Immigration policy in the United States (U.S.), has been very dynamic throughout the course of history and impacted the Chinese. During the 1800’s Chinese came to America to seek job opportunities (“Chinese Immigration”). After an influx of Chinese immigrants, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 which marked the first government act passed that would prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to America. Finally, in 1943 the exclusion acts were repealed and in 1965, the Immigration Act was passed allowing a max of ten thousand people to immigrate to the U.S. from a given country. The conditions for this act were that the immigrants had to be skilled or granted political asylum (“Chinese Exclusion Act”).
In accord with the changing immigration policies, came the development of Chinatowns in D.C. The first arrival of Chinese immigrants into D.C. took place in 1851. Three decades after this first arrival came the development of Chinatown located on the southside of Pennsylvania Avenue. But, with the development of the Federal Triangle and other government buildings, in the 1930’s, the Chinese were forced to move their Chinatown to another part of DC, specifically between 5th and 7th street NW (Zheng).
Following World War II, there was an influx of Chinese immigrants into the District of Columbia (D.C.). Meta Yee, a woman whose home used to be in Chinatown, explains that those immigrating were desperate to come to the U.S. because they were wanting to escape the communism, oppression, and the attacks by the Japanese (Gong).
Out of the 778,000 residents living in DC; 62 percent were African American; 26 percent were caucasian; and two percent were Latino, Asian, or another racial group (Gong). The small percentage that were Chinese, came together forming their own subgroup within society. Yee further describes that the community created by them became one “separated from the rest of D.C.,” where most of them didn’t know how to speak english (Gong).
Being Chinese and living in D.C. during the time of racial tensions impacted the Chinese living in America as well. Harry Chow, a man living in the D.C. area said that his parent’s friends used to call him a chinese word that meant “empty bamboo” meaning that he had no culture or wasn’t chinese because he could hardly speak chinese (Gong). With racial tension between blacks and whites around them, they were kind of thrown in the middle of it all not knowing where exactly their identity lied. Ton Chin, an Asian American in the DC area, went on to say the he felt like he was in the middle of both sides and was even accepted by both sides (Gong).
In 1968, when the riots broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination many of them witnessed looting, tear gas, and riots. Albert Der recounted that during the riots, his family’s store was protected. He explained that in the neighborhood, most of the clients to his family’s business were black and his parents were close to the neighbors. In fact, during that time he states that his family had great business; his dad even had to go to the suburbs to bring back bread. Der believes this is because his family had became a part of the neighborhood (Gong). Further, Chow shared a story from this riot saying that a lady came into his families laundry mat yelling “I’m going to burn you down.” A friend in the neighborhood told his family to write “Soul Brother” on the building to prevent the rioters from burning them down. Fortunately, this worked and his family’s laundry mat business was saved (Gong). I believe the contrast between these two accounts really shows the seemingly rejected and accepted position the Chinese were put in.
The memories of these Chinese Americans, in Chinatown, during the riots of 1968 embody a unique perspective of the memory of the 1968 riots. What is normally remembered of the riots is the racial tension that existed between blacks and whites, leaving out the memory of the Chinese Americans. The stories of these Chinese American’s have been glanced over revealing the partiality of the mainstream memory that exists when thinking about the 1968 riots. This partial memory has caused many to forget the struggles that they faced such as seemingly being accepted and rejected by both blacks and whites.
Further, learning about the riots happening in Chinatown, made me wonder what it meant that the the riots took place in Chinatown if the Chinese were seemingly not really a major component of the increased racial discrimination towards African Americans. How did this fact make the Chinese American’s feel? Did they feel betrayed by both groups during that time? These questions that came to my mind are one’s in which I believe would broaden our memories of this site and lend to a fuller historical account of what occurred.
These memories regarding the outlook of Chinese Americans during the time when racial tension was high were made possible because of Ted Gong, the director of the 1882 Foundation. Ted Gong states that throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the Asian Americans had their own history going on. Thanks to this foundation and other movements like Georgetown’s University’s Political Awareness Committee (PAC) of the Asian American Student Association (AASA) the memories of the riots in DC, occuring during 1968, have been able to be expanded upon to broaden our memory (Alismith). In addition, the 1182 Foundation is continuing the series, Through Chinatown’s Eyes, and is inviting people to donate to them in hopes of making more episodes. I believe that this foundation captures the meaning of memory as processual because of the fact that they are adding new information and changing the way many see Chinatown and the 1968 D.C. riots. By adding new historical accounts to this site, the voices of many who had not been heard are brought to light. This ultimately allows many to gain new knowledge and a new perspective of this site.