Book Excerpt
Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans
by Jean Pfaelzer

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An excerpt from Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer, published 2007 by Random House.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2007 Jean Pfaelzer




The Chinese Called it Pai Hua, or The Driven Out

At nine o'clock on the morning of November 3, 1885, steam whistles blew at the foundries and mills across Tacoma, to announce the start of the purge of all the Chinese people from the town. Saloons closed and police stood by as five hundred men, brandishing clubs and pistols, went from house to house in the downtown Chinese quarter and through the Chinese tenements along the city's wharf. Sensing the storm ahead, earlier in the week, about five hundred Chinese people had fled from Tacoma. Now the rest were given four hours to be ready to leave. They desperately stuffed years of life into sacks, shawls, and baskets hung from shoulder poles -- bedding, clothing, pots, some food. At midday, the mob began to drag Chinese laborers from their homes, pillage their laundries, and throw their furniture into the streets. Chinese merchants pleaded with the mayor and the sheriff for an extra twenty-four hours to pack up their shops.

Early on that cold Tuesday afternoon, armed vigilantes corralled two hundred Chinese men and women at the docks. The governor of the Washington Territory, Watson C. Squire, ignored telegrams from Chinese across the Pacific Northwest urging him to intervene. The mayor and the sheriff hid out at city hall as the mob marched the Chinese through heavy rain to a muddy railroad crossing nine miles from town. The merchants' wives, unable to walk on their tiny bound feet, were tossed into wagons.

Lake View Junction was a stop on the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had been built by Chinese laborers. A few of the evicted Chinese found damp shelter in abandoned storage sheds, in stables, or inside the small station house. Most huddled outside. During the cold and rainy night, two or three trains stopped at the station. People with cash paid six dollars to board the overnight train to Portland, Oregon. Others crammed onto a passing freight train. The rest began the hundred-mile trek south to the Chinatown in Portland, where they hoped to find sanctuary in a community that had just refused the town's orders to leave. For days they were seen following the tracks south. Others fled the country for Canada.

Two days later, Tacoma's Chinatown was destroyed by fire.

Lum May

Territory of Washington County of King June 3, 1886

Lum May being duly sworn on his oath said:

I was born in Canton, China, and am a subject of the Chinese Empire. I am aged about 51 years. Have been in America about eleven years and have been doing business in Tacoma for ten years. My business there was that of keeping dry goods, provisions, medicines and general merchandize store.

On the third day of November I resided with my family in Tacoma on the corner of Railroad Street some little distance from Chinatown. At that time I would say there were eight hundred or nine hundred Chinese persons in and about Tacoma who . . . were forcibly expelled by the white people of Tacoma. Twenty days previously to the 3rd of November, a committee of white persons waited upon the Chinese at their residences and ordered them to leave the city before the 3rd of November. I do not know the names of [the] white persons but would recognize their faces. The Committee consisted of 15 or 20 persons . . . who notified the Chinese to leave.

I asked General Sprague and other citizens for protection for myself and the Chinese people. The General said he would see and do what he could. All the Chinese after receiving notice to leave were frightened lest their houses should be blown up and destroyed. A rumour to that effect was in circulation. Many of them shut up their houses and tried to keep on the look out.

About half past 9 o'clock in the morning of November 3, 1885, a large crowd of citizens of Tacoma marched down to Chinatown and told all the Chinese that the whole Chinese population of Tacoma must leave town by half past one o'clock in the afternoon of that day. There must have been in the neighborhood of 1000 people in the crowd of white people though I cannot tell how many. They went to all the Chinese houses and establishments and notified the Chinese to leave. Where the doors were locked they broke forcibly into the houses smashing in doors and breaking in windows. Some of the crowd was armed with pistols, some with clubs. They acted in a rude boisterous and threatening manner, dragging and kicking the Chinese out of their houses.

My wife refused to go and some of the white persons dragged her out of the house. From the excitement, the fright and the losses we sustained through the riot she lost her reason, and has ever since been hopelessly insane. She threatens to kill people with a hatchet or any other weapon she can get hold of. The outrages I and my family suffered at the hands of the mob has utterly ruined me. I make no claim, however, for my wife's insanity or the anguish I have suffered. My wife was perfectly sane before the riot.

I saw my countrymen marched out of Tacoma on November 3rd. They presented a sad spectacle. Some had lost their trunks, some their blankets, some were crying for their things.

Armed white men were behind the Chinese, on horseback sternly urging them on. It was raining and blowing hard. On the 5th of November all the Chinese houses situated on the wharf were burnt down by incendiaries.

I sustained the following losses through the riot, to wit: 2 pieces silk crape trowsers female, 2 pieces black silk, 6 silk handkerchiefs, 2 crape jackets, 10 blue cotton shirts, 8 pieces black cotton trowsers, 12 Pairs Chinese Cotton Stockings, 2 Leather trunks (Chinese), wool great dress female, 4 flannel jackets, 3 pairs embroidered shoes, 1 dressing case, 6 white cotton shirts, 1 carpet bag, 2 white woolen blankets, 2 red woolen bed covers, 1 feather mattress, 1 spring bed, 2 tables, 6 chairs, 2 stoves, 4 pictures and frames, 1 large mirror, 2 woolen trowsers (male) and solvent debtors (Chinaman), 1 business and good will, loss of perishable goods, total $45,532.

A few of the Chinese merchants I among them were suffered to remain in Tacoma for two days in order to pack up our goods or what was left of them. On the 5th of November, after the burning of the Chinese houses on the wharf I left Tacoma for Victoria where I have since resided . . . No Chinaman has been allowed to reside in Tacoma since November 3rd.

Mayor Weisbach appeared to be one of the leaders of the mob on the 3rd of November. I spoke to him and told him that Mr. Sprague had said the Chinese had a right to stay and would be protected. He answered me: "General Sprague has nothing to say. If he says anything we will hang him or kick him. You get out of here." I cried. He said I was a baby because I cried over the loss of my property. He said, "I told you before you must go, and I mean my word shall be kept good."

I desire to add to this that . . . it is ten years since we began business there.

Lum May

Tacoma's Chinese residents did not go quietly. On November 5, 1885, aided by China's consul in San Francisco, they compelled the U.S. attorney to arrest the mayor of Tacoma, the chief of police, two councilmen, a probate court judge, and the president of the YMCA. Then they filed seventeen civil claims against the U.S. government, for a total of $103,365.

The Tacoma roundup was one of a hundred Chinese pogroms that raged across the Pacific Northwest in the late nineteenth century. In the winter of 1885-86, the raids and arson in Chinatowns reached Portland, and the Chinese refugees from Tacoma fled again -- some to San Francisco, some back to rural hamlets in the Washington Territory closer to their old homes, some to the East Coast, and some to work on plantations in the South.

Word of the raids resounded in newspapers, in state capitals, in the boardrooms of railroad companies and lumber mills, in Congress, and across the Pacific Ocean. Defying protests from both Republicans and Democrats, President Grover Cleveland decided to accede to the refugees' demands for reparation, with the hope that this might cause China to revive trade talks with the United States. China's population of four hundred million people, he believed, could purchase America out of its deep economic depression, and China's government might open trade routes for a nation come lately to foreign expansion.

Congress was ambivalent. It understood that whichever party controlled California would likely control the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the next presidency. The firestorm of roundups in California was compelling evidence of the sentiments in the golden state.

The violent raids were bannered in the press -- in the local Tacoma Register and the Eureka Times-Telephone, and nationwide in The New York Times and Harpers Weekly. Most Americans knew of the Chinese purges in California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Nevada, and Colorado. But before Congress complied with Cleveland's request, it wanted to know the economic value of a Chinese life.

In 1886, at the order of Congress, Governor Watson Squire desperately sought to track down the two hundred Chinese men and women who had been driven out of Tacoma so that they could bear witness to the public violence done against them in his name. Ultimately, he could locate only a few. Most were unable or unwilling to be found.

Lum May had fled to Victoria, Canada. He and his wife had legally entered the United States in 1874, before the Page Act of 1875 banned the entry of almost all Chinese women and before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 -- the first immigration law to exclude people based on their race -- banned the thousands of immigrants who crisscrossed the Pacific each year from reentering the United States.

Governor Squire found Lum May, but as a subject of the Chinese Empire, he was barred from testifying in a U.S. court. Through his written affidavit, Lum's is one of the Chinese voices that speaks across the silent years since being Driven Out.

Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer,


The brutal and systematic "ethnic cleansing" of Chinese Americans in California and the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century is a shocking -- and virtually unexplored -- chapter of American history. Driven Out unearths this forgotten episode in our nation's past. Drawing on years of groundbreaking research, Jean Pfaelzer reveals how, beginning in 1849, lawless citizens and duplicitous politicians purged dozens of communities of thousands of Chinese residents -- and how the victims bravely fought back.

In town after town, as races and classes were pitted against one another in the raw and anarchic West, Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and field-workers, prostitutes and merchants' wives, were gathered up at gunpoint and marched out of their homes, sometimes thrown into railroad cars along the very tracks they had built.

Here, in vivid detail, are unforgettable incidents such as the torching of the Chinatown in Antioch, California, after Chinese prostitutes were accused of giving seven white boys syphilis, and a series of lynchings in Los Angeles bizarrely provoked by a Chinese wedding. From the port of Seattle to the mining towns in California's Siskiyou Mountains to "Nigger Alley" in Los Angeles, the first Chinese Americans were hanged, purged, and banished. Chinatowns across the West were burned to the ground.

But the Chinese fought back: They filed the first lawsuits for reparations in the United States, sued for the restoration of their property, prosecuted white vigilantes, demanded the right to own land, and, years before Brown v. Board of Education, won access to public education for their children. In order to starve out towns that tried to expel them, Chinese Americans organized strikes and refused to sell vegetables. They ordered arms from China and, with Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers, defended themselves. In 1893, more than 100,000 Chinese Americans refused the government's order to wear photo identity cards to prove their legal status -- the largest mass civil disobedience in United States history to that point.

Driven Out features riveting characters, both heroic and villainous, white and Asian. Charles McGlashan, a newspaper editor, spearheaded a shift in the tactics of persecution, from brutality to legal boycotts of the Chinese, in order to mount a run for governor of California. Fred Bee, a creator of the Pony Express, became the Chinese consul and one of the few attorneys willing to defend the Chinese. Lum May, a dry goods store owner, saw his wife dragged from their home and driven insane. President Grover Cleveland, hoping that China's 400,000 subjects would buy the United States out of its economic crisis, persuaded China to abandon America's Chinese in return for a trade treaty. Quen Hing Tong, a merchant, sought an injunction against the city of San Jose in an important precursor to today's suits against racial profiling and police brutality.

In Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer tells the unknown story of immigrants who, under assault, stood up for their own civil rights and the civil rights of others. This is an account of racial pogroms, purges, roundups, and brutal terror, but also a record of valiant resistance and community. This deeply resonant and eye-opening work documents a significant and disturbing episode in American history. It is a story that defines us as a nation and marks our history and humanity.

Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer,


Jean Pfaelzer is professor of English, East Asian studies, and American studies at the University of Delaware. The author of four other books and numerous articles on nineteenth-century history, culture, women's literature, feminist theory, and cultural theory, she has served as the executive director of the National Labor Law Center, been appointed to the D.C. Commission for Women, and worked for a member of Congress on immigration, labor, and women's issues. A longtime Californian, she now lives near Washington, D.C.

Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer,


"Jean Pfaelzer has pulled back the veil on one of the most horrendous, frightening, violent, and little-known moments in American history. This is the most comprehensive history of this period I have ever read, and Pfaelzer has written it with sensitivity and a keen eye for the horrifying, heartbreaking, and often uplifting and triumphant details. Driven Out couldn't be more timely or important."

-- Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

"Thanks to this gripping narrative, Chinese immigrants to the Far West -- so long overlooked -- now stand front and center in the saga of the struggle for civil rights in these United States."

-- Kevin Starr, author of California: A History

"A meticulously researched and very readable recounting of America's systematic effort, from the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth, to purge all Chinese immigrants. The methodical and ruthless nature of this ethnic cleansing was matched only by the resistance from the Chinese -- sometimes with guns, knives, and fists, and sometimes with savvy recourse to government representatives as well as petitions, public confrontations, and lawsuits. This is a valuable addition to our understanding of the making of modern America."

-- Franklin Odo, director, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, and author of The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience

Driven Out : The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer,

We have reviewed this book.
Link to our book review.