SF State professor's film explores racism in 19th-century Pacific Northwest

SAN FRANCISCO, March 29, 2012 -- What does a late-1800s Pacific Northwest town have in common with today's immigration debate? Quite a bit, says SF State's Valerie Soe.

Soe, an assistant professor of Asian American studies, has written, directed and produced a new short documentary called "The Chinese Gardens" that explores the lost Chinese community in Port Townsend, Wash. and draws connections between anti-Chinese racism in the late 19th-century Pacific Northwest and today's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The film will premiere at SF State on April 6 and be screened in San Francisco and several other U.S. locations in April and May.

"The Chinese Gardens" shines a light on the often-unseen history of anti-Chinese violence and ensuing resistance in the Pacific Northwest. Soe visited the locations of former Chinatown landmarks in Port Townsend, where today there is little trace of the community despite Chinese at one point making up 25 percent of the town's population. Even a bronze plaque commemorating the former Chinatown has recently been stolen, Soe said.

"It's kind of like chasing ghosts," she said. Soe hopes the film will help viewers understand the significant contributions immigrants make to American society and become aware that scapegoating immigrants has been used for many years to deflect blame from deeper issues in our society.

Drawn to the U.S. by the California Gold Rush and the demand for workers to build the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese immigrants settled in cities and towns along the West Coast. But when the country slid into a depression after the Civil War, those immigrants became scapegoats for the worsening economic conditions. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which severely limited Chinese immigration to the U.S. and was often manifested in beatings and murders of Chinese immigrants. The law was not repealed until 1943.

Unlike in other West Coast cities like Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane and Eureka, Port Townsend's Chinese community was not violently thrown out, Soe said. But the Chinese, who for a time were integrated with and accepted by the larger community, were eventually driven away by "benign neglect." According to some accounts, Port Townsend's Chinatown was destroyed during a citywide fire in 1910 because firefighters only saved the white buildings, Soe said.

"We hear the standard history of the Chinese building railroads and settling in Chinatown, and doing well, but there also was a struggle," Soe said. "They had to resist a lot of blatant discrimination and violence."

Perhaps most striking are the similarities Soe found between the anti-Chinese sentiments of the late 1800s and language about Latino immigrants heard today. It is a connection she believes is important for people to make and one she hopes the film illuminates.

"The phrases are amazing," Soe said. "They're almost exactly the same as what we hear today. 'People are taking our jobs.' 'They're here illegally.' 'They don't contribute to society.' All this stuff that is said about Latinos was said back in the 1800s about the Chinese."

"The Chinese Gardens" is funded by grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the San Francisco State University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Cesar Chavez Institute Community University Empowerment Fund. SF State will host the premiere of "The Chinese Gardens" at a screening and reception from 12:30 to 2 p.m. April 6. The screening will include a discussion of the issues of race and immigration in the United States and feature light refreshments.

In addition to the premiere at SF State, screenings of "The Chinese Gardens" will take place in the following cities:

  • Baltimore, Md.: 4:30 p.m. April 13, Maryland Institute College of Art, Bunting Center 330, 1401 West Mt. Royal Avenue
  • Chicago, Ill.: 5-6:30 p.m. April 24, DePaul University Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton,
  • Urbana, Ill.: 7-9 p.m. April 26, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illini Union, Room C, 1401 West Green Street
  • San Francisco, Calif.: 8:30 p.m. May 5, Other Cinema, 922 Valencia St.
  • Los Angeles, Calif.: Time TBA, May 5-20, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival


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Reporters interested in interviewing Valerie Soe or attending the screening of "The Chinese Gardens" may contact Jonathan Morales at (415) 338-1743 or jmm1@sfsu.edu. SF State can provide artwork of the film and of Soe.

SF State is the only master's level public university serving the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. The university enrolls nearly 30,000 students each year. With nationally acclaimed programs in a range of fields -- from creative writing, cinema and biology to history, broadcast and electronic communications arts, theatre arts and ethnic studies -- the University's more than 212,000 graduates have contributed to the economic cultural and civic fabric of San Francisco and beyond.