Book recounts Merced's anti-Chinese fervor

Most schoolchildren learn that Chinese labor helped built the railroads in the 1900s. And they may have learned of the widespread anti-Chinese sentiment across the West.

But few know about the organized roundups and expulsions of Chinese in the late 1800s that took place across the West, including Merced.

A new book, “Driven Out,” documents the more than 200 roundups of Chinese immigrants in the West, and specifically from Merced.

Merced, like many other cities, had its own anti-Chinese club, which met regularly for speeches, fundraisers and dances, writes the book’s author, Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of American Studies at the University of Delaware.

In 1884, the county’s Board of Supervisors declared all Chinese laundries a “public nuisance” and gave their owners 90 days to move out of the city. These anti-Chinese efforts culminated in an expulsion.

Pfaelzer writes: “Merced announces plans to drive out Chinese ‘vagrants,’ prostitutes, and opium dealers by March 2; they are finally routed from the city on Christmas day.”

Sarah Lim, director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, who has researched the local Chinese community, said Merced had a small Chinatown until the 1940s, which illustrates that any purges of the community didn’t last. But, said Lim, there were anti-Chinese groups.

“There was an anti-Chinese movement taking place in Merced,” she said. “There were even anti-Chinese ads in the newspapers.”

An advertisement in the San Joaquin Valley Argus, based in Merced, provides an example. “Merced Anti-Chinese Labor Bureau,” reads an ad looking for white laborers. Another, in the Merced Star, from April 29, 1886, had the same sentiment: “The Chinese Must Go.”

Despite public education, said Lim, this history is largely unknown. “People in Merced don’t know,” she said. “The history of Chinese immigrants is not being told.”

Even local Japanese Americans, who themselves were interned during World War II, don’t know much of this history.

“I was not aware that the city of Merced itself had expelled its Chinese,” said Sherman Kishi, who was held behind barbed wire at the county fair grounds in 1942.

Kishi hopes that increased education will help prevent these kinds of events. But he fears that won’t stop history from repeating itself.

In the 19th century, Chinese called San Francisco and other parts of California “Gold Mountain.”

But in the face of discrimination, that gold turned to dross.