Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Bettie Luke Recalls Marches Commemorating Anniversaries of 1886 Chinese Expulsion

  • Posted 8/03/2015
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Bettie Luke (b. 1942) helped Ben Woo (1923-2008) organize a march in 1986 to mark the centennial of the 1886 expulsion of Chinese residents from Seattle and led the effort to commemorate the 125th anniversary in 2011. The Chinese expulsion occurred in February 1886 when a group of Seattle residents tried to force Chinese immigrants out of the city. Seattle was just one of many cities and towns on the West Coast that tried to remove Chinese immigrants in the 1880s. Luke was interviewed in March 2015 for a project HistoryLink did in partnership with Historic South Downtown to document the historical connections between the Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods and the central waterfront. Dominic Black talked with her about the expulsion and the marches.


The Chinese were brought down to the docks, and the crowd wanted to load them on the ship the Queen of the Pacific, but the ship captain says, "Unless you buy their fare, pay fare, I'm not gonna take them." And so the intense need to drive the Chinese out, a hat was passed around and some money was collected -- I don't know how much.

Meanwhile, the intervention occurred with -- and I don't know which Chinese leader it was -- had a connection to Judge Thomas Burke, and Judge Thomas Burke was involved in, well not only employing ... but in some business deals. And so he's the one that called a halt. They declared martial law, and so they were stopped from doing that.

Pushing, shoving, shots fired, somebody got shot in the crowd. And when they declared the martial law they said, "OK you can't shove the Chinese out." They put them in a warehouse overnight. And so due process, bring them before the judge, ask them if they want to leave.

1986 and 2011

Actually it [the commemoration] started out in 1986, because the Chinese were driven out of Seattle February 7, 1886. So Ben Woo was the coordinator of that and I helped. I learned so much on that -- after he passed away and it became closer to 2011 I recognized that it'd be 125 years, and so I took on the coordination of that, and I included in my committee representatives from other towns who also faced expulsion or difficulty for Chinese.

It included Theresa Pan Hosley in Tacoma -- the Reconciliation Project. It included Brian Lock from Olympia, it included two scholars from Bellingham who got very, very caught up in this and created programs themselves during this time. It included representatives of people whose family was in Port Townsend -- that is an entirely different story too -- but together we planned the 125th anniversary.

We had a two-day event. The first day involved an evening program. I had a musician recommended to me who created a symphony dedicated to Chinese railroad workers. I had three speakers that evening, one probably the most prominent Chinese elder at that time, James Mar, talked about his father -- early history. I had Tracy Lai, a historian of Asian American history, and I had Judge Charles C. Smith speaking about the legalities and the implications of the law at that time.   

A Rally and a March

The key event was a rally and march. Since the Chinese were rounded up from the Chinatown area, taken down to the docks to be shipped out, I organized a reverse march [in 2011]. We gathered at the docks and we marched in. And we stopped at strategic places. I had specific people speak at each stop. We made three stops and then we ended up at the Wing Luke Asian Museum.

And when I organized that march, too, I made sure -- I had purchased two large American flags, and those American flags marched on each side of the banner that announced what we were. Because I wanted people to be very clear -- Chinese Americans. And that we were not allowed citizenship at that time [1886], but the descendants and certainly our involvement, and not only in the Chinese American community, but in helping to build Seattle.

[The march] started down under the viaduct at Washington and Alaska, walked up Washington to Third,  Third or Fourth. Anyhow, we stopped there and we had one of the college speakers. Sharon Tomiko Santos read a proclamation. Dow Constantine was there and spoke.

Then from there we marched over to Fifth, went through the Chinese gate, which is on King and Fifth, and we stopped right about that intersection right afterwards, because I chose not to stop at Hing Hay Park because we had to pay (laughter) and if you stop in the intersection, that's public.

Dominic Black: At the stopping points along the march, why did you pick each particular spot to stop? Was there a significance to each stopping point particularly or was it …?

Well first I wanted the opportunity for people to speak. The first stop basically was like, one of the borders of the old Chinatown, and then the second one was significant in that the Chinese gate had fairly recently been put in place and that was so symbolic, tying the past and the present. And then the museum of course was an opportunity for more speakers and real specific things to be addressed.

Two things we did add to the march as we were preparing the front line to go. It was brought to our attention that [Seattle was] very different from Tacoma. In Tacoma, the mayor, the firemen, law people, they stood by and let Chinatown be burned down.  But in Seattle the fire department stationed people around the city to prevent it from being burned down. So I went, contacted people in the fire department, and I asked if they would send Asian representatives to march with us, because we wanted to honor and thank them.   

I wanted to ask a representative from the Sheriff's Department also because you know, they were involved in terms of helping to protect and reinforce -- even though the Chinese were being thrown out -- and I was a little disappointed. When I spoke to a person at the Sheriff's Department I said, "You know this is really symbolic, we want to honor, and we want to have an Asian representative come to our march."

And I said, "How many Asians do you have on staff?"

"I don't know."

And I asked, "Could I leave a message with the Sheriff with this message?"

It never got answered.

Letting Go of the Past

What we did was that we stashed at one place black helium balloons tied with a red string to represent ... it was almost the same number of Chinese who were driven out, and the red string to indicate hope.

And we went down to the waterfront and shot off firecrackers, had the Lion Dance, and we let go the balloons. That was the era where we did not know environmentally that was not a good idea.


Dominic Black interview with Bettie Luke, March 20, 2015.

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