This past January, I completed my senior honors thesis, “Chinatown Boy: The Life History of Prof. Tunney Lee Through Three Lenses.” At nearly 110 pages, my thesis told the story of Lee, an 87-year-old professor emeritus at MIT and the former head of this school’s Urban Studies Department.
For a year I interviewed Lee for about 40 hours to talk about his and his family’s history in America. These interviews dramatically changed the way I see the world and our country: past, present and future.
While our interviews followed Lee’s prolific career, most of the writing had little to do with his professional accomplishments. Instead, my thesis compares Lee’s experiences with the life of his great-grandfather, Lee Yue, the first person in his family lineage to move from China to the United States.
Hired to help construct the Western Pacific Railroad, Lee Yue entered the United States in 1881, just a year before the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. While he had no way of knowing, Lee Yue would be one of thousands of Chinese who were subject to one of the most horrific waves of racial violence and ethnic cleansing in our nation’s history during the Era of Chinese Exclusion.
When the Chinese first started to arrive en masse in California during the mid-19th century, they were not seen as a threat. In fact, the increasingly powerful industrial class saw the Chinese as a godsend, a seemingly boundless source of cheap and efficient labor to drive American economic growth.
Arriving first to mine gold during the California Gold Rush, Chinese migrant workers soon became the main source of labor for American railroad construction. Many laborers gradually began to transition into California’s burgeoning industrial and agricultural sectors.
Then came the Panic of 1873, the start of what is now known as the “Long Depression.” This panic triggered a chain of bank closures and the collapse of businesses nationwide, with drastic consequences for national employment.
Arriving on the first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869, thousands of white laborers flooded the West Coast in search of jobs, which became increasingly hard to find.
These men began to see the Chinese, many of whom were quickly becoming established out West, as a threat to their livelihood. A wave of xenophobic populism, urged on by an Irish immigrant named “Denis Kearney,” denounced the Chinese as the source of the ills that plagued the “white workingman.” Moreover, they argued the Chinese were a not just a menace to the working class’ employment prospects but, even more, represented an existential threat to American civilization itself.
Throughout the Depression, periodic mob violence plagued the Chinese community living in the Western U.S. In one particularly gruesome episode, a mob lynched 20 Chinese men in LA’s Chinatown and terrorized many more.
Compelled to act, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next 60 years, with the exception of exempt classes such as government officials and merchants, Chinese were now categorically denied legal access into the United States.
Things were about to get even worse. Anti-Chinese organizations sprouted up in settlements throughout the West Coast. Far from being relegated to the extremist margins, these organizations gained mainstream support and were frequently led by community leaders and local government officials.
Such was the case with the mob that rounded up Lee Yue, Lee’s great-grandfather and the rest of the Chinese community in Tacoma, Washington.
Following months of threats, the city’s mayor led a mob in the middle of the night to the local Chinatown. They rounded up every Chinese person, looted their houses and forced them out of town to walk dozens of miles in the driving rain. Two died of pneumonia.
Soon after, the mob burned the entire Chinatown to the ground. This event was one of over a hundred anti-Chinese actions in the West Coast during this time, a stark period of American ethnic cleansing.
Which brings us to the present. As a historian, I believe it is important to know the blemishes on our nation’s history, so that we can avoid repeating them. These past events are not as divorced from the present as we would like to tell ourselves.
When I hear slurs and words like “illegals” used to wound, I think of the dehumanizing rhetoric directed at the Chinese to justify their exclusion.
When Lee showed me hundred-year-old images of Chinese children who were held for months for lengthy interrogation, I thought about the children who are kept in cages at our borders today.
When I discovered that the mayor of Tacoma led a mob to drive Lee Yue and hundreds of other Chinese out of town, I couldn’t help but think about how our governor boasted in a campaign ad that he has “got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”
Reasonable people can disagree about a nation’s role in deciding citizenship and legal immigration or what a nation like America’s obligation is to hundreds of millions of people around the world who want to move here.
What we cannot tolerate, however, is rhetoric that dehumanizes people. Our history shows us that violent words can quickly turn into violent actions. If we want to avoid repeating the past, we must reject any modern sentiment that reflects history’s darkest times.
Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.