Being Chinese in Tacoma: 1870s and 1880s

“Tacoma Herald,” July 26, 1878
“Yesterday afternoon a brand new Chinese fishing boat made its appearance in our bay. It was built on the Sound, about ten miles above here and is to be used in the fishing business by some Chinese who have been upon the Sound for some time catching and drying various kinds of fish for the San Francisco market. It looks as though it had backed into a lot of chicken coops and three or four pairs of stairs and had gone off with them all sticking to it. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the “Tacoma Herald” was a short-lived, weekly newspaper with a section dedicated to what the residents were doing. Inside the paper, on the left side of page 4 was a column called “Local Intelligence,” where everything from complaints about Mr. Graham’s pigs to runaway animals on the wharf were noted. The editor, Francis Cook, wrote fairly regularly about doings in the Chinese community, providing a small window into their lives here.

Tacoma’s Chinese came mostly from Kwantung Province because its capital, Canton, was for many years the only port in China where foreigners were allowed to do business. Businesses that wanted Chinese laborers hired men through a government-licensed company called the Six Companies of Kwantung. Each of the six companies represented one of six districts and clans that existed in Kwangtung province. The company negotiated the workers’ wages, and each worker paid the company 2.5 percent of their wages, plus a $40 one-time fee to cover transportation costs to the United States.

By law, the Chinese couldn’t buy land. As a rule, Tacoma’s Chinese leased land from the Northern Pacific railroad and lived along the waterfront.  In 1877, a Portland man named Kwong Tai leased a waterfront lot on the wharf between stores run by Mr. Fife and Mr. Ingalls. He was in the U.S. to open a branch of the Chinese contract house, and establish a store.
According to one brief newspaper note from Oct. 1877, 109 men were working on the road bed above the wharf, unloading car loads of gravel because occasional high tides flooded the railroad tracks and washed away the dirt.

One of those workers had a bad accident. He was walking along the tracks just ahead of the train carrying something in a yoke over his shoulder. As the train came close, he stepped aside to let it pass, but one end of the yoke got caught in the engine and threw him underneath. The wheels ran over one leg just below the knee, and caught and mashed his toes on the other leg.

He was taken to one of the Chinese homes, and Drs. Bostwick and Alverson amputated the mangled leg and dressed what wounds they could. A week or so later, the paper said the injured man was up and walking on crutches.

The Chinese had a large vegetable garden on 11th and C Street (Broadway) but they also covered the wharf around where they lived with moss, put dirt on the moss, and planted vegetables in it. For additional greens, they planted baskets and hung them over the edge of the wharf. Their greens were well ahead those of local farmers. In fact, the Chinese were such good farmers, on June 14, 1879, the paper noted that local stores were out of potatoes and owners had to order them from San Francisco. The editor wondered why the Chinese were out on the streets selling potatoes they’d raised and harvested already while local farmers were so far behind.

Tacoma residents referred to the Chinese as the Celestials and the Celestials ran laundries, cleaned houses, and waited on tables at restaurants; they were the garbage men for homes restaurants, and hotels. They carried the refuse away in buckets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders, and fed it to their pigs. Some residents objected to the Chinese keeping their pigs under their houses or, occasionally, in them. Another thing white people found objectionable was that the Chinese diet included skunks, bottom fish, and mussels pried off the pilings.

Except when working, the Chinese kept to themselves and, for the most part, Tacoma residents were tolerant of them, but not always. In June 1877, a Chinese man went into a saloon one night, bought a several bottles of liquor, and headed for the back of the room to drink in peace. Unfortunately, a white man there didn’t like the idea; he took a chair and hit the Chinese man with it. The fellow was so frightened he was afraid to leave and asked the proprietor to walk outside with him. However, the assailant followed them, knocked the Chinese man down and kicked his head. The man got up and ran, and everyone else in the saloon broke all the liquor he’d bought except one bottle which they passed around. The assailant said he’d done it because he didn’t want a Chinese buying his liquor over the same bar that he did.

That same year an unnamed Chinese man was hit by a rock 16-year-old Delmar Manches threw at him. A warrant was issued for Manches’ arrest and there was a trial. Tacoma didn’t have much in the way of law enforcement back then. The judges were three local residents and a ship’s captain. During the trail several white men testified that Manches had frequently been seen stoning Chinese men. Several Chinese witnesses identified Manches as the culprit. The defense claimed Manches had been with a group of other boys and that the witnesses had identified the wrong person. In spite of the white witnesses Manches won.

In January 1879, while Seattle hotel owner John Collins fired all the Occidental Hotel’s     Chinese labor and replaced them with white men, Tacoma celebrated the birth of a Chinese baby. According to the “Herald,” Tacoma’s entire female Chinese population spent the infant’s first night with him.

World War II brought revitalization to Chinese communities, perhaps because restrictions were finally lifted on women emigrating from China.