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  • Ashley Chen

Yellow Peril in Seattle - 1886

Updated: May 14, 2021

The first time I heard “Chinese” mentioned in a class was probably in second or third grade. For some reason, our class was talking about the California Gold Rush, and the first people who discovered the gold were Chinese. Paired with this lesson is the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some Chinese people were able to mine gold and earn instant riches, but fearing the Chinese people overtaking their status, white people kicked them out.


The second time I heard “Chinese” mentioned was when we started talking about railroad expansion. Chinese people, working for low wages and in poor conditions, were pivotal to the success of the railroad. Both of these times, I felt a sense of pride and connection. Even though I live in a very different time, these were the first Asian Americans.


There is not really a third time Asian Americans pop up in US history textbooks. It resurfaces as Chinese Exclusion Act and railroads. Textbook authors would argue that there aren’t other instances where Chinese people were part of an important shift in American history. They’re not wrong, but it has incited me to do some research about Asian American history. I have found myself drawn to do research about Chinese history, both in America and in China, to understand what it’s like to be Chinese American.


During the late 1800’s, Chinese people had increasingly become unwelcome in America. In Washington, riots against the Chinese took place. First was the Squak Valley Massacre. Next was the Tacoma Riot of 1885. Last was the Seattle Riot. The Seattle Riot of 1886 was an anti-Chinese riot that sought to expel the Chinese out of Seattle. Many Chinese people emigrated from California to seek more job opportunities. They were welcomed as extra sets of hands and friendly work companions. However, an economic recession hit. Jobs became scarce. White workers claimed that Chinese people were stealing their jobs and sought every method to banish them.


Though the Chinese people were welcomed into Washington’s economic sphere, they were not accepted socially. Westerners made it impossible for Chinese people to assimilate. The Chinese were set apart by their skin color, dress, culture, and language. They represented a primitive culture that would infect the US. During this time, newspapers started reporting anti-Chinese propaganda. One of the most famous lines to promote the Seattle Riot was in the Seattle Daily Call. “The Chinese must go” became the rally cry for the anti-Chinese groups. Since the Chinese seemingly came from “a primitive culture,” the media depicted them as animals, such as a picture published of a club chasing a pig-tailed Chinese. Constant media depictions of Chinese people as barbarians instilled the idea in the public that they actually were inhuman. Even if some people were not affected by the effects of economic recession, they were revolted by the Chinese presence that they supported exclusion.


Intense labor competition contributed to the most animosity between the two groups. Because of Chinese presence in Seattle, a couple anti-Chinese coalitions were formed to fight against them. The most well-known group was the Knights of Labor. It was a group formed in California that promoted its ideas in Washington. Its argument was that the Chinese people were to blame for job shortages, wage cuts, and unemployment. It called for the deprioritization of Chinese people because they were immigrants, the foreigners that were draining US wealth. The second coalition was the anti-Chinese congress. This coalition was formed by Seattle’s political leaders. It gathered anti-Chinese sympathizers to communicate their sentiments and rally them to strike against the Chinese. Unlike the Knights of Labor, its main purpose was not to return jobs to whites, but to garner political support. Washington was still a territory. Political leaders wanted stability in Washington as well as praise for dealing with a Chinese problem to grant Washington Territory statehood.


Under the pretense of law and order, anti-Chinese coalitions passed the Seattle Cubic Air Ordinance. Knowing that the Chinese lived in tenements, small houses where smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague were rampant, they passed a law that required Chinese people to have at least eight square-feet of sleeping space, which few had. This legislation provided a convenient excuse to push the Chinese out because they were breaking laws.


On February 7th 1886, rioters marched into Chinatown, forcing Chinese residents out of their homes and onto a ship bound for China. The Chinese population in Washington dwindled. They were not able to return both because of Chinese Exclusion and fear another riot would break out. There is not much about what happened next.



Works Cited:

Chew, Ron. Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1994.

Chin, Doug. “Seattle’s Anti-Chinese Race Riot—February 7, 1886: The Day Seattle Imploded.” International Examiner, 7 Feb. 2016, iexaminer.org/seattles-anti-chinese-race-riot-february-7-1886-the-day-seattle-imploded.

Chin, Doug and Art Chin. Up hill; the settlement and diffusion of the Chinese in Seattle, Washington. Shorey Book Store, 1973.

Karlin, Jules Alexander. “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Seattle, 1885-1886.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1948, pp. 103–130. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20698169.

Kinnear, George. “Anti-Chinese Riots At Seattle, Wn., February 8th, 1886.” HathiTrust, 30 Nov. 2017, hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000012032723.

Laurie, Clayton D. “‘The Chinese Must Go’: The United States Army and the Anti-Chinese Riots in Washington Territory, 1885-1886.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 81, no. 1, 1990, pp. 22–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40491092.

Schwantes, Carlos A. “From Anti-Chinese Agitation to Reform Politics: The Legacy of the Knights of Labor in Washington and the Pacific Northwest.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 4, 1997, pp. 174–184. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40492332.


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