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The fate of Silver City’s Chinese 

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Let’s go back. Way back, 138 years, to when Silver City citizens almost did something that most of us wouldn’t approve of today.

Here’s an announcement from the Southwest Sentinel of Nov. 24, 1885:

There will be a meeting of citizens on Tuesday evening at Crown Hall for the purpose of taking into consideration the advisability of ordering the Chinese population to remove for the following reasons: First, they [do] work that our needy population desire; second, they have paid but $12 into the treasury as city taxes during the year, and shipped through known sources during the past year $130,000 out of the county;
third they are no benefit to our merchants, importing in the main their food and clothing from China; fourth, they breed pestilence by their filthy habits and their opium dens, and are a source of ruination to the young of both sexes and of all races; lastly, the work they do can be accomplished by our own people in a manner satisfactory to all interested.

This account is full of lies and exaggerations, but it wasn’t unique at the time. Expelling Chinese was called “The Tacoma Method” after a particularly brutal expulsion in Tacoma, Wash., only a few weeks before it was proposed in Silver City. It also happened in South Bend, Wash., where 47 years ago as a rookie reporter I interviewed an old man who had seen it happen when he was a child.

Chinese laborers came to the United States to work on the railroads. After the job, some stayed. When Anglo workers tried to organize for higher wages, the Chinese were willing to work for less. The movement to expel Chinese people was based on labor activism and bigotry.

The claim that the Chinese got their food from China is obvious nonsense. They got a lot of it — and provided more to the rest of the town — from the farm south of town along the San Vicente Trail now known as Old Chinese Gardens, LLC. Many Chinese laborers were single men who sent money back to their families in China (sort of like Mexican immigrants today). The claim that all the Chinese paid $12 in taxes and sent out $130,000 is suspiciously specific. Blaming your economic problems on people of a different skin color probably sounds familiar to Hispanics, who had a long period with little civic power but plenty of poverty, despite working hard.

What about opium dens? Many of us have heard the historic rumors of tunnels built by Chinese opium smugglers under buildings on Bullard. When I visited the basement of one of those buildings, tunnels look possible, although they are now closed.

This was a time when many fashionable ladies were legally addicted to laudanum — a solution of opium and alcohol. No doubt there were Chinese opium addicts, but they weren’t the people raising vegetables or running laundries.

At the farm you can still visit an old adobe building with bars on the window and an interior wallpapered with 1930s Chinese newspapers. It looks like a jail, but the story I heard was that the bars were to keep racist attackers out. And based on what happened next, there were racists in Silver City in 1885.
A few days later, the Southwest Sentinel had three related items. There was an editorial approving the desire for the Chinese to leave, but decrying violence and the secret society organizing the movement. A letter to the editor ridiculed the anti-Chinese activists, saying that they should pay their laundry bills before asking anyone to leave. And a news story described the meeting.

A Mr. Fielder suggested first throwing grass to make the Chinese go and, if that failed, throwing stones. Fielder denied this was a call to violence, but others criticized the weird metaphor. Some citizens wanted boycotts instead of violence. The sheriff warned that anyone engaging in violence would be jailed. An anti-Chinese resolution was passed, but sentiment was divided.

The Southwest Sentinel said the movement had not been joined by merchants, professional men, ranchmen or mining men. It claimed they agreed with the intent, but wanted laws rather than vigilantism.
Ultimately, Silver City did not follow the lead of other Western towns and cities. No Chinese were expelled. Does this mean our forefathers respected the law? Were they free of the prejudice common at the time? Or were they too incompetent and divided to be effective bigots? Reading old newspapers reminds us that the past is a different country, and that there was a lot going on between the lines. It looks bad, but it could have been worse.

The moral of the story: Don’t do anything your great-great-grandchildren wouldn’t approve of.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to bruce@greensilverlinings.com.
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