Celebrate the lunar new year, celebrate our diversity

February 12, 2013 

Nearly one-quarter of the world’s population began celebrating the lunar new year on Sunday.

Frequently called Chinese New Year – the Vietnamese also refer to it as Tet, and Losar by the Tibetans – the lunar new year is recognized by more than 1.5 billion people around the world. Celebrations last for 15 days after the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar.

The lunar new year is the most important festival in Asian cultures.

Doors are decorated with red paper cutouts, and firecrackers are used to ward off evil spirits. The house is cleaned to sweep out ill fortune and welcome in good luck. Families come together for a special meal. Children are given red envelopes with money for good fortune.

Today, many U.S. cities also hold festivals in their Chinatown districts, complete with firecrackers, lanterns, parades, displays of martial arts, drums and gongs, and kung-fu students performing acrobatic lion dances.

In cities with large Asian populations such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle, the festivals are welcomed. They recognize cultural ties and traditions and at the same time help celebrate our county’s rich cultural diversity.

But more than 125 years ago that wasn’t the case.

On Nov. 3, 1885, a group of elected city leaders and a large mob executed the planned forceful expulsion of the Chinese population from the City of Tacoma.

The expulsion was in response to the complex conditions of the time, among them economic decline and anti-Chinese sentiment.

Then-mayor Jacob Robert Weisbach of Tacoma, the carpenters’ union, many workers and business people, and The Tacoma Ledger with its editor Jack Comerford spewed racist rhetoric against the Chinese.

The Chinese were given a deadline to get out, and about 150 Chinese left before the deadline. The mob, which included Mayor Weisbach, herded another 200 from their homes and forced them onto trains to Portland on the evening deadline of Nov. 3, 1885.

The Chinese lost their homes and possessions. And they never returned, leaving Tacoma the only major West Coast city without a Chinatown.

Events occurred differently in Olympia.

Olympia also experienced growing anti-Chinese sentiment and concerns about the “Chinese question.”

However, the city council of the time recognized that the Chinese were legally there, by the virtue of law and treaty stipulations. They were decidedly opposed to their expulsion by force, intimidation, or by any other unlawful means.

When rioters gathered to expel the Chinese in February 1886, then-Sheriff Williams Billings deputized and joined other residents to patrol the streets and prevent further rioting and the expulsion of the Chinese from Olympia.

Despite harassment, the Chinese stayed in Olympia and were joined by refugees from other cities. The leaders of the riot were arrested and sentenced to prison on McNeil Island.

Today, a marker now commemorates Olympia’s earliest Chinatown adjacent to the Heritage Park Fountain.

In 1993, the Tacoma City Council passed a resolution to make amends and to apologize for the former city leaders’ actions. In 2011, the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation and the City of Tacoma dedicated a new park and pavilion on Commencement Bay to recognize and reconcile the expulsion of Chinese from that city.

According to South Sound historian Edward Echtle, years later Sheriff Billings’ daughter recalled that the Chinese community gave her family gifts each lunar new year in gratitude for the protection he provided.

As 1.5 billion people around the world recognize the lunar new year, residents of South Puget Sound should take a moment to reflect on its meaning, and be proud of our Olympia ancestors.

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