In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re showcasing titles that document the Asian American experience. Our second excerpt comes from Beth Lew-Williams’s prize-winning book The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, which historian Richard White describes as “a powerful argument about racial violence that could not be more timely.”
Monday night, Gong was asleep in his tent when the vigilantes returned without warning in the darkness. “So many shot fired it sounded all same [as] China New Year,” he told a coroner’s jury a few days later. As bullets blew holes through the workers’ tents, all was chaos. Gong ran for the forest, hunkered down at a safe distance, and watched as the tents burned. He returned to the camp to find the bodies of men he had labored beside only hours before. There was thirty-five-year-old Fung Wai, shot in the chest, and thirty-two-year-old Mong Goat, shot in the belly. Beside the bodies was a gravely wounded man, Yung Son. “Yung Son was shot through left arm, through both thighs and through ankle,” testified Gong. After Yung passed the next morning, the Chinese packed up their remaining possessions and took the road out of Squak Valley.
Gong stayed behind, minding the bodies of the three who died, bringing shell casings to the local sheriff as evidence, and serving as a witness in the coroner’s inquest and criminal trial. He had been defenseless against the mob, but now he could fight for retribution. In emotional testimony, Gong tried to convey the anguish of Yung’s death. He told the jury that “[Yung] was sorry to die. Got a son [at] home, too young, no one to send him money. [Yung] did not talk much, but hollered through the night.” Even in the courtroom, Gong proved powerless. He knew the men who had died, but nothing of the shooters. All he could say was, “Monday night white men come to kill Chinamen.” Who were these “white men”? Why did they kill the “Chinamen”? Gong did not know.
For the Chinese, this is how the violence began, with shock, fear, and lingering questions. Histories of violence, however, rarely start this way. It is difficult to begin the history of anti-Chinese violence with its victims because the story of racial violence is, inevitably, a narrative of action and reaction, perpetrator and prey. Searching for cause and effect, history favors stories of people who instigate events over those who suffer the aftermath. The Chinese make unnatural protagonists because they did not set these violent episodes in motion, nor did they hold the power to stop them. They also make problematic narrators because, like Gong, they often could not name their attackers or pinpoint their motivations.
Racial violence against the Chinese relied on the power of surprise. The Chinese did not know when threats would turn to violence, what form the violence would take, or when it would end. While vigilantes sometimes depended on bullets to rid their community of Chinese, they often expelled them through threats alone. To fully understand the potency of this psychological violence, we must start our exploration of racial violence with the Chinese, adopt their vulnerable state of ignorance, and attempt to understand what it means to live in terror.