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The United States has always had a complicated relationship with China. Since its earliest years, our nation has relied on China as an increasingly crucial trading partner, first doing business as early as 1789 when American ginseng was traded for Chinese tea. In the 19th century, the intercontinental railroad system was forged in order to make our country a thoroughfare of trade between the East and West, with many Chinese workers doing the heavy lifting in the railroad’s very construction. Even in the middle decades of the 20th century, when relations between the two powerful nations were at their most fraught, the U.S. and China have relied on each other for commerce.
Despite how interwoven the economies of our two powerful countries have become over the past two centuries, America has a sordid history in its treatment of immigrating Chinese laborers. This is especially true of the West Coast, where enclaves of Chinese workers — facing heated discrimination and longing for a sense of familiarity — formed the first Chinatowns. While San Francisco served as the hub for Chinese immigration sparked by the 1849 Gold Rush, Oregon saw its Chinese population spike throughout the following decades.
As a result, Portland once boasted the largest Chinatown between San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Nowadays, our Chinatown (positioned on a site of what was once Japantown prior to World War II) may more often be mentioned in relation to the controversial relocation plans for the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp that has flanked its towering gate. Yet, this historic district still serves as a tangible link to the past and to a vibrant people who carved out a way of life in a hostile region.
Oregon’s Chinese Immigrants
Not long after gold was struck at Sutter’s Mill, prospectors began to move around, searching for the next big strike. Chinese miners branched out from San Francisco, with some making their way into Oregon. In the early 1850s, Chinese settlements were established in southwestern Oregon, primarily in Jackson and Josephine counties. The population ebbed and flowed with the mining industry. As the lucrativeness of mining for gold and other precious metals began to dwindle, Chinese immigrants (mostly young men) took up other work in the region, including agriculture and service jobs such as laundry and kitchen duties at lumber camps and, of course, manual labor jobs with railroad construction beginning in 1865.
As Oregon grew, so did the Chinese immigrant population; the urbanization of Portland proved to be an appealing draw. Over the two decades between 1860 and 1880, the Rose City’s Chinese population rose from a mere 22 to almost 2,500. Chinese workers not only took on the grueling duties of mining and railroad work in the region, they also helped build the seawall in downtown Portland. They worked on construction of the original sewer system and the task of clearing fir tree stumps out of roadways. Chinatown grew, with those Chinese who were not employed as heavy laborers working as launderers, tailors, artisans, gardeners, wood cutters and farmers.
In 1882, San Francisco founded the original Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), ) called the Chinese Six Companies since it was comprised of representatives of the six major districts the immigrants came from in China, with its mission now described as “assist[ing] Chinese individuals in their struggle with discrimination in employment, business and citizenship.” The Oregon chapter of the CCBA opened its doors in the late 19th century. Day-to-day life was difficult for Chinese immigrants, especially outside of Portland’s Chinatown. Starting families was a challenge, as discriminatory laws stripped white women of their American citizenship if they married Chinese. According to current CCBA board member Marcus Lee, most Chinese were not allowed to own property and a Chinese person could not give evidence against a white person in a court of law. Discrimination was very “in your face then,” compared to what Lee experienced in 1970 when his grandmother passed away and a Chinese inscription was initially forbidden on her tombstone. In fact, one of the most overt forms of discrimination of the period was even written into the Code of Laws of the United States.
Chinese Exclusion Act
The contributions of Chinese workers to American society are manifold. The backbone of 19th century commerce was fortified by Chinese immigrants. As president of Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford told Congress as much when he stated that “Without [Chinese workers] it would impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise.” But years later his attitude would be emblematic of our nation’s conflicted approach to Chinese laborers. Having been elected California’s governor, Stanford advanced the racist rhetoric of “yellow peril,” in which many working-class Americans began to fear the very presence of Asian workers as a threat to their own livelihoods and culture.
Compassion for Chinese immigrants — who were seeking the same kind of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as any other group people who were pouring into America’s great melting pot — was not unheard of as America licked its Civil War wounds. In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty was an important step in protecting Chinese immigrants’ rights, even if its provisions were short-lived. Less than 15 years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 singled out this specific group of people and refused them access to the American Dream.
The Chinese Exclusion Act specifically prohibited any Chinese laborers from entering the country, allowing entry only to select groups such as Chinese businessmen or diplomats. This was the first time the United States had restricted immigration based on race or ethnicity. Even those select groups of Chinese who were permitted entry often had difficulty proving that they were not laborers. The law also affected the Chinese immigrants who had already settled in America, who often ran into problems when attempting to re-enter the country or when they hoped to have their wives and families come join them.
As racist as the Exclusion Act was, it wasn’t the worst of the indignities and outright criminal acts that Chinese immigrants faced in those years. In 1887, five years after the exclusion laws were enacted, a group of horse thieves murdered 34 Chinese gold miners at Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon side of Snake River. The crime was not discovered until the bodies of the victims, which showed signs of torture, washed up in Idaho. All the assailants were never brought to justice, despite a confession from one of them. Those who didn’t flee were found not guilty of the crime by an all-white jury. The site is now formally recognized as Chinese Massacre Cove and bears a memorial to the victims written in three languages, but this incident was a bloody tip to the massive iceberg of racism faced by Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was only meant to last 10 years, but it was made into a permanent law in 1902. As America waged war with Japan in World War II, China became an important ally, which led to the exclusion law’s repeal in 1943. Excluding a race of people also didn’t bode well for America’s image when it was fighting the ethnicity-obsessed Nazis. Even when the exclusion act was rolled back, only the ridiculously small number of 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter America each year. It took until 1965 for wholesale Chinese immigration to be reinstated. To this day, there is still a chapter of the United States Code that bears the title “Exclusion of the Chinese.” In 2012, Congress passed a resolution expressing formal regret for the exclusion act.
Portland’s Chinatown may not be as bustling as it once was, and it’s not the same kind of tourist draw as the Chinatowns in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Our Old Town district is largely populated by social services organizations, making it one of the areas in the city where Portland’s homelessness problem has become the most visible. However, this district still holds a wealth of history, a bevy of resources, some delicious food and at least one urban oasis. Opened in 2000, the Lan Su Chinese Garden is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon while taking in meditative architecture, a reflecting pool, a tea house and an atmosphere of tradition and grace — all nestled within a single city block.
The Oregon chapter of the CCBA can be found at 315 N.W. Davis in Chinatown. This historic building was modernized through a renovation in 1981 and its Great Meeting Hall hosts the CCBA board meetings as well as Tai Chi and martial arts classes. The second and third floors were once primarily dedicated to classrooms for the Chinese Learning School, where “students of all ages and cultures convene[d] weekly to learn the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects.” However, that service is now being housed in a leased space at Portland Community College, on 82nd Avenue. . The CCBA’s 4th floor is dedicated to the CCBA museum, curated by Marcus Lee. Primarily open through appointment only, the museum displays “historic artifacts depicting the Chinese people’s contribution to the development of the Pacific Northwest.”
Perhaps one of the more visible aspects of Chinese culture that has become a vibrant part of the Portland experience is the dragon boat racing that takes place on the Willamette River. For more than 26 years, Portland has celebrated a 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition by hosting this team paddling watersport as part of its Rose Festival activities. For those who can’t get enough of the dragon boats, the 2016 Portland Dragon Boat Festival will also take place on September 10 and 11.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Chinese immigration both in Portland and in the entire United States, the Oregon Historical Society is currently hosting two exhibits that speak to the challenges faced. Running until June 1st, an exhibit entitled “The Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” is on loan from the New York Historical Society. It features an interactive look into what it meant to be a Chinese person hoping to realize the American Dream throughout our nation’s history. Meanwhile, “Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns” offers a look into the local aspects of Chinese-American history. You have until June 21 to catch this local exhibit.
It’s comforting to think that many of the past wrongs have been righted, yet it’s important to learn from history in order to be vigilant of the indignities that persist. As Lee describes it, “Discrimination is now more insidious; it’s under the surface and takes other forms that are not as obvious.” With influential people in America currently calling for the exclusion of specific ethnic groups, one need look no further than America’s historical treatment of Chinese immigrants to see evidence of the injustices wrought when society’s ills are pinned onto one specific group of people and fear wins the day.