With new land laws, history repeats itself

Asians feel 'besieged', worry about hate crimes as bills are either proposed or passed in nearly 30 US states

Hundreds of people gather in Atlanta, Georgia, to protest the increasing violence against Asian people in the United States, on March 20, 2021. (PHOTO / REUTERS)

Editor's note: Bills aimed at banning Chinese and other nationals from buying land in the United States have triggered fears of anti-Asian hate crimes. This page takes a closer look at how history is repeating itself in the form of new legislation in some states as well as the hardships faced by those who have suffered discrimination.

When Echo King's friend texted her about the passing of Florida's legislation SB 264 in the state Senate on April 11, she did not believe it.

It’s definitely a sort of reinvocation of what people in Asian American studies would refer to as ‘Yellow Peril’ fearmongering.

Madeline Hsu, history professor and expert in Asian American studies at the University of Texas in Austin

After all, it is 2023, more than 50 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and more than 10 years after the US Congress expressed regret and issued an apology for the act, and bills such as the Alien Land Laws were a thing of the past.

To verify the text message, she went to the state government's website and read the contents of the bill. To her shock, it was all true: SB 264 would ban citizens, entities and companies from seven countries of concern, including China, from purchasing farmland and other infrastructure. In addition, Chinese citizens are singled out in the bill to be excluded from acquiring any real estate in the state.

Sharing her experience in a Zoom meeting organized by the United Chinese Americans, a nonprofit civic movement, this month, King, an immigration lawyer in Orlando, Florida, said she quickly took action and formed a group with like-minded people from the community to fight the discriminative bill. In four days, they mobilized more than 100 people to go to Florida's capital, Tallahassee, to testify against it.

Their efforts gained support from some legislators and the bill was modified to make an exception for Chinese citizens with non-tourist visas, but still limited to single parcels smaller than 2 acres (0.81 hectares) and at least 5 miles (8 kilometers) from military bases.

Their fight was not enough to stop SB 264 from passing, and on May 8, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed it into law.

Florida is just one of more than 20 or perhaps about 30 states that have either passed similar bills, or proposed such bills but failed to pass as in Georgia and Kansas, or are still in the legislative process as in Louisiana and Texas.

Josh Yeh, a Chinese American from Kansas, said at the Zoom meeting that he felt "besieged" and is worried that Asian hate crimes will go up as a result of those bills.

"My kids, my descendants, if they want to stay in America, then I need to prepare for them. I have to speak up, hey, United States, you cannot keep doing this. This is not who you are. We believe in equality, we believe in liberty, we believe in pursuit of happiness, right?"

Two people leave a message on a cross at a makeshift memorial on May 10 in Allen, Texas, by the mall where a gunman opened fire on May 6, killing eight people. (PHOTO / AP)

For Yeh, the slate of bills in so many states aiming to ban Chinese and a few other nationals from buying land feels like history is repeating itself when the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882 and the Alien Land Laws were passed in many states in the 1910s.

"We are doing this again? In the name of national security, they can do anything. That's really scary to anyone of us. I am thinking for my kids, if we don't do anything, this will get worse," said Yeh, who has started a super PAC(political action committee) in Kansas to get actively involved in local political process.

Yeh was not alone to view the current legislative trend banning China from purchasing land in the US as a repeat of history. A February CNN report about a similar Texas bill SB 147 was titled "History repeats itself with anti-China land ownership proposals".

In the report, Madeline Hsu, a history professor and expert in Asian American studies at the University of Texas in Austin, told CNN, "It's definitely a sort of reinvocation of what people in Asian American studies would refer to as 'Yellow Peril' fearmongering.

"There are ways in which it resonates with what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, where regardless of citizenship, regardless of nativity, they were racially categorized as enemy aliens," Hsu continued.

One netizen named Mivey, commenting on Alabama's passing of HB 379 prohibiting Chinese citizens, entities and government bodies from purchasing property in the state, succinctly summed up how many Asian Americans are facing the current wave of "land laws" across so many states: "Making American 1882 again".

Yeh was not alone to worry that such bills would drive up anti-Asian hate crimes. Gene Wu, Texas representative who has been fighting hard against Texas bills aiming to prohibit Chinese citizens from buying land in Texas, said in a recent Zoom meeting that "there's increasing evidence that the shooter in Allen, Texas, specifically targeted Asian Americans".

In the May 6 shooting at an Allen mall which, according to the Texas Tribune, largely attracts minority and especially Asian shoppers, the gunman killed eight; seven of them were minorities and four of them were Asians.

Authorities found that the gunman held white supremacy and neo-Nazi beliefs and had Nazi symbols tattooed on his body, including a swastika and the SS lightning bolt logo of Adolf Hitler's paramilitary forces. His social media account showed that he posted about his fantasies of race wars and used violent, hateful rhetoric that targeted Asian people.

Wu said the real troubling issue with bills such as SB 147 is that those bills "would basically be the government announcing to the public that you know Asian people are dangerous, and that you should do something about it".

"And we have real concerns that more targeted attacks would come if they pass bills like SB 147."

History has proved that the danger Yeh and Wu are worried about is real. Laws targeting a specific group — by race or by country — would often fan hatred and violence against that particular targeted group. Horrendous crimes were committed after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

Allen High School students light candles at a vigil four days after a gunman shot and killed eight people at a mall in Allen, Texas, on May 10. (PHOTO / REUTERS)

Brutal massacre

In September 1885, three years after Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, close to 30 immigrant Chinese were massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming, according to history.com.

In this racially motivated killing, 150 white miners killed 28 Chinese miners, wounded 15 others and drove a few hundred of them out of town. In the end, only 45 white miners were fired by the railroad company, but none of the perpetrators ever faced any legal action for the killings.

"The Chinese had been victims of prejudice and violence ever since they first began to come to the West in the mid-19th century, fleeing famine and political upheaval," said a history article about the massacre on the website.

"Widely blamed for all sorts of social ills, the Chinese were also singled out for attack by some national politicians who popularized strident slogans like 'The Chinese Must Go' and helped pass an 1882 law that closed the US to any further Chinese immigration.

"In this climate of racial hatred, violent attacks against the Chinese in the West became all too common, though the Rock Springs massacre was notable both for its size and savage brutality," the article said, explaining the background of the massacre.

Two years later in May 1887, in a course of two days, a group of seven horse thieves, all of them white, ambushed and attacked Chinese miners with firearms in an isolated part of northeast Oregon, killing 31 to 34 immigrant Chinese.

Afterward, the horse thieves mutilated their bodies, dumped them into the Snake River, stole their mined gold, and burned their camp and equipment. The crime was not discovered until the battered bodies of the Chinese began appearing in the Snake River 65 miles (105 km) from the crime scene.

Just like in the Wyoming massacre, though the identity of the seven killers was known, none was convicted or punished. Soon the case was forgotten until the file was rediscovered in a safe that had been donated to a local county museum in 1995.

A local judge told The Associated Press in 1995 that "the records were more than just lost, they seem to have been hidden. Somebody intentionally tried to keep this story from happening".

Keenly aware that those discriminative laws could fuel hatred and violence toward Asian Americans, Wu said that even if SB 147 does not pass in Texas, the anti-Asian hate fear is a real thing.

"We should start discussing what we need to do (with anti-Asian hate)" after the Texas legislation session ends at the end of this month, he told the Chinese American community.