The forging of Seattle’s Asian community, particularly its growth in the city’s Central District, was inseparable from the history of racial discrimination and immigration in the Northwest. Indeed for that community, the emergence of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was transformative.
With the growth of the Asian population nationwide — according to the 2010 Census, that figure has increased by double digits in the past decade alone — it is well to consider how that expansion occurred in Seattle for it constitutes an important chapter in the history of the Asian community in the Puget Sound region.
The housing demographics of Seattle’s Asian community are a useful gauge for understanding the story of that expansion in the Central District. Before World War II, racial discrimination thwarted opportunities for Chinese and Japanese families to purchase homes outside of Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japantown).
Prewar public accommodations for Asians in Seattle were severely restricted as discriminatory legislation targeted aliens ineligible for citizenship. Before subsequent immigration statutes lifted racial barriers, scant progress occurred. Despite the fact that Asians, particularly Japanese-Americans, constituted Seattle’s largest racial minority, virulent racial discrimination led to the disenfranchisement of foreign-born Asians, who were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens and voting or owning property.
As University of Washington historian Quintard Taylor points out, restrictive covenants were especially harsh: “The property ban was particularly onerous, forcing Asian immigrants to resort, with the assistance of sympathetic non-Asians, to various creative subterfuges to maintain farms and businesses.”
The forerunners to those racial barriers emerged in the late 19th century when racial discrimination against the Chinese led to the creation of the Puget Sound Anti-Chinese Congress in 1885 and laws such the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively barred all Japanese immigration, and the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which restricted Filipino immigration to an annual quota of 50 persons.
Asian immigration was anathema in the Northwest, according to Taylor. In September 1885, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle’s leading paper at the time, reaffirmed that stance in a scathing editorial: “The civilization of the Pacific Coast cannot exist half Caucasian and half Mongolian. The sooner the people of the United States realize this and take measures to make certain that the Caucasian civilization will prevail, the sooner discontent will be allayed and the [anti-Chinese] outbreaks will cease.”
The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the 1943 Magnuson Act allowed Chinese immigration to resume albeit at the annual rate of 105 based on the 1924 Immigration Act. “More importantly, it allowed Chinese in America, who were here legally, to become naturalized citizens,” said local historian Doug Chin. “While the repeal did not increase the number of Chinese allowed to immigrate to America, the opportunity to become naturalized citizens was symbolic and meant that they could be accepted here.”
Yet the Alien Land Act of 1921 and restrictive covenants continued to prevent Asians from purchasing homes and living outside of Seattle’s Chinatown. “The majority of the housing supply comprised single-room units with shared cooking, utilities, and bathrooms down the hall,” Chin said. “Most of the housing in Chinatown were hotels, with little amenities and no heat.”
After World War II, Chinese immigrant families arrived in greater numbers in Seattle. Yet restrictive covenants barred not only Chinese but also African Americans from residential dispersal. It was only after Chinese achieved some measure of economic success that some were able to move out of Chinatown and relocate “uphill” to Beacon Hill and First Hill.
In his book, Seattle’s International District, Chin writes: “With the newly created alliance between China and the United States, the American attitude began to shift. For the first time, substantial numbers of Chinese were permitted to live in parts of the city outside of Chinatown. Chinese were recruited or drafted to work in the defense industries in the region. The result was a rise in the per capita income of Chinese Americans and a decline of the Chinese population in Chinatown.”
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