LeBARON: City's rich, painful Chinese legacy gets its due

When you walk through a museum exhibit and hear people around you exclaiming, "Well, for heaven sakes. I didn't know THAT," you know that history is being well served.

Such is the case with the current installation on the mezzanine of the Sonoma County Museum, which tells stories of Santa Rosa's Chinatown; stories that have either been forgotten or — more and more, as time goes by — were never known. The exhibit ends Aug. 12.

There are three "chapters" to the story told in photos and artifacts. The first is a grim tale of the anti-Chinese politics of the late 19th century, the open hostilities, the boycott of businesses hiring Chinese, the determination to "starve them out" of Santa Rosa.

The West Coast's anti-Chinese movement that began in the early 1880s was the result of joblessness created by a worldwide economic depression.

The politics of fear and hate took hold all along the Pacific Coast, resulting in the formation of Anti-Chinese Leagues in the cities, including Santa Rosa, where the banner unfurled across the main street, in front of the courthouse, read: "The Chinese Must Go, We Mean Strictly Business."

Signs appeared in store windows here saying "No Chinese Employed." Two cooperative "white laundries" were organized to put the Chinese laundries on the east side of the plaza out of business. And it worked.

The newspapers, both the Sonoma Democrat and the Santa Rosa Republican, reported with undisguised glee on how many Chinese had left on the train each week — until almost all of them were gone.

One of the unintended consequences of all this political "success" can be

assessed by the newspapers of the time. When the harvest season arrived, headlines fairly screamed: "Hop pickers needed!" Editorials asked: "Who's going to pick the crops?"

Chapter Two: By the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese had returned. The political climate had changed. Chinese were no longer the enemy, although still considered exotic.

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