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Remembering A Shameful Past: 135 Years Ago, Congress Passed The Chinese Exclusion Act

Wing Luke Museum collection
Harper's Weekly, February 18, 1871.

On May 6, 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The 1882 law barred all skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the country.

The law followed years of anti-Chinese activity in the U.S., with newspapers and magazines routinely depicting the Chinese as a "yellow peril" threatening to take over the country.

The Chinese had initially been welcomed in the U.S. to help build the railroads and do other hard labor. On the eve of the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 88.5's Paula Wissel sat down for an interview with Cassie Chinn, deputy executive director of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle.

Chinn says while the reasons for the 1882 law were sparked in part by an economic downturn, there were  racist overtones.  She says the newspapers of the day depicted the Chinese as "less than human immigrants raping our women and overtaking our nation." And, she says, that fueled passage of the law.

"The act opened the door for more anti-Chinese acts and hate crimes," Chinn said. 

In Tacoma in 1885, a group of civic leaders rounded up all of the Chinese living in the city and forced them onto trains. Chinn says it became known nationally as "the Tacoma method" of removing an entire community.

There were also anti-Chinese riots in Seattle in 1886.

Chinn says all of this was possible because of the tenor of the times. It wasn't just a fringe or extreme group that was promoting anti-Chinese acts, it was a part of mainstream culture.

"It's hopefully shocking to us now, but then it was part of the everyday, from political cartoons to Halloween costumes," she said.

She does see parallels to today. Take the talk of a Muslim ban, for example. In both cases, Chinn says, you have stereotyping and fear and there's the grouping of an entire group together and treating them the same because of either their religious background or ethnic background.

"As we think about history, have to make those connections," she said.

Chinn says there are lessons that can be learned from looking at a dark chapter in our history. She points out that choices were made to enact the Chinese Exclusion Act and choices were made again when it was repealed.

"I hope that we can learn from the past in deciding what type of nation we want to be," Chinn said.

On Saturday, the Wing Luke Museumwill conduct tours of the old Immigration and Naturalization building in Seattle's International District. The building was originally constructed to house Chinese immigrants being detained.

In Tacoma, which opened the Chinese Reconciliation Park in 2010, the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation is holding its annual fundraiser on Saturday.

Last year, KBTC Public Television in Tacoma produced a documentary that chronicles the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the West, and has a section on the Tacoma expulsion of its Chinese residents, called “Of Race and Reconciliation.” 

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.