California – A (Pseudo)-Revamped Menu

The ancestors of those involved with the effort to recall current California Governor Gavin Newsom have experience telling people to “go back to China.” (Photo from the Los Angeles Times.

I do pay attention my former state of residence more in passing these days, but I can attest to the political wackiness that often accompanies California politics. The mechanics that recalled Governor Gray Davis and brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the head role in state government in 2003 are plainly in motion with a similar effort to recall Gavin Newsom in 2021.

The perception to many people nowadays is that California is “Woke” Central and always has been that way, at least in recent memory. The reality is a lot more complex – despite the reputation, the state has seen successful passage of such things as Proposition 187 (which barred almost all state services for non-citizens/legal permanent residents in the state) and Propositions 8 & 22 (which defined marriage as between one man and one woman.)

In reality, this is in line with what California and all of the West Coast states have historically done in the past in regards to treatment of POC and other minority groups. As a matter of fact, the Constitution of the State of Oregon had specific anti-African-American language written into it, which was not fully repealed until 1926.

One section of the Oregon State Constitution prohibiting any “free negro or mulatto” from moving to the state

As the state’s recent reputation went toward the more “woke”, the state’s more racist elements simply went more under wraps – I personally knew they were there, but you hardly ever saw signs of them. But as ongoing demonstrations by White supremacy groups like the Proud Boys in Southern California have proven, the past few years of the Trump presidency have seen those forces emboldened.

The COVID pandemic has in many ways awakened the Asian-American populace of this country. Growing up, I heard about and bought into the whole “model minority” label without fully understanding how insidious it actually was. One, it was an acknowledgment that Asian-Americans were acceptably quiet when it came to protesting society’s wrongs and wrongs against Asian immigrants, with rare exception.

Moreover, it was meant as a denigration of other minority groups (namely, African-Americans) which gave people of a certain ilk an argument of “well, geez, why can’t you be like Asians?” (Of course, the answer is impossible to answer in a short retort, not to mention a fuller understanding of the African-American experience in America.)

However, the hatred directed towards Asian-Americans during the pandemic (a report from Voice of America reports attacks on Asian-Americans had spiked 164% in the first quarter of 2021) has awoken the community as a whole to reality. In truth, Asian-Americans are only the “model minority” when convenient – this country’s history has shown that there has almost always been been a derided group of Asian immigrants of the moment (Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, etc.) and all Asians are, by default, associated with that derided group.

One such incident in this long history was an eye-popping bit I learned during my adult years: the Tacoma Expulsion of 1885 saw the town’s White residents forcefully expel Chinese residents from this Washington state town. As I learned, this became a blueprint for similar expulsions throughout Western U.S. towns for the next several years.

Perhaps it was due to lack of media sources, or lack of population in the country’s western region beyond California, but that template could easily have been named after the expulsion which happened in Antioch, California nearly a decade earlier.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment is right, patriotic, and in every sense American,” – Los Angeles Herald Newspaper Op-Ed, 1876.

Even in a region packed with culinary gems, Antioch, located in the far East Bay and gateway to and from California’s Delta region and the Central Valley as a whole, doesn’t necessarily stand out on the radar. However, if you do a quick Yelp check, one sees the hidden gem potential that reflects the diverse population of this Bay Area suburb of about 110,000 people – Filipino, Caribbean, Vietnamese, Mexican, Afghan and Hawaiian eateries are scattered among the more usual American and Pub-type fare joints. Like most places, a fair number of Chinese restaurants dot the landscape around Antioch, but little did I know until just a couple weeks ago that Antioch had once been a hotbed of hatred toward Chinese immigrants.

A chance listening of an episode of comedian Margaret Cho’s podcast alerted me to Antioch, California’s unsavory past treatment of Chinese immigrants. As detailed in this SFGate article, the town was the home to a brutal expulsion of the town’s Chinese populace right before the nation’s Centennial celebration in 1876.

Granted, hatred of Chinese immigrants was not strictly an Antioch-centered phenomenon – this group proved almost universally loathed by the majority White populace in California since their arrival during the Gold Rush days. By the 1870s, this hatred had morphed into entire political parties, perhaps most (in)famously in The Workingmen’s Party. The party, which used the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” (echoing the sentiments of modern-day politicians such as Marjorie Taylor Greene) as one their main rallying cries, was founded by Irish immigrant Dennis Kearney.

(Ironically, the Irish have had their own problematical immigrant relationship with this country – a good read on that history is the book “Expelling The Poor” from Hidetaka Hirota, which details how Irish-American immigrant discrimination acted as the boilerplate for many anti-immigrant policies of today. However, the Irish were apparently more tolerable than their Chinese brethren.)

By the time 1876 rolled around, Antioch’s majority White residents, feeling economic pressure due to job shortages, had been looking for an excuse to drive away the Chinese residents of their town altogether. Laws had already been passed banning Chinese residents on the town’s sidewalks after sundown, adding to the number of Sundown Towns in this country that proved commonplace and problematic for minorities (in fact, Chinese residents had to build tunnels to gain passage to their side of town in order to avoid trouble.)

Antioch was one many Sundown Towns which were found in both the Bay Area, California and throughout the United States (from the James W. Loewen Justice and Peace website.)

Also, like many cities, job opportunities for Chinese immigrants were typically severely limited; here, the choices were manual labor, restaurants, and laundry businesses.

In late April that year, the excuse for Antioch’s majority White populace arrived in the form of a doctor’s report – a breakout of venereal disease in the community that put the blame squarely on Chinese sex workers. As most logical people would think, it takes two (or more, in this case) to have such an outbreak, but blame was squarely placed on the so-called “Yellow Peril.”

Properly riled up, White residents took matters into their own hands, giving the town’s Chinese residents a few hours to pack up their belongings and leave. By the next Sunday, the Chinese residents of town had left, but rumors of a few residents returning led to the entire razing of the area. As written in the SFGate article…

“A crowd of onlookers and the local fire brigade looked on as flames engulfed homes and buildings. “Very little was done to stay the progress of the fire,” a wire report noted, although crews must have gone into action at some point to prevent white homes and businesses from being damaged. “The Caucasian torch,” wrote the (Sacramento) Bee, “lighted the way of the heathen out of the wilderness.””

As noted later in the article, the residents of the time were largely unapologetic for their actions. And while, as previously mentioned, the State of Washington and the Tacoma Expulsion became the model for Chinese expulsion in future years, the state of California proved to be model for anti-Chinese immigration policy for the nation.

With the help of state Congressmen (Republican Horace Page and Democrat Thomas Geary – both parties at the time were equal-opportunity anti-Chinese discriminators), the nation as a whole passed a slew of anti-Chinese immigration acts, starting with the 1875 Page Act (barring Chinese women from entering the country) and culminating in the 1892 Geary Act (which enhanced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by forcing Chinese residents to carry resident cards at them at all times or risk deportation, as well as deprived them of their right to receive bail in habeas corpus proceedings as well as to act as a witness in court.)

An interesting addendum to this story is the existence of an actual apology. In May 2021, Antioch’s city council unanimously passed a proclamation formally apologizing for the town’s 1876 actions.

One might argue this is little more than feel-goodism and an act that’s far too little and much too late, and those who do would have a solid point. But considering the lack of apologies in regards to other horrible acts of racism-inspired violence throughout the years, this apology stands out as a notable exception to the rule.

Moreover, for me at least, there is a karmic benefit. I’ve become a firm believer in Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s words that we are the continuation of all our ancestors and that by living your best life, you are honoring their legacy. Some of my most distant ancestors do originate in China, and should I happen into the city in future travels, I hope to pause for a brief moment to honor these former residents of Antioch, as well as their ancestors, whose lives mattered so little during a time not really that long ago.

The San Francisco Chronicle front page from November 14, 1957

The “freedom” lost from mask mandates frankly don’t compare to the loss of freedom those citizens of Antioch went through in 1876. Nor does it compare to injustices of the victims of the 1930 Watsonville Riots , the 1944 Port Chicago Disaster, the first-ever lynching of a woman (Mexican Josefa Segovia) or even Major League Hall of Famer Willie Mays and his troubles buying a home in San Francisco.

There are other nuggets of dubious state history that I could dig up as well, but will save for a future post – “woke” California has more of these fun treasures hidden within than you might imagine.

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