Special Reports

Early Asian workers faced mob violence

In 1885, local civic leaders waged a successful campaign to drive Chinese residents out of town, and celebrated their going with a torchlight parade. Chinese workers had come in the mid-19th century to escape floods, famine, oppression, war and civil unrest in their country. In the United States, they worked on railroads and farms, and in mills, mines and laundries.

Resentment of the cheaper foreign labor grew with an economic downturn in the 1880s, spurring violence, immigration controls starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the 1885 expulsion.

The 1890 census records one Chinese person in Whatcom County. An 1893 real estate advertisement for Bellingham Bay bragged: "The foreign population are nearly all Norwegians, Swedes and Canadian ... there are no Chinese, no Hungarians and few Italians."

Chinese people returned at the end of the 19th century, largely as contracted cannery workers. The census found 839 Chinese people in Whatcom County in 1900. Around the same time, more Japanese and Filipinos started arriving.

Hindu riots

Steamship lines and their agents drew rural East Indians to British Columbia in the early 20th century with exaggerated promises of economic opportunities. Many crossed into Washington looking for a better climate, better jobs and higher pay.

Although the 1900 and 1910 censuses did not account for East Indians, a report from the time listed 153 working at five local sawmills. White workers once again grumbled that foreigners were taking their jobs, and demonized them for living in squalid conditions.

On the night of Sept. 4, 1907, a mob of several hundred people went from mill to mill and house to house along Bellingham's waterfront, beating East Indians and driving them out of town. Those the mob did not directly drive out mostly fled the next day by train, boat and on foot.

The riot drew international attention. Across the state and down the coast, editorials condemned the riot, but largely supported its goal.

At the same time, an anonymous letter circulated among Chinese and Japanese cannery workers, warning them to leave town. A riot never materialized against those Asian workers, but other developments proved just as effective.

A mechanical fish-cleaning device was already replacing Asian workers at Pacific American Fisheries, while the state and federal governments continued to pass tighter restrictions on immigration, citizenship, land ownership and even property rental.

Bellingham's Asian population plunged from about 600 people in 1900 to 240 in 1910 and to 69 in 1920. During World War II, the U.S. government sent remaining Japanese to internment camps. The 1950 census found one Japanese person and 12 Chinese people in Bellingham.

New arrivalsThe U.S. government started lifting immigration and citizenship restrictions after World War II, and finally eliminated racist immigration quotas in 1965. Meanwhile, American involvement in Southeast Asia spurred a new flow of immigration.

Hung Hang left Vietnam with her parents in 1979, when she was 21 years old.

"Communists, you know," she said from her Bellingham grocery store. "My family had a hard time."

When communists took over Vietnam, they took Hang's parents' auto-parts business and house, and wanted to send them to a re-education camp, she said. They spent about a year in an Indonesian refugee camp, then moved to Bellingham, where an aunt had settled several years earlier. Hang's sister and brother followed later.

Bellingham owes its renewed Asian population largely to people like Hang - a Vietnam native whose parents came from China. Vietnamese is the biggest ethnicity among Bellingham Asians, followed by Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Japanese and Filipino, according to the 2000 census.

Bellingham's Asian community shot from 0.46 percent of the population in 1970 to 4.3 percent in 2000. But that is still a smaller percentage than in 1903.