“This is a resolution of the Council of the City of San Jose apologizing to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for acts of fundamental injustice and discrimination,” Mayor Sam Liccardo read to the dozens of Chinese Americans, allies and public officials gathered in downtown on Wednesday.
The resolution, passed unanimously by the city council Tuesday evening, continued, “seeking forgiveness and committing to the rectification of past policies and misdeeds.”
Liccardo read the entire resolution out loud on Wednesday at the Circle of Palms Plaza — the site of one the city’s former Chinatowns burned down by an arsonist.
It took a long time to read through the resolution because the country’s rap sheet of anti-Chinese crimes is long.
The resolution was drafted by Councilmember Raul Peralez, the city’s office of racial equity and members of San Jose’s Chinese community.
It detailed the numerous wrongs inflicted by the San Jose City Council, state and federal governments and residents since Chinese Americans began immigrating to the United States in 1849.
Attendees shook their heads in disappointment and pain as the list of heinous acts were read out loud, others shed tears.
Like many historically excluded groups in the US, Chinese Americans contributed greatly to their local communities and economies but were targeted and discriminated against by various facets of government and society.
The anti-Asian hate at the time was rampant, especially in California, where 77 percent of Chinese immigrants lived and in San Jose — home of five different Chinatowns — all knocked down in different ways. The city’s last Chinatown was closed in 1931.
Arguably the most flagrant offense that epitomizes the racism of the time was a deliberately set fire that burned Market Street Chinatown to ashes on May 4, 1887 — displacing 1400 residents and destroying several homes and local businesses.
The fire occurred only weeks after the city council unanimously declared Market Street Chinatown to be a public nuisance, and voted against the construction of a new Chinatown, calling it “injurious to private property adjacent thereto, dangerous to the health and welfare of all citizens who live and have homes in its vicinity, and a standing menace to both public and private morals, peace, quiet and good order, and etc.,” the June 1887 city resolution read.
“My grandfather was a resident of the Market Street Chinatown and was made refugee by the fire,” said Connie Young Lu, local historian and author of “Chinatown, San Jose, USA. “
She is one of many Chinese Americans who carry the generational pain from the myriad of discriminatory acts. During the Wednesday ceremony she reflected on the stories shared by her father who grew up in the Heinlenville Chinatown built to replace the Market Street Chinatown in 1888.
“I imagine that the Chinatown Market Street fire will be (remembered as) the first steppingstone, as out of the ashes was the new community that would not be driven out,” Lu said. “It was the end, but a beginning.”
Lu and many other speakers remarked on the resilience of the Chinese American community in the South Bay who lived through the draconian Chinese American Exclusion Act of 1882, the burning of the First Methodist Episcopal Church on 2nd and Santa Clara streets, which taught Sunday school to Chinese immigrants in 1869; the anti-Chinese convention held in San Jose in 1886; the destruction of all five Chinatowns, among many other hate crimes.
Even when the Chinese exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, Chinese Americans were systemically excluded from many facets of society.
“At the time I was growing up, my family like other Chinese were not welcome to buy property here during World War II days when China was actually America’s ally,” said Gerrye Kee Wong, co-founder of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project and fourth-generation American.
In 1949, the Ng Shing Gung Temple was also demolished, despite calls from the Chinese community to preserve it as a historical landmark.
And more recently, Chinese and other Asian Americans have been subject to a rise of violent anti-Asian hate crimes in the wake of COVID-19. In fact, over a year of the pandemic, hate crime incidents reported against the Asian population doubled, according to data gathered by the group Stop AAPI Hate.
Wong’s grandson Braden Wong, who is sixth-generation American, said he had friends who were subject to such hate crimes.
This is especially why he was proud of San Jose for taking this action and appreciated Liccardo reading the resolution out loud.
“It makes it very transparent, between the government and the people, and make these crimes aware to the public,” Braden Wong said.
He also appreciated that the resolution noted the Chinese contributions to as the primary workforce that developed Santa Clara County, most notably on the San Jose Railroad and Santa Cruz-Monterey Line in 1870s.
“I didn’t learn about a lot of this history until I was in college, and it was by working with my grandma and going to her events,” he continued. “The next step really is continuing this kind of education and making people aware.”
Wong, along with State Assembly member Evan Low (D-San Jose) who spoke at the formal ceremony of apology, pointed to the ethnic studies curriculum legislation that is making its way through the state as a good next step to right the historical wrongs.
The end of the ceremony was marked with a traditional Chinese performance.
“On behalf of those who fought the good fight and continue to do so, I’d like to say to the city of San Jose, apology accepted and resolution embraced,” Lu said.