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Revisiting the anti-Chinese riots that happened in Milwaukee in the late 1800s

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University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
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University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
View looking towards the downtown area at Grand Avenue from Sixth Street in 1885, the area is now 500 block of W Wisconsin Ave. Many Chinese-owned laundries were located in Milwaukee's central business district in the Third Ward and downtown.

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time of celebration but also to recognize the histories of AAPI people. That includes a dark piece of Asian American history that happened in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

Victor Jew is a senior lecturer in the Asian American studies program at UW-Madison.

He starts by explaining that the riots began in March 1889 after two Chinese men were accused of inappropriate sexual relations with two white women. The men, Hah Ding and Sam Yip Ya were taken into custody and put on trial. The news of what happened led to protests outside of the Milwaukee courthouse. The rioters quickly began targeting Chinese laundries in downtown. They threw rocks, broke windows and started fires at the laundries.

"The important point is that all the Chinese were blamed. There were two that were guilty. They got sent to prison, but all the Chinese in Milwaukee pretty much were targeted," says Jew.

There where about 60 Chinese people in Milwaukee at the time and this incident pretty much drove them out, Jew says.

To contextualize the incident, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed years prior. And throughout the country, Chinese populations were violently targeted and killed by white vigilantes who took the law into their own hands. One of the most gruesome happened in 1871 in Los Angeles, California, where a mob of rioters killed 18 Chinese men.

And in Milwaukee, a similar story played out.

"It was a case of white Milwaukeeans, white European Milwaukeeans — a lot of German Milwaukeeans, a lot Polish Milwaukeeans, taking the law into their own hands in many ways and I guess acting in the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion System, and feeling that these local Chinese and Milwaukee had to be disciplined, not just those directly accused of inappropriate behavior, but all the Chinese in Milwaukee," says Jew.

When reflecting on this history, we can see parallels today with the rise of hate crimes towards Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 10,095 Asian Americans have reported physical and micro aggressions, from March 2020 to December 2021, he points out.

There are 24 different Asian communities in the United States today and 19 of them live in the Midwest. Jew says the burden of humanizing Asians is not on the communities to fix but those exhibiting the hateful and bigoted behavior.

"We are all reduced to some facet of a body, of some facet of a body debilitation. It's a cultural disease, and it's not on us. It's on the people who put us in that box. It's the other people who are othering us who have this disease, and they don't even know it," says Jew.

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