In Tacoma, construction just started on the Tacoma Chinese Garden, a memorial park that will mark that city's expulsion.

"Many communities are just now beginning to deal with what happened to the first Chinese Americans," Pfaelzer said.

Reach Hilary Corrigan at

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