Little Canton Can't

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Blog on the topic of Anti-Chinese sentiment and immigration.

Love story between a Chinese man and a white woman in the 1880s before the Chinese were expelled from Tacoma.


In November 1885, a mob of citizens expelled the entire population of Tacoma’s 600 Chinese residents, forcing them down the tracks to Portland. Once the Chinese were gone, citizens burned down the row of 13 houses along the waterfront that had come to be known as Little Canton. In the months and years leading up to the expulsion, anti-Chinese sentiment in the American West was growing. Just three years earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning further immigration of migrant workers from China. Before the expulsion, some Tacomans had claimed that many of the Chinese who were coming to Tacoma were slipping over the border from Canada, entering the country illegally.

Tacoma in 1882-1885, during the time leading up to the Chinese expulsion, is the setting that I propose to write a fictional love story between a white woman, Margaret Quinn, and a Chinese man, Kwok Sue.

Having just lost her husband to tuberculosis in early 1882, Margaret wears black and keeps up the pretense of mourning, leaving much of the work of caring for her three children to her in-laws, Jonathon and Abigail Quinn. A long-time acquaintance named Jim Jam Jacks, drops by one day to call on Margaret. He is an interested suitor, but Margaret secretly is repulsed by him. She claims it is too soon after the loss of her husband for her to even consider courting another man. Abigail doesn’t like to see her daughter-in-law sit around the house all day, so she suggests that Margaret volunteer at their Methodist church.

The next Sunday, the pastor announces that the church is looking for volunteers to teach English to local Chinese people. Margaret had wanted to be a teacher before she married. It had been her intention to move back to Kentucky where she was born and where her Irish father had been killed in the anti-Catholic violence of Bloody Monday in April of 1855 when she was only four. 

Margaret volunteers to teach a small class. The first night, only three men show up wearing their traditional blue shirt and trousers and their heads completely shaved, except for a long patch of hair that is braided in the traditional queue style. Margaret is shy at first and it feels awkward, because of her social conditioning, to be teaching three men. That is why the pastor agreed to stay during the lessons. Having never taught before, she is nervous, and finds out the level of English literacy is quite low. After the class is over, Margaret is distraught and wants to quit, but the Pastor won’t allow it.

The next night, only one student returns, Kwok Sue. Margaret is hurt, thinking that perhaps she did a poor job. But Kwok Sue explains in broken English they had business to attend to. The two proceed with the lesson and have a good one-on-one class. The Pastor falls asleep in his chair while the two are talking and the two begin to relax and enjoy each other’s company. The classes are three nights a week. And it turns out that on every Tuesday night, Kwok Sue is the only one who can show up, so he and Margaret have a lot of time to get to know each other. She learns about Cantonese culture and his childhood. He learns a lot about her and about American culture, including Victorian etiquette that was so prevalent in those days. They have etiquette lessons and really start to enjoy each other’s company.

One day, Kwok Sue suggests that they do something outside of the class together, maybe take a walk along Point Defiance. Margaret agrees happily, but at home she picks up a copy of the Tacoma Ledger and reads about anti-Chinese events in other places. In Wyoming, several Chinese men were shot and killed, etc. The article she is reading is penned by Jim-Jam Jacks, who is trying to stir up the people in Tacoma against the Chinese. A conversation between Abigail and Jonathan about the “Chinese menace” adds to the reminder that if she were to get caught courting a Chinese man, there would be a great deal of trouble for her.

That same evening, Jim-Jam Jacks comes knocking again. It has been a couple of months since his last visit when he first expressed his interest in being with her. His wife had left him two years prior, and moved back east, still childless. Margaret’s husband has been dead over a year now; her excuse is getting weaker. The truth is, Jim Jams repulses her and she needs to put an end to his interest. She knows him to be a man of violence. Finally, during their conversation, she decides to be honest and let him know that she is not interested in him. She has no intention of marrying anyone again. She wishes to remain alone and perhaps move back to Kentucky someday to teach English. 

Jim-Jam is angry and leaves upset, saying that she will change her mind someday. He will try again. He doesn’t give up easily.

Despite the warning signs, Margaret agrees to meet Kwok Sue for a walk one Saturday when she could come up with a pretense. She has come to enjoy her time with him more than with anyone else. He is gentle, kind, and smart. He looks at her with kindness, and she pities his loneliness. In those days, only about five percent of those immigrating from China were women. Chinese men had go outside their racial group if they wanted romance.

Maragret and Kwok Sue have a successful first date. No one sees them and they have a very pleasant time together. They even hold hands on the way back, and she has the nerve to kiss him on the cheek. The next week when he arrives at English class, Kwok Sue has cut his long hair and donned the clothing of a white man. Margaret had suggested once during a class that if he and the others wanted to be accepted more by white society and to do more business with them, he might dress like a white person, and maybe consider becoming a Christian.

Margaret is taken back by how handsome Kwok Sue is in western attire. They start to see each other more and more outside of English classes. She invites him to her house occasionally on the pretext of helping with her garden, landscaping, handywork and horses. One day, they agree to meet outside of town at a farm where Kwok Sue occasionally labors. In an empty barn, they become lovers. After making love, they lie there in rapture together listening to the rain tap softly on the barn roof. Just as they are getting dressed, footsteps are heard coming up to the barn. A man enters.  It’s the owner of the farm and Kwok Sue’s boss. He is surprised to see them there. Margaret is just finishing buttoning her top blouse collar. The farmer looks at them, clearly surmising what just happened.

Margaret is flustered and searches for something to say. Kwok Sue is the first to speak, “Oh, Mr. Kemper, we, we, we…” Regaining her composure, Margaret says, “Good afternoon, Mr. Kemper. Kwok sue was just showing me a word we were having trouble translating. You see, I’m his English teacher…” “I know who you are,” Mr. Kemper responds. “No need to explain,” he says. They exchange some pleasantries and then walk away. Margaret knows that they have been caught. The return home is painful.

The next day, there is news that a farmer had been killed the afternoon before about the time she and Kwok Sue were in the barn. A witness had seen a Chinaman leaving the premises in a hurry. Margaret frantically scans the article for the name of the farmer and breathes a sigh of relief when she finds that it is not Mr. Kemper. She tells herself that maybe the whole thing will just blow over. Perhaps Mr. Kemper will keep his secret. However, on the way to church Margaret sees Mr. Kemper and Jim Jam walking along the street together towards the Episcopal church.

The following week during English classes, Margaret is uptight and Kwok Sue is very apologetic and sad about what happened. At the end of their one-on-one Tuesday night class, during which time the two had started talking about ending their relationship or planning how they might somehow be together, an officer comes into the church and arrests Kwok Sue for the farmer’s murder.

Mr. Kemper had told Jim Jam about the affair, and Jim Jam had gone into a rage. “She’s going to spurn me for a Chinaman?!” he yells. Then, he gets the idea that the best way to get his revenge and prevent the two from being together would be to accuse Kwok Sue of the murdering the farmer. After all, he knows that Margaret won’t defend Kwok Sue because that would mean she would have to confess to having an affair with him. And if she does confess in court she will be exposed and ostracized.

The trial is set for late October 1885. Margaret decides it is her moral duty to stand up for Kwok Sue. She is his alibi. She was with him at the time of the murder. During the trial, she gives a rousing speech about “Man’s inhumanity to man,” and gets carried away in defense of the Chinese. She talks about the Statue of Liberty that has just been sent over that year (1885) to America from France. While that lady will be holding liberty’s torch high on the East coast it is her duty to hold it high on the West coast. She talks about how her family was the victim of violence against others for being different. Her father was killed for being Catholic. The speech is very powerful, and while some are visibly moved by it, Jim Jam retorts that everything she said just proves that she is not to be trusted. She is loyal to the Pope AND to the emperor of China. Under the law of coverture, a woman’s rights are subsumed by her husband. She is no longer an individual after marriage. It was this thinking that led up to the 1902 law that said any woman marrying a foreigner automatically loses U.S. citizenship and becomes a citizen of her husband’s country.

Soon, the crowd is turned against her. The court adjourns and Margaret goes home dejected. Her mother-in-law wants her to leave. She can no longer stand the embarrassment. Abigail offers to take care of the children, but Margaret would have to leave, for a while anyway. That night, she realizes for certain that she is pregnant with Kwok Sue’s child.

The next day, Kwok Sue is acquitted of the murder. The witness had seen a Chinaman with traditional clothing and hairstyle. Kwok Sue had taken on American style months earlier. Margaret is excited to receive the news and starts to think maybe there is a way they can be together and have the child. However, on that very night, Jim Jam rallies the mob and they expel the Chinese. Kwok Sue disappears with the other Chinese, deciding it’s best to just try to come back for her later after things cool off. Margaret is left alone to bear the weight of her social isolation and her pregnancy with Kwok Sue’s baby.

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