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Author Recalls Chinese American History in 'Driven Out'


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we're going to learn about how African-Americans were driven out of an Arkansas town and how some residents are now trying to make amends.

But first, as Congress has wrestled with the immigration bill this year, it stirred up a recurring debate about just who we want to come to America. For Chinese-Americans, the debate may have hit especially close to home. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law to bar immigrants based on race. But passage of that law was, in some ways, just a punctuation mark to a campaign of ethnic cleansing waged against the Chinese in the mid-19th century. It's a history that's all but forgotten.

Our guest, Jean Pfaelzer, uncovers this history in a new book called "Driven Out." Jean, thanks for being here.

Professor JEAN PFAELZER (Author, "Driven Out"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Jean, I have to tell you, this book is chilling. I mean, you write about dozens, possibly hundreds of towns and cities, mostly but not all in the West, where Chinese people were massacred. I used the term ethnic cleansing, and I want to ask you first if you think that's an accurate term.

Prof. PFAELZER: I do think it's an accurate term. I tussled a lot with what was the right term for this, pogrom, ethnic cleansing. And clearly the intention, everything from local codes to lynchings to vigilantes, was to purge the Pacific Northwest of Chinese-Americans, the first Chinese Americans. So I do believe the term ethnic cleansing is appropriate.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this story?

Prof. PFAELZER: In the '70s, when I was finishing graduate school, I took a job at Humboldt State University in the north-most corner of California and there are six tribes that send their students, their kids to Humboldt State.

And it was a very active time. People were getting together; it was the last year of the Vietnam War. And in all of these events and in my classroom there were no Asian kids. And when I started asking where are the Asian students, some people hadn't noticed and one local poet said Chinese-Americans won't send their kids here, a hundred years ago, they were driven out. And I felt like I needed to tell the story of that one town, only to find out that this was a massive repression of vigilante action.

MARTIN: You dug up a lot of first-person accounts, court records, diaries and so forth. It is extremely detailed. But it leads me to wonder, why have we heard so little of this until now?

Prof. PFAELZER: I think that the history of Asian Americans is marginalized in this country. There is a myth of Asian Americans like there is a myth of Jews, that they have money, that they're the model migrant, that they're always successful, that history didn't come down on them. And I think that this is a story that, in fact, was not hard to find.

What was really troubling to me was how easy it was to find. It's all over the place. It's in court records. It's in newspapers. The first afternoon I was looking for the story I thought it only happened in one town, and by the end of the first afternoon I knew it had happened in 40 towns. I'm sitting at a microfilm reader going - there goes Petaluma, there goes Sacramento, there goes San Jose. And within a year, I knew it was 250 roundups.

MARTIN: And they - this is particularly important because the Chinese were not the only immigrants here. They were not - there were Europeans, there were former enslaved African-Americans who moved to some of these areas to work in the gold rush. Why were the Chinese singled out among all the immigrants who came here?

Prof. PFAELZER: What they did to the Chinese was actually copied from laws and codes and vigilante actions that had been initially designed for Mexicans, Chilenos, Argentinians, Peruvians, who beat the Chinese to the gold fields. I think there's several explanations, but the most common explanation is job competition.

But the first time these Americans were not taking jobs from other immigrants. Another explanation has to do with physical difference. The Chinese looked different. They were smaller. Chinese men wore their hair in a long queue down their back. And I think built into that with a lot of homophobia, that they were living in all-male bachelor communities and were seen as very threatening in that way.

MARTIN: But part of the reason they were living in an all-male communities is that before the China Exclusion Act, the law had kept out most Chinese women.

Prof. PFAELZER: Exactly. In 1875, the Page Act was passed, which bans Chinese women from entering the country. And that makes this ethnic cleansing, too. If you ban women, you ban children, heritage, lineage, future generations.

MARTIN: So how would these purges work? What would happen?

Prof. PFAELZER: In many towns, a day was picked. In Tacoma, Washington, one morning in February 1886, nine o'clock in the morning, all of the whistles at the foundries and factories go off right at the same time and, four hours later, the Chinese are gone. The vigilantes had been notified that it is now okay to rout Chinatown.

And they come into Chinatown, they raid the stores, they pull the material, the food, the rice, the furniture, the china that was so highly valued at the time, pulled into the streets; load the Chinese up. The women who have bound feet are thrown into carts because they can't walk. And they send them on a forced nine-mile march up to a railroad crossing they had actually built. And there, they wait for a train because to take them…

MARTIN: And where were they supposed to go?

Prof. PFAELZER: You know, they were supposed to leave. Where they went was often up to them. From a north coast town called Eureka, California, they were put on steamships down to San Francisco. From Tacoma, Washington, most of them marched the 140 miles following the railroad tracks down to Portland, Oregon, from a little down called Crescent City. As each lumber ship came week by week by week, they were rounded up and loaded on to, as many as could, onto lumber ships.

And when there were only seven or eight left, then they were loaded into a cart and taken up to the redwoods and dumped out.

MARTIN: And what happened to them?

Prof. PFAELZER: We don't know what happened to the people from Crescent City. What we do now is that the people from Eureka, purged from Eureka in a horrible 24-hours, sent on steam ships, arrived quickly in San Francisco. The customhouse was closed for the weekend. They escape off the ship, flee into San Francisco's Chinatown. And that afternoon, after this horrific weekend, they call a meeting, invite the white press, invite the Chinese (unintelligible) companies and announced that they're going to sue Eureka. And that becomes the first lawsuit for reparations in the United States.

MARTIN: That actually leads to my next question, which is, did any of the Chinese fight back?

Prof. PFAELZER: The Chinese always fought back.

MARTIN: You mean legally or physically…

Prof. PFAELZER: Legally…

MARTIN: …through force of arms.

Prof. PFAELZER: Legally, physically. They bought arms from China. They filed the first lawsuits for police harassment in San Jose.

MARTIN: Did these purges occur under cover of law? Was this legal to do or was this all vigilantism?

Prof. PFAELZER: I believe it occurred not only under cover of law but led by many elected town leaders. The mayor of Tacoma, Washington, is the leader of the purge there. In Eureka, it's timber barons who are funding the purge and endorsing the purge.

What happens is that people cross their class interests, which would be to have cheap Chinese labor, in order to stitch together a community of whiteness, a rural town where people felt isolated, marginalized. I think that many people looked at the life of Chinese-Americans and saw their own busted dreams, and projected a lot of their own loneliness, crummy food, isolation, dirt, bachelor communities and tagged that onto the first Chinese-Americans. And that runs across classes.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Jean Pfaelzer, the author of "Driven Out," a work that documents the purging of Chinese-Americans from communities in the West in the mid-19th century. Why did the purges stop? And what lesson do you draw from all this?

Prof. PFAELZER: I think the purges stopped for two reasons. The counties and towns that meant to do it had done it by the turn of the century. And the counties that refused to do it accepted the refugees and went on.

Also, by 1902, the United States passes its last exclusion law, and then they enter - because the United States is at war with Japan, China's at war with Japan, this is a sop to China. So the story comes to an end for those two reasons.

The lessons we draw for today is that ethnic cleansing is still going on in this country in towns like Hazelton, Pennsylvania; Riverside, New Jersey; Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. They're doing the same thing like the Jim Crow laws or the laws against the Chinese-Americans of taking a code. In this case, it's a code that says a landlord can't rent to an undocumented worker. And, of course, there's no way landlords can verify immigration records. And they're using these codes to purge thousands and thousands of people from over 82 towns in the United States.

MARTIN: Wait a minute, though. I'm not sure that I'd buy that attacking people, destroying their property is the same thing. So, I guess, I'd wonder why you believe that overcrowding codes and things of that sort have to be observed is the same as ethnic cleansing.

Prof. PFAELZER: I think the effect is the same that Hazleton, Pennsylvania has well as a-third of its population of its - in this case, Latino population - by being driven out of town by a code so that the town will return to the all-white status it had about 10 years ago.

So the surface appearance isn't just violent, but the impact is - we know the vigilante actions and the militia and the Minutemen along the border are as violent as the 19th century vigilantes driving out and rounding up Chinese people. So I see the possibility for violence against immigrants - very similar to what happened in the 19th century.

MARTIN: Jean Pfaelzer is the author of "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese-Americans." And she's a professor at the University of Delaware. She joined us in our studio in Washington. Jean Pfaelzer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. PFAELZER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.