Anti-Asian Sentiment Nothing New in North Bay

Sonoma County and multiple local cities publicly denounced anti-Asian racism in a flood of public statements over the past two weeks. 

The statements came after eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed in a March 16 mass shooting in Atlanta, following reports of a substantial increase in reports of anti-Asian crimes in 2020.

On Monday, March 22, a range of elected officials from throughout the county participated in a joint press conference meant to “take a unified stand against racism in light of recent racist acts, including attacks on Asian Americans, that have occurred locally and across the nation.” Several Sonoma County cities released statements condemning racism, and activist groups held events on the same subject.

Earlier in the month, a study found that the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 major cities increased by 150% from 2019 to 2020, while the overall rate of hate crimes decreased by 7% in the same time period.

Census estimates from 2019 show that Sonoma County has a much smaller Asian population than other areas of California, which is 15.5% Asian (6.1 million people). Sonoma County’s Asian population sits at 4.6% (nearly 23,000 people), compared to 8.9% (just over 12,000) in neighboring Napa County, a county with a much smaller population.

Despite the fact that it has a relatively small Asian population these days, Sonoma County and the rest of the North Bay have a long history of anti-Asian violence and prejudice. And, as anti-Asian violence grabbed headlines in recent weeks, some of that history was recirculated. What follows is an incomplete overview of that history.

Labor History

In the 19th century, Chinese laborers did the crucial, back-breaking work to establish the North Bay’s early wine industry, NPR reported in 2017. However, the Chinese laborers were soon targeted by an anti-immigrant labor movement, and pushed out of many rural areas, including the North Bay.

Between 1890 and 1930, the Chinese population in Sonoma County dropped from 1,145 people to fewer than 200, according to Census data cited by NPR.

In Marin County, some Chinese immigrants sought shelter from the anti-Chinese rhetoric and policies of the day by creating a self-sustaining community that was removed from the nearby cities, in what is now known as China Camp State Park.

“China Camp Village grew considerably in the 1870s and 1880s, at a time when vicious anti-Chinese sentiment was sweeping California. The economic recession of 1877 made scapegoats out of Chinese laborers, who were viewed as foreigners taking jobs away from Americans,” states a history of the State Park written by Friends of China Camp.

The population later dwindled when a new law banned the export of shrimp, the main business sustaining China Camp’s economy.

During the same time period, there were “Chinatowns” in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma and other North Bay cities.

High-Profile Shooting

On Feb. 28, a feature article in the New Yorker magazine about recent anti-Asian hate crimes opened with a troubling scene from Sonoma County in 1997.

Kuan Chung Kao, a 33-year-old engineer, got into an argument at a bar near Rohnert Park, when a patron mistook the Taiwan-born Kao for a Japanese man. Kao, who was celebrating a new job, was angered by the interaction. “I’m sick and tired of being put down because I’m Chinese,” he reportedly told the man.

Although the fight at the bar was split up safely, police officers were called to Kao’s house later that night after a neighbor called to complain about Kao, who was standing in his driveway, yelling. After a short interaction, the officers shot and killed Kao in his driveway. A department spokesman later said that the officers felt threatened because Kao was brandishing a stick “in a threatening martial-arts fashion,” the New Yorker reported. 

The case drew considerable attention at the time—even leading to state and FBI inquiries into the case—but, ultimately, the officers did not face criminal charges. The Sonoma County District Attorney declined to press charges against the officers, as did the FBI and California Attorney General. After filing a civil lawsuit against the city, Kao’s family reached a settlement with the city for $1 million.

Hateful Letter

The news of the shooting in Atlanta was followed by an anonymous racist letter sent to a Healdsburg nail salon last week. The anonymous, hate-filled letter encourages Asian businesses to “GET THE F— OUT OF US!!!!” 

A version of the same letter, which appears to have passed through a post office in San Bernardino, was sent to several other Asian-owned businesses across the state as well, according to media reports.

A photo of the letter circulated on social media in Sonoma County, renewing and localizing the outrage about the recent uptick in anti-Asian violence. 

On Sunday, March 28, approximately 100 people gathered in Healdsburg’s downtown square to condemn anti-Asian violence and racism. The event, organized by Sonoma County group Love and Light, was titled “F— your bad day,” a reference to the well-publicized statement by a Georgia Sheriff’s captain who said that Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old who is the prime suspect in the massage parlors shootings in Atlanta, was simply having “a really bad day.”

Speakers at the event, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 50s, reflected on the range of racism they and their families have dealt with—ranging from family members who were sent to internment camps during World War II, to day-to-day hostilities in present-day Sonoma County.

Theories on the recent increase in anti-Asian violence differ.

Many blame former President Donald Trump for repeatedly associating the Covid-19 virus with China. And, under Joe Biden, diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise, prompting some to draw a connection between the U.S.’s global policies—and past wars—in the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“Belittling and dehumanizing Asians has helped justify endless wars and the expansion of US militarism. And this has deadly consequences for Asians and Asian Americans, especially women,” three contributors wrote in a recent piece in the Nation magazine.

Will Carruthers
Will Carruthers is a news reporter for the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.
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