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Yellow peril, yellow press

100 years ago today, city saw roundup of Chinese

"Over 300 Chinamen Arrested In Big Round-Up By Police." That was the boldface, front-page headline of the Boston Herald 100 years ago today. "Chinatown Scoured," declared the front page of that same day's Boston Globe.

The evening before, a small army of police and federal immigration officials had moved into Chinatown without warrants and raided restaurants, lodging houses, and other businesses. They'd arrested every Asian male who could not immediately produce the registration papers that were required for Chinese immigrants since the passage of the Geary Act in 1892.

In the end, between 250 to 300 men -- about a third of the Boston area's Chinese population -- were arrested. Fifty men were eventually sent back to China; the rest were set free within a day or two.

The articles on the raid followed more than a week of front-page news about Chinatown, which began with sensationalized coverage of a murder and continued with stories about a potential feud between rival Chinatown "tongs" -- merchant associations that also controlled illicit enterprises, such as gambling.

And yet the raid has largely faded from the city's historical memory, according to Peter Kiang, director of the Asian American Studies Program at UMass-Boston. This summer, Kiang, along with a group of student researchers, began work on a booklet and CD-ROM curriculum about the raid, which they hope will give students in Boston a fuller sense of their city's history.

"Nobody actually knows about it, and that to me is troubling," said Kiang. "As a teacher, that doesn't seem right to me."

Kiang's primary resources for the curriculum have been the newspapers that covered the 1903 raid. The articles not only reveal the raid's details and significant aspects of turn-of-the-century life in Boston, but they also make plain the xenophobic and racist lens through which the events of the day were often viewed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Boston's Chinese population numbered about 850, was almost entirely male, and was kept from significant growth by exclusionary immigration laws that would not be lifted until the 1960s.

On Oct. 2, 1903, Wong Yak Chong, the 30-year-old owner of a laundry in Roslindale and a member of the Hip Sing Tong, was shot dead on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown. Two Chinese men were arrested for the shooting, one of whom wore a shirt of steel chain mail and carried a hatchet.

The following day's newspapers described the suspects as "Highbinders," killers hired by the On Leong Tong to assassinate its rivals.

Although reporters noted that this was the first murder within a Chinese community that had existed in Boston since the 1870s, subsequent articles warned of a coming "Highbinder War" and described "wily Mongolians" planning murder behind the drawn curtains of dark, Chinatown "hives."

In fact, Chinese residents of Boston had warned police of coming violence prior to the shooting of Chong, but they'd been ignored.

"These Chinamen are such liars that we couldn't believe half they told us," explained one policeman after the fact. As a result, authorities determined that only a "close and constant espionage on the neighborhood" by police could prevent further bloodshed.

In a 1996 article on the raid, "The Eagle Seeks a Helpless Quarry," published in the Amerasia Journal, K. Scott Wong, a historian at Williams College, noted how the police and reporters enlarged the threat of revenge killings in Chinatown into a general threat of illegal and dangerous Chinese immigrants. Newspaper articles that described the tongs as gambling syndicates gave way to stories about the blackmailing of Chinese laborers who failed to register within the time mandated by federal law.

Furthermore, as Wong pointed out, while the registration status of the murder suspects was never mentioned, Boston police determined that the bulk of the trouble in Chinatown was caused by illegal immigrants residing in the district.

As the Herald reported on the morning after the raid, "More arrests will be made, probably today, and the work will be continued until Chinatown has received a cleaning out. . . . It is believed that 200 or 300 Chinamen will have been sent back to China from this city, and even if they are not members of the Highbinders' organization . . .[police are] satisfied that their deportation will give those who remain a lesson which will make Chinatown one of the quietest places within the limits of Boston."

In fact, it often seemed that beyond any murderous intentions, or even illegal status, it was the "otherness" of the Chinese that Boston authorities and the press regarded as particularly threatening to the larger community. One scene from the coverage of the raid, for instance, described a few "degenerate" white men who were discovered among the Chinese.

"By long and constant association with the Chinamen," went the Herald report, "[these men] have come to look as yellow and to smell as strongly of opium as do the Celestials themselves."

In a recent interview, Wong noted that the 1903 raid fit a pattern of immigrant communities being collectively suspected in response to threats posed by certain individuals, a pattern that he sees continuing today.

"Although we don't hear much about it, we know there are a lot of South Asians and Arabs being rounded up, held and deported because their papers aren't in order," particularly targeted, he said, because they are members of those ethnic groups most closely associated with Muslim extremists and terrorists.

Kiang, of UMass, said he and the students researching the raid, detected a similar resonance with current events. He pointed in particular to the United States pressuring the Cambodian government last year to accept the forced repatriation of Cambodian immigrants who have committed a felony on American soil, including those whose offenses were nonviolent and those who have already served their time in jail.

In addition, Giles Li, one of the student researchers, sees potential parallels between the raid and the threat of gentrification now being confronted by Boston's Chinatown. "In both situations, it's a small, ethnic community that's trying to hold itself together," said Li, who intends to further explore the theme in the final project for his master's degree in science and public affairs.

Despite the tone of the 1903 articles, a significant number of Bostonians of varying ethnic backgrounds strongly criticized the raid and held protest rallies in places like Faneuil Hall. Kiang, who aims to complete his curriculum by the spring, noted this dissent as one of many issues he hopes will elicit discussion in Boston classrooms.

"It was an important moment in the life of the city, and many of the issues that were wrapped up in it are alive and critical today."

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