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San Jose Apologizes Over 1887 Chinatown Destruction, Racism Against Chinese Community - 'Acknowledge The History'

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – A San Jose City Council Resolution Ceremony drew hundreds to the site of a 134-year atrocity on Wednesday, to hear city leaders formally apologize to the Chinese immigrant community and their descendants.

The gathering comes the day after the City Council unanimously passed a resolution (.pdf) detailing acts of racism and violence at the hands of San Jose's mayor and city council dating back to the 1800s.

Titled "A Resolution Of The Council of the City of San Jose Apologizing to Chinese Immigrants and Their Descendants for Acts of Fundamental Injustice and Discrimination, Seeking Forgiveness and Committing to the Rectification of Past Policies and Misdeeds." the five-page document is a full accounting of the hateful and exclusionary acts committed against Chinese immigrants who arrived in the Santa Clara Valley to work on the railroads and in the fruit fields beginning in 1849.

Perhaps the most infamous of the violent incidents occurred shortly after then-mayor C. W. Breyfogle and the City Council voted to unanimously to declare the Market Street Chinatown a "public nuisance", in order to make way for a new City Hall. Weeks later, "the Market Street Chinatown succumbed to arson on May 4, 1887 before official action could be taken, leading to the destruction of homes and businesses and the displacement of 1,400 members of San José's Chinese community," according to the resolution.

San Jose Market Street Fire
Aftermath of 1887 fire that destroyed the Market Street Chinatown in San Jose. (CBS)

Back in 1987, on the 100th anniversary of the fire, city leaders installed a plaque to commemorate the loss. The bronze fixture is affixed to the corner of the former Fairmont Hotel, located just steps away from Wednesday's event.

San Jose's five Chinatowns were all built within the current boundaries of District 2, represented by Councilmember Raul Peralez. Following a spike of anti-Asian violence in the district, Peralez organized listening sessions, which eventually led to the apology resolution.

"And out of those listening sessions, one idea came forward, that we had no idea that it would rise to this level of importance and interest. But it was an idea, with the simple message, to number one, say I'm sorry," said Peralez. "To recognize, acknowledge the history in our own local government, our own past leaders, our own past mayors and councilmembers here in the city of San Jose perpetrated something. We have to take ownership for it."

Mayor Sam Liccardo read the resolution aloud in its entirety, the first time in recent memory that any elected official has ever done so, according to Liccardo.

"Now therefore, be it resolved that the Council of the City of San Jose apologizes to all Chinese immigrants and their descendants who came to San Jose, and were victims of systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination," said Liccardo.

Connie Young Yu, a direct descendant of San Jose's Chinatowns, and a local historian, said hearing the resolution was "like music to my ears, more like symphony".

"I imagine the Chinatown Market Street Fire will be the first stepping stone. Out of the ashes rose a new community that would not be driven out. It was not an end, but a beginning. On behalf of those who fought the good fight, and continue to do so, I'd like to say to the city of San Jose, apology accepted, and resolution embraced," said Yu.

Gerrye Wong, co-founder and trustee of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, hoped the city's apology would lead to more ethnic studies courses taught in classrooms.

"Hopefully, it will start conversations. 'Why did they have an apology? What brought this on?' And I'm just hoping that this is just the start of the education for our young people," said Wong.

Professor Hien Duc Do, at San Jose State, was "very impressed" the city would tackle a sensitive a painful issue.

"We are making a statement as a society as a city that says we care deeply about these things," said Do.

According to Do, such public apologies challenge our own idealized notions of America, as a place of democracy and justice.

"The ideal that we have is up here. And the reality is somewhere down here. So this symbolically forces us to really rethink, and rededicate ourselves to getting closer and closer to the ideal of 'We the People' in order to make a more perfect union," said Do.

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