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State issues formal apology for past discrimination against Chinese

The wave of immigrants who worked dangerous jobs building railroads and early California infrastructure faced decades of discrimination, marriage restrictions and private injustices.

July 23, 2009|Corina Knoll

The documents Chan Share clutched as he left China were forged. It was 1939 and Asians were not allowed to immigrate to the United States. So, like many others, Share claimed he was a "paper son" and had a California-born relative whose records were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

After two months of interrogation at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, Share was allowed into a country where Chinese laborers decades before him had toiled in the merciless sun to lay miles of railroad track that would connect the dots of America. Despite their hard work, he was told he could not vote, own property or even marry the person of his choice.

Seventy years later, the state of California has formally apologized to the thousands of Chinese immigrants who helped build the state. Many, including Share, are no longer alive, but their children and grandchildren had pushed for such an apology.

The state Assembly on Friday adopted a resolution expressing profound regret for the persecution of Chinese immigrants, who in the 1880s and 1890s performed the dangerous work of cobbling together California's nascent infrastructure. The Senate has adopted the same resolution.

The bill does not seek any financial compensation for Chinese who were mistreated or denied basic civil liberties, but its authors said they intend to ask Congress to adopt the same resolution.

The legislation was co-sponsored by Assemblymen Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles). For Fong it was personal; Chan Share was his grandfather.

"Racism still reverberates today and a lot of the discrimination laws -- those wounds are still open," Fong said Wednesday. "By apologizing, we'll hopefully close those wounds and close a sad chapter in our history."

That history included Chinese men recruited to work on the first transcontinental railroad being paid pitiful wages and treated as inferiors. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration and the men living here had little hope of bringing over the family members they had left behind. As they spread out to the agricultural and mining industries, their willingness to work cheaply was resented.

They were often forced to live impoverished lives in squalid Chinatowns, including the large community where L.A.'s Union Station now sits.

After racial barriers to immigration were amended, a new wave of Chinese immigrants arrived only to encounter discrimination from banks, landlords and retail establishments.

Raymond Fong, a 64-year-old wine merchant in San Francisco whose father was a "paper son," says recognizing racism in the country's history helps people understand the roots of an ethnic community.

"It's a catalyst for getting more of the story and opens the door so people can explain," said Raymond Fong, who is not related to the assemblyman.

"You can't believe the psychological impact it had on ABCs -- American Born Chinese. We're the generation whose parents learned to turn the other cheek because they didn't want to draw attention. We're the ones raised under the scars and seen as the good Asian Americans because we feared getting into trouble," said Raymond Fong.

The apology is part of a wave of formal regret offered by the government in recent years. In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese Americans who during World War II were thrown into prison camps such as Manzanar. In 2008 the House passed a resolution apologizing for slavery, and the Senate followed suit last month.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

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