Land of despair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

In the jaunty old logging port of Eureka on the scenic Redwood Coast of northern California, the residents have tastefully restored the historic town centre. Saloons, upmarket restaurants, used bookshops and welcoming coffee outlets dot the town of 27,000, the hub of Humboldt County. In the centre of the blocks of Victorian architecture is the stately Clarke Historical Museum, a gracious, high-ceilinged building filled with native American basketware, colonial furniture, stuffed birds and early paintings by settlers.

There's a solitary 1870s photograph of a Cantonese settler, and no mention of the mass expulsion of all 300 Chinese settlers from Eureka in February 1885, nor of the torching of the block of squalid brothels, laundries and opium dens known as Chinatown.

It wasn't until the 1960s that Chinese began to seep back into Eureka. Today, US census figures show there are a mere 61 Chinese in the community. Chinese parents are still reluctant to send children to Humboldt University.

The 1885 event was no isolated act of racial hatred. In an angry half-century that ran into the 20th century, Chinese were hounded out of hundreds of gold diggings, lumber towns, fishing ports and railway camps. Most of the incidents were violent. Some bore the trappings of law enforcement, some were carried out by masked killers, others were staged under the baleful eye of supposedly respectable townsfolk. Nobody will ever know the final death toll.

It is a story widely known in a hazy way, which has never before been put graphically together. But a full account has now been presented in a powerful academic and historical work. Published two months ago, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer, makes grim but compelling reading.

My interest in the pogroms was sparked by a paragraph in a guide to Northern California that noted, almost casually, the torching of 'Chinatown City' in the town of Mount Shasta in 1886. 'It was a common story back in those days,' Chinese friends in San Francisco told me. 'But people don't speak about it.'

Arson and gang attacks on Chinese settlements throughout the state were common. California was in ferment, recently seized by the expansive US, half-governed by frontiersmen and merchants on the make, its fast-growing number of inhabitants swollen by hopeful gold diggers, loggers and fishermen.

It was a period of unrestrained racial hatred. Native Americans were mercilessly enslaved or exterminated, Chilean gold prospectors were forced out at gunpoint and the Chinese were marched out of many towns and told not to return on pain of death.

The violence was not confined to California. There was a fearsome massacre of gold prospectors in a ravine in Oregon, lynchings in Wyoming, and in Washington state Chinese were force-marched out of Tacoma and Seattle.

The incident that started this sorry chapter in US history came when nuggets of pure gold were found in February 1848 in a sawmill in the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Within weeks, this news electrified young men in the British port of Hong Kong, seized seven years earlier, and in the China coast treaty ports.

Shipping companies put up posters in Guangdong villages proclaiming the vast and easy opportunities for those who hunted gold in Kam Shan (Gold Mountain) as California was known. Young men made the Pacific crossing in their thousands.

As early as 1849, writes Professor Pfaelzer, the cry 'California for Americans' boomed over the gold diggers' settlements that dotted the icy rivers and streams flowing down from the northern mountains.

That year came an ominous warning of what the future held for the Chinese who had flocked to Gold Mountain: a mob of white miners in Mariposa County declared that 'any Chinaman who mines for gold must leave on 24 hours notice otherwise the miners will inflict such punishment as they deem proper'.

The battle cry of 'California for Americans' really meant California for working whites. The flood of migrants from the Irish potato famine and political upheavals in the Germanic lands of central Europe saw tens of thousands of hungry white workers arriving at San Francisco and other ports.

They instantly assumed all the rights of white Americans, and often just as swiftly learned to hate Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks, Chileans and Chinese.

Then there were money issues. The newly arrived Americans from eastern states and 'Americanised' Europeans were mostly unskilled labourers. They competed directly with the Chinese not only in digging for gold but also for jobs in lumber mills, farming, running laundries and building railways.

It was in the gold diggings of the Sierras that the first clashes began a disturbing trend. By the chill winter of 1858, it had become a race war.

Some Chinese obstinately defied all threats to leave the northern diggings. Along the Trinity River, 200 whites armed with rifles and carrying ropes rode into Chinese camps and ordered the Chinese at gunpoint to leave for good.

The wave of ethnic expulsions continued, with the feeble forces of law and order mostly standing idly by or getting actively involved. Many newspapers in the rough camps and rising cities such as San Jose and Los Angeles enthusiastically backed the expulsions.

One proud exception, Sheriff Clay Stockton of Shasta City, enforced the law when the Shasta Miners' Committee sent 200 armed men to break up a Chinese camp and captured 75 Chinese. The captives saw their tents, sluices, mining equipment and personal belongings looted and destroyed. Then they were forced at gunpoint to parade through the town while jeering mobs pelted them with stones. The sheriff confronted the mob, freed the Chinese and arrested 15 vigilantes.

Yet they were soon set free, and he could not stop the ethnic cleansing. Without help from the state authorities the local lawman was helpless. Of 3,000 Chinese gold diggers in 1853, there were just 100 left by the end of the decade.

Chinese were murdered with impunity. In 1853 in Nevada County, a miner called Hall tried to rob a Chinese miner and then shot dead a friend who ran to help. He was sentenced to hang. The punishment was cancelled.

The chief justice of California, a 29-year-old named Hugh Murray, ruled that Asiatics had long ago migrated to America, where they had become Indians. This meant that Native Americans were Chinese and vice versa, and left Chinese unable to testify in court against whites.

In Los Angeles in 1871 there was a gunfight between the heads of two rival Chinese gangs. It led to rumours of a Chinese uprising. The chief of police deputised white men and ordered them to shoot any Chinese who tried to leave their homes.

The mob ran wild, torching houses, looting hidden gold and murdering men, women and children. One man was seized and hanged by the neck from a Protestant church. Soon, the bodies of 16 others, one of them a woman, were dangling from buildings around Chinatown. At least two more corpses lay in the street.

Some of the mob cut ponytails from the bodies for souvenirs, and bodies and buildings were systematically looted. Eight men were convicted after the slaughter. But three weeks later, they were released.

As the persecution continued, decade after decade, an even bloodier campaign was conducted against Native Americans. Some said they should be shipped to an island in the South Pacific. The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin argued that it was a choice between deportation and extermination. The Chico Courant newspaper proclaimed: 'It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them.'

The purpose was to steal their tribal lands. Organised labour played a prominent role in the war against the Chinese. Societies such as the Order of Caucasians began an intimidating propaganda campaign against companies and individuals who employed Chinese in logging, fishing, railway construction or other trades. Their line was that the jobs should be reserved for whites.

The purges, murders and burnings reached fever pitch in 1886. In the gold and lumber town of Yreka, Chinatown was set ablaze. Five children died. The surviving Chinese were clubbed and beaten until they worked pumps to stop the fires spreading to nearby white-owned businesses.

Even in San Francisco, with its sizeable Chinese population, white workers' groups staged riots. Chinese children were refused admission to schools. And in response to threats, big companies sacked their Chinese workers.

The bloodshed and brutality went on until 1906, when 23 Chinese were shipped out from Eureka. And the country's Exclusion Act continued to prevent Chinese from entering the US. It lasted until 1943, when a new law - passed in the middle of the second world war, when America and China were allies, allowed Chinese once more to legally enter the country. The quota was for 105 Chinese a year.