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San Jose, California, apologizes for mistreatment of Chinese immigrants

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco  | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-09-30 11:19

A volunteer speaks through a loudspeaker to invite homeless people to take a bath on a bus equipped with showers during a mass vaccination program for people living on the streets, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continues, in San Jose, Costa Rica July 17, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

San Jose, California, the 10th largest city in the US, formally apologized Wednesday to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for the racial discrimination and injustices the early immigrants suffered more than 100 years ago.

The Silicon Valley city on Tuesday unanimously approved the resolution of apology for the role the city played in "systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination".

Chinese community members and elected officials of Chinese descent celebrated the resolution at a ceremony on Wednesday at the site in downtown San Jose, where the city's largest Chinatown once existed before it was destroyed in an 1887 arson attack.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo read the resolution at the ceremony, which he said was the first time that he had ever read a council resolution with a public audience because,  "in this case, the medium is the message" and "the facts contained within it are part of this important apology".

"This is not merely a reckoning of things passed, but a change in our orientation to each other and as a community in the years to come," he said.

Between 1849 and 1853, some 24,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in California, and by 1870 there were an estimated 63,000 Chinese in the US. 

The first Chinatown in San Jose was established in 1866 by the burgeoning Chinese community in the city. Over the next 65 years, San Jose would be home to a total of five Chinatowns, according to the resolution.

The early Chinese immigrants were met with virulent racism, xenophobia and the violence of anti-Chinese forces from early on and were regularly denied equal protection before the law.

The most well-known of Chinatowns the second Market Street Chinatown, was burned to the ground by arsonists in 1887 after the City Council unanimously declared the site a public nuisance and ordered it removed to make way for the construction of the new City Hall. 

Connie Young Yu, a historian and author of Chinatown, San Jose, USA, said her grandfather was a teenage refugee from the 1887 fire. Her father was born in the last existing Chinatown built in San Jose.

"There were more than a dozen grocery stores, a fish market, three restaurants, merchandising stores, shops with gambling rooms, shops making clothes and shoes, and a large theater where operas were performed by traveling troops," she told the gathering of the second Market Street Chinatown. "It was a vibrant bustling place, coming from a village in southern China to San Jose's biggest Chinatown," she said.

The burning of this Chinatown led to the destruction of homes and businesses and the displacement of 1,400 members of San Jose's Chinese community, according to the resolution.

"The story of Chinese immigrants, and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them in the 19th and early 20th century should not be purged from or minimized in the telling of San Jose's history," reads the resolution. The "legacy of discrimination against early Chinese immigrants as part of our collective consciousness" also helps to contribute to the current surge and the anti-Asian hate, it says.

"An apology for grievous injustices cannot erase the past, but admission of the historic wrongdoings committed can aid us in solving the critical problems of racial discrimination facing America today," the resolution continues.

San Jose, with a population over 1 million, is the first major city in the country to formally apologize to the Chinese community for its mistreatment of early Chinese immigrants.

In May, Antioch, California, officially apologized to early Chinese immigrants for treating them unjustly more than 100 years ago.

Antioch used to be a "sundown town" for Chinese immigrants, who built tunnels to get home from work because they were banned from walking the streets after sundown. Remnants of the tunnels still can be seen downtown.

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