A century after arson decimated its Chinatown, San Jose to apologize for past racism and injustices

(SAN JOSE, Calif.) — Local lawmakers in San Jose, California, are expected to vote on a resolution next week that would apologize to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for the role the city played in “systemic and institutional racism” more than a hundred years after one of the city’s thriving Chinatowns was burned by arsonists.

San Jose was once home to five Chinatowns built up by immigrants arriving to the U.S. in the late 1800s, according to a memorandum posted to the city’s website that acknowledges the pain and unequal treatment suffered by these early Asian American communities.

“These early Chinese immigrants were met with virulent, systematic racism, xenophobia and the violence of anti-Chinese forces from early on and were regularly denied equal protection before the law,” the memo states. “In addition to federal legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, City policies, resolutions, and other actions of the City of San José and the City Council directly contributed to the xenophobic discrimination and racial violence faced by Chinese immigrants.”

The public apology would come as biases related to the COVID-19 pandemic’s suspected origins in Wuhan, China, have led to a new surge in anti-Asian hate incidents throughout the country.

The memo notes how one of the most well-known of San Jose’s Chinatowns succumbed to arson in 1887 after the city council at the time declared the site a public nuisance and ordered it removed to make way for the construction of a new city hall. The blaze displaced some 1,400 people and destroyed homes and businesses.

A plaque erected in 1987 on the Fairmont Hotel — which sits on the site of the former Chinatown — acknowledges the atrocities, but the memo notes that there “has been no formal accountability” for the city’s policies that led to the arson. The resolution seeks to change this.

A draft of the resolution chronicles the contributions Chinese immigrants made to the local economy, as well as the violence and racism they faced — noting how the first church in 1869 to teach Sunday school to Chinese immigrants was burned to the ground and the minister at the time received death threats.

The resolution also acknowledges the still-persisting impacts of centuries of racist policy, stating, “the recent rise in anti-Asian violence and racial discrimination demonstrates that xenophobia remains deeply rooted in our society” and that “Asian-Americans are still considered perpetual foreigners.”

It calls for the story of Chinese immigrants “and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them in the 19th and early 20th century” to not be purged from the city’s history.

“The City must acknowledge and take responsibility for the legacy of discrimination against early Chinese immigrants as part of our collective consciousness that helps contribute to the current surge in anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate,” it states.

The resolution seeks to apologize to all Chinese immigrants and their descendants, acknowledge the injustices and brutality, as well as recognize the contributions and resilience of the Chinese community.

Connie Young Yu, the author of “Chinatown, San Jose, USA,” told ABC News in a statement the apology would have “great personal significance” since her grandfather was a teenage refugee from the 1887 fire and her father was born in the new San Jose Chinatown.

“The apology by the City of San Jose for anti-Chinese policies comes very late, but it is deeply meaningful for the Chinese American community and symbolically offers peace and reconciliation,” she said. “The apology recognizes the hardships and struggles of our ancestors by the Chinese Exclusion Act which deprived Chinese naturalization to U.S. citizenship, inciting cities to drive out the Chinese by outlaw violence or legal methods.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told San Francisco ABC station KGO, “It’s appropriate that every generation, we do this.”

“That we remember this,” Liccardo added, “because tragically, these lessons are lost from one generation to another. And even more tragically, history does repeat itself.”

Local members of the Asian American community have welcomed the news. The Chinese Historical and Cultural Project of Santa Clara County in California, a nonprofit advocacy and historical preservation group, has a ceremony planned for next Wednesday to celebrate the adoption of the resolution, which is expected to take place on Tuesday.

Evan Low, who became the youngest Asian American legislator ever elected to the California State Assembly in 2014, told KGO that it’s “critical we learn and know about our history and help further the education for our community.”

“We need to also recognize that accountability helps to heal these wounds,” Low added.

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