Early Chinese residents in Washington State most famously and numerously drew from Southern China's Taishan region. The impact of emigrants to 19th century America from that "backwater" was significant. Today, Washington State's most well-known son of the Taishanese diaspora is former U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke.
Perhaps because workers from Taishan formed the base for much of initial Chinese migration to the U.S., awareness of early Chinese presence tends to revolve around this group whose labor was vital to constructing the trans-continental railway, mining gold, silver and coal, and in the Pacific Northwest, processing salmon.
"China House" (cannery workers housing), Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington:
Even amongst the 19th century migrants from southern China however, the situation was more nuanced and complex than is often recognized. From 1850-1882, an elite class of Chinese merchants, often from southern China, with an accumulation of capital, knowledge of English and familiarity with the American legal system, cultivated relationships with white businesspeople and officials. Sarah M. Griffith's "Border Crossings: Race, Class and Smuggling in Pacific Coast Chinese Immigrant Society" argues that as the Exclusion Act took force in 1882, this class of merchants experienced a boon of sorts. With low-cost Chinese labor (as well as opium) continuing to be desired by white American business people, Chinese commercial elites were able to leverage these relationships to forge even stronger positions for themselves in America.
In addition to the laborers and merchants hailing from China's south, there were also southern Chinese (not necessarily Taishanese) intellectuals who forged important ties between China and North America. They included scholars who successfully advanced through China's imperial exam system, and as a result, lived and worked in other parts of China, including Beijing. Certain of these scholars later sought to reform the imperial system. When reform efforts were stymied, connections with diaspora Chinese in North America proved important in raising funds to advance reformers' political aims, including overthrow of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Most well-known among these reforming intellectuals were Kang Youwei and one of his close associates Liang Qichao. When conservative elements in the imperial court blocked the Emperor's support for reform in 1898, Liang became a wanted man and fled to Japan in exile. By the early 1900s he visited North America, including Seattle.
In North America, Liang connected with overseas members of the imperial reform movement. Regarding the operation of the Empire Reform Association branch in Seattle, Liang was favorably impressed ~
A few years after Liang's visit, China's imperial government sent a trade delegation to the United States, which included a stop in Seattle. The Museum of History & Industry's caption of this photograph recording the arrival from China of its leader Prince Tsai and the other members in 1906 explains:
"American trade with China and other Asian nations was increasing in the early 1900s. Seattle businessmen were particularly interested in having Chinese products enter the United States through Seattle. A group from China visited the city in February 1906 to discuss trade and other matters."
The Seattle Times gave the delegation's arrival front page coverage:
The commercial ties continued. This photograph from around 1920 shows members from the Chinese Silk Commission visiting Seattle, with the caption noting:
"Since the late 19th century, trade with China and other countries bordering the Pacific Ocean has been very important to Seattle. Over the years, various groups of people from these Asian nations have visited Seattle to promote their countries' products. In 1920, nearly 14 million dollars worth of Chinese goods came through Washington ports."
By the 1920's Seattle was also drawing students from China to attend the University of Washington.
The caption explains: "In 1920 and 1921, China suffered a serious famine made worse by civil war. Between fifteen and twenty-five million people died in five northern provinces alone. In Seattle, people of Chinese ancestry worked hard to raise money for the Chinese Famine Fund. This photo shows a group of Chinese students from the University of Washington who acted as tour guides in Chinatown to raise money for famine relief. Some of the students wear traditional clothing and others wear western clothing."
Among the seniors graduating in 1923 from the University of Washington were two from China, one of whom designated Shanghai as his hometown. He was graduating with a degree in fisheries (the UW being one of only three universities in the world with a College of Fisheries) and the other in pharmacy.
From these snippets one can glean that although the majority of Chinese presence in the Pacific Northwest drew from southern China, by the early 1900s, Chinese businesspeople, intellectuals, and officials from various parts of China were connecting with Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
In 'Rumors from Shanghai' I imagined Ping, the Our House chef who teaches Tolt to speak Chinese, as an intellectual from an elite family who had been an acolyte of Kang Youwei, forced to flee China and too proud to seek help from the Chinese merchant and laboring classes also in America, had sought a job from Bill Gross.
In my mind's eye, Ping is tall, with a long, narrow nose, an acerbic wit and a deeply chauvinistic conviction that no culture in the world can even come close to comparing to the superiority of China's. His favorite pastime is sparring with his Japanese colleague, Sato, the Our House handyman, who is equally passionate about the elevated worth of his homeland. The two friends' competition plays out by stuffing Tolt as full as a Thanksgiving turkey with knowledge and appreciation of their respective language, cultures and history.
Perhaps if Ping had arrived in Seattle in the 1920s, instead of twenty years earlier, he would have been a student at the University of Washington and president of the Chinese Students' Club!