On Being Asian: Bellingham’s History of “No Chinese Beyond this Point”

Wow. Angryasianman has just called attention to a part of Bellingham, Washington’s past (and mine own too), which was the Chinese Exclusion Act of the early 1900’s, which systematically expelled, discriminated, and drove out Chinese-Americans up and down the West Coast. As a former resident of the town, I frequently walked past the plaque on Harris Ave. that read:

“Chinese deadline, no Chinese allowed beyond this point, 1878-1903.” (any ‘Hamsters got a pic I can upload and post?)

Well it appears that mayor Dan Pike has issued a public apology on behalf of the city of Bellingham, which has in the past rioted against Hindus, exploited Japanese, and driven out Chinese. I say “good for him.” But he says one thing that irks me:

“A lot of times an apology can go a long way toward helping healing and helping people understand that we do know there were things that were done in the past that were inappropriate… It doesn’t mean that I’m personally guilty… It means that things were done by the government and by the people in this community that were wrong.”

I don’t know why he had to say that; “It doesn’t mean that I’m personally guilty.” Why apologize in the first place if it’s not your fault? I think one of the glaring errors in the whole re-dress movement is that we think we can apologize for things in the past, separate ourselves (historically) from the incident, wipe our hands clean, forget about it, and move on. But the point is not “getting it off your chest” so to speak; but rather engaging in a continuous dialogue about how Chinese-Americans relate to the public sphere today; how the “model minority” is perceived, engaged, ignored, dismissed, contained, empowered or silenced. Here are some thoughts from a past post that convey just what I am talking about:
  1. The “model minority” is a patronizing term. Model in who’s eyes?
  2. The perception of being coy, or demure – this asian fetish thing. Sure our women are beautiful but can we stop objectifying Asian women as commodities?
  3. Be proud of your heritage damnit. It’s a double-sided coin. While we need to get out of the ghettoization of our ethnic communities to see a larger “America”, at the same time we can’t ever forget where we came from. Nor can we ever look down on our ancestors who first immigrated to this great country.
  4. We will work for the man but never be the man. Glass-ceilings are tough things to break through and very subtle, systemic things…
  5. It’s an uphill battle, folks. Asians in society at times feel the need to lose our “asian-ness” in order to make it. It’s almost a reverse “white-fetish” where we hope we won’t get noticed for the fact that we are asian, but we can blend right into white society with perfect intonation, no accent, dressing the right way. This just makes me cry. My black brothers educated me on a term used in black circles: “The Bourgeoisie” – when a person of color completely assimilates into white society and never looks back. It’s a derogatory term for someone who refuses to identify with the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. The bourgeoisie think they’re better than the rest of us.

I feel sad. Sad that making it in this world so often means losing a bit of myself. Sad that we are playing by another man’s rules that benefits his own. Sad that at the starting gate I am placed a few steps behind. I’m not asking for pity, because I will work my ass off to get to the same place as others. But I just want to tell my story, and that of countless others.

Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

8 thoughts on “On Being Asian: Bellingham’s History of “No Chinese Beyond this Point”

  1. Wow you’re feelin’ it today. I’m with you. And might I add an addendum to the model minority issue. It is not only “model in who’s eyes”, but also model as compared to “you know who.” The not so subtle insinuation is, “they succeeded, why can’t you? which is only complicated by the fact that many Asian Americans buy into the exact same view of “you know who” and enjoy their status as honorary whites, because let’s face it, in the eyes of the man, you may not be white, but at least you’re not, “you know what.”

  2. Don’t sweat it; a good cry never hurts and sometimes heals. And you think Asian people look down on their ancestry? Black people and Africans… now that’s some *&%$ right there.

  3. Wayne — Thanks for posting this. I totally feel you too, bro. And thanks for calling out the “but it’s not my fault” non-apology for what it is. I’ve learned a lot from Richard Twiss about the need for oppressors to take personal responsibility (even if they were not directly the ones to do the oppressing).

  4. Thank you for this post today. I also am feeling what you are expressing. At 65 years old my grandparents gave me the above advise. No matter where I have gone in these United States there are reminders of an ungly past, and a present day mind-set that is still held by many without the straight-forward expression of what they think of us; and what we think or have accepted for ourselves.

    Many years ago in Bellingham history Blacks had to pay the dues to continue living here. The dues consisted of being 40 times flogged. It is up to us to teach the value of all people. I can never forget, nor do I ever want to forget who I am, where I came from, and the people who paved the way.

    Yes, assimilate to progress. We ask, as we should, for people who cross our borders to learn our ways as Americans. But keep the beauty, traditions, honor and respect of the various cultures we were born into. Change begins with us. If we do not teach by word and example there will be no change.

    I do not believe that this generation, if they have not perpatrated the evils of the past can effectively apologize or take responsibility for what has been done in the past. No, It was not their fault, but there does need to be an acknowldgement of what was done, and by a living example make the changes that it cannot happen again.

    I’m so long winded – that’s the Baptist in me coming out!

    1. @Jay – you outta come back to the South! ;)

      @daniel – the non-apology irked me a bit; kinda missed the point entirely. One of the blind-spots of the whole redress thing…

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