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San Jose formally apologizes for the arson of its Chinatown more than a century ago

In 1887, the California city labeled Chinatown as a “public nuisance” and planned to replace it with a city hall. But arsonists burned it down first.

The city of San Jose, California, formally apologized for an act of arson in 1887 that destroyed its Chinatown, devastating the city’s Chinese immigrant community. 

The City Council unanimously passed a resolution this week apologizing to the Chinese immigrants and descendants who became “victims of systemic and institutional racism.” The legislation, which was read at a ceremony Wednesday, acknowledged the city’s role in the destruction of the enclave and pledged a commitment to rectify “lingering consequences” of its discriminatory policies. 

More than a century ago, the city labeled the Chinatown as a “public nuisance” and planned to replace it with a city hall. But arsonists burned it down before officials took action, displacing more than 1,000 people from their homes and businesses. Aside from a memorial plaque, the city had never made amends for the tragedy.

Council member Raul Peralez, who led the resolution, said the legislation was prompted by heightened anti-Asian bias in San Jose during the coronavirus pandemic, and he said he hopes it will serve as a reminder of the history of racism against the Asian American community.  

“It’s important to think not only to do this now, but also to have these types of recognition so periodically you’re recalling the history, recognizing it, owning it and then honoring how we can move forward in a much better way,” Peralez said. 

The Chinatown, which was along Market Street, was once a hub for the roughly 1,400 members of the city’s Chinese community. Ryan Kennedy, a zooarchaeologist and research associate at the University of New Orleans who has studied the remains of the Chinatown, said many Chinese residents worked in the area’s agriculture industry. 

San Jose City Council member Raul Peralez led the resolution.Courtesy City of San Jose

Tension between the community and non-Chinese residents had been high for some time, experts say. Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, fueled by the movement to block Chinese laborers from entering the country, just five years before the fire. The City Council itself had implemented racist policies — among them condemning all Chinese laundries on the basis that they operated in wooden buildings. Kennedy also said the city was home to a movement to buy “white-made” goods; as a result, people often boycotted produce from companies that employed Chinese workers. 

“You would see newspaper advertisements taken out against so-and-so’s fruit because it’s picked by Chinese workers,” Kennedy said. “That’s also the broader fabric of what’s happening around these agricultural areas where [Chinese immigrants] are critical to the development of the agricultural industry yet are being targeted.” 

Although much of the city’s Chinese population was relegated to the Chinatown because of discriminatory property restrictions and prices, it became a self-supported community, with thriving businesses, a temple and a theater, Kennedy said. Many also found some semblance of protection in the enclave. An examination of the original layout found that the outer band of buildings formed a wall, while the internal areas were “where life happens,” he said. Families most likely felt safer behind the walls. 

The city, however, viewed the area as a “health hazard,” Kennedy said, a belief fueled largely by stereotypes of Chinese people as diseased, barbaric and unhygienic. By March of that year, San Jose had declared the area a public nuisance. The measure was unanimously approved by the mayor at the time, C.W. Breyfogle, and the entire City Council. And plans were in motion to eliminate the Chinatown entirely, replacing it with a city hall. But before official action could be taken, arsonists got to the enclave first, destroying the area not two months later. 

“In their minds, it’s dirty, people are diseased. All these sorts of stereotypes got levied at those communities,” Kennedy said. “There’s a huge chunk of folks that were happy to see it burned down there.”

At the time, it was common for white people to use fire against Chinese communities along the West Coast, said Yvonne Kwan, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at San Jose State University. Other instances included fires in Monterrey, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, as well as Antioch, which recently offered an apology to its Chinese community and served as inspiration for San Jose’s resolution. 

Kennedy said some of the incidents were arson. Others began as accidental or natural fires, but law enforcement agencies and fire departments chose to protect whiter areas, instead, leaving Asian enclaves to fend for themselves. In San Jose’s Chinatown, Kennedy said, the destruction was a combination of arson and authorities’ refusal to help. 

Kwan said: “The police didn’t get in the way of that, because, if we look back, what is the point of the police? It is to protect oftentimes the capital, the material properties of those in power, and those in power at the time were primarily white, property-owning men. They had no incentive to protect the Chinese communities.”

Experts say the devastation most likely affected later generations, as well. People were kept from returning to the area, Kwan said, because landlords refused to allow the Chinese community members to restart their businesses. 

The media also contributed with sensationalist coverage. The San Jose Herald, for example, published a piece declaring: “Chinatown is dead. It is dead forever.” The newspaper published a follow-up piece about efforts to keep Chinese residents from returning, again citing public health concerns. 

In the aftermath, the Chinese community moved to other areas, equipping themselves with their own fire suppression systems, Kennedy said. Archaeologists working in the Woolen Mills Chinatown, one of the two main enclaves in San Jose that arose after the fire, have uncovered the remains of a cast iron fire hydrant network, he said. John Heinlen, a businessman who was among those who were horrified by the tragedy, built a new development, allowing many displaced Chinese residents to move in. 

Peralez said the legislation grew out of listening sessions his office held with Asian American community members to find a solution to the discrimination catalyzed by the pandemic. He credited community member Mary Mar with suggesting that the city look into a formal apology, which had never been given, for what he referred to as the “atrocity.” 

As significant as such apologies are, Kwan said, the city’s introspection shouldn’t end here.   

“Would this have happened if there wasn’t this wave of anti-Asian violence ... which makes these stories more palatable to the general public?” she said. “My hope is that this is just one step right toward reconciliation and recognition of these past violences. ... Hopefully we can see how the systems of xenophobia, racism and nativism are all intertwined.”

The city’s population is now about one-third Asian, Kwan said. As new Asian immigrant populations move to the area, it’s important not only to recognize the city’s racist history, but also to continue the activism of those who came before them. 

“We have had fierce Asian American Pacific Islander activists in the local areas, who have been fighting for not just recognition, but also to address the inequities that proliferate amongst Asian American communities,” Kwan said.