Lew-Williams Looks Back at 19th Century Anti-Chinese Violence

Beth Lew-Williams, an associate professor of history at Princeton University, said anti-Chinese violence in the 19th century took shape explicitly.

“It was not seen as something that needed to be hidden,” she said.

Lew-Williams delivered a virtual lecture, “The Chinese Must Go: A History of Anti-Asian Violence,” on Sept. 28 as part of the Lowell Humanities Series. Throughout the lecture, she analyzed anti-Chinese violence and expulsions in the U.S. West in the late 19th century.

Lew-Williams documented more than 100 attempts of anti-Chinese expulsion within a frame of 14 months between 1885 and 1886. During the time, vigilantes targeted Chinese people regardless of their age and gender, she said.

In one of those targeted events, the Rock Springs Massacre, 28 Chinese miners died and 15 others were wounded in an act of motivated racial violence, Lew-Williams said.

“At times, this form of violence is racial violence in what I think of as its most brazen and basic form,” Lew-Williams said. “And by that, I mean physical force motivated by racial prejudice, and intended to cause bodily harm.”

Lew-Williams said Chinese immigrants in the U.S. West faced widespread expulsion. Officials like the mayor and sheriff of Tacoma, Wash., played a major role in the city’s expulsion, she said.

“They believed that they had the support of the community, that they were not doing anything criminal or immoral,” Lew-Williams said. “They believed, in fact, that they were exerting the will of the people and they were a hand of justice, although not one that was legally recognized.”

Many events of expulsion that Lew-Williams studied, she said, did not result in casualties, but others were lethal.

Lew-Williams showed the audience an image of Hong Di, a 17-year-old Chinese man hanged by lynch mobs in 1887. According to Lew-Williams, the photograph later circulated on poster cards.

“It can, again, give us a sense of the way that the public saw anti-Chinese violence at the time,” Lew-Williams said. 

Lew-Williams said that historians frequently left anti-Chinese elements out of narratives of racism in the United States. According to her, smaller Chinese populations and smaller death tolls compared to other races could have played a role in this. 

Also, Lew-Williams said, expulsions erased memories of Chinese immigrants from the narratives.

“This violence is one of the reasons that the Chinese were pushed out … of the national memory,” Lew-Williams said. “In Tacoma, there were no Chinese after 1885, and thanks to arsonists, there were not even any physical remnants of what [communities] once had been.”

Lew-Williams said Americans perceived Chinese people as heathens, inferior, and unwilling to assimilate, which triggered the violence. Also, anti-Chinese laborers perceived their Chinese colleagues as cheap, servile, and harmful to the economy, she said.

“This highlights the ways in which they were [perceived as] a threat to white labor, but also a threat to American consumption,” Lew-Williams said. “They’re not buying any American products and not investing in the American economy.”

Anti-Chinese violence redrew racial boundaries and color lines between communities in the U.S. West, according to Lew-Williams. The expulsions frequently resulted in the removal of Chinese communities from downtown areas.

Anti-Chinese rhetoric also had effects at the federal level, Lew-Williams said.

“Because in response to Chinese migration, the laws and the violence and Supreme Court rulings set out a series of legal disadvantages that still plague non-citizens to this day,” Lew-Williams said.  

Featured Image by Gavin Zhang / For the Heights

October 6, 2021