Sonoma County violence against Asian-Americans was at its worst in years, but the newspapers were unsympathetic, even indifferent to getting the basic facts correct.
In Santa Rosa, anti-Chinese racism had simmered for more than a generation; when the town cleaned up its red light district the year before there was a simultaneous call to force out the Chinese, an idea even endorsed by the District Attorney. With such an attitude, justice was sure to be denied the Chinese when attacks occurred. Santa Rosa produce seller Wong Gum was beaten “until he was almost unrecognizable” in 1909 because he dared to ask moocher John Belesto for the return of one of the many tools he had borrowed. Belesto was fined ten dollars and served no jail time.
Japanese-Americans had their own worries. Fear-mongering had been building since the previous year when a nationwide scare about Japanese spies reached Sonoma County, with alarm over a pair of “well dressed and intelligent looking” Japanese men visiting Bodega Bay, and rumors that Japanese spies were trying to learn military secrets by seeking laundry jobs during a war games exercise near Atascadero. The Santa Rosa newspapers, which had long treated the Japanese community with respect, now used the racist term “little brown men” in almost every story that mentioned local Japanese.
The year began with headlines about a series of proposed anti-Japanese bills and resolutions were introduced in both the California state senate and assembly, most infamously the “Anti-Japanese School Bill,” which would force Japanese children to attend separate schools. After it passed in the Assembly, lame duck President Teddy Roosevelt took the unusual step of lobbying the governor to veto it or immediately challenge it in court if it passed. State legislators took this as meddling and were incensed, and the author of the bill took to the floor of the Assembly to make a blatantly racist pitch for his proposal:
“I am responsible to the mothers and fathers of Sacramento County who have their little daughters sitting side by side in the school rooms with matured Japs, with their base minds, their lascivious thoughts, multiplied by their race and strengthened by their mode of life…I have seen Japanese 25 years old sitting in the seats next to the pure maids of California. I shuddered then and I shudder now, the same as any other parent will shudder to think of such a condition.”
The Anti-Japanese School Bill failed (although attempts to revive it were made later in the session), but the Press Democrat gave the story prominent front page coverage, even quoting a sympathetic state senator that “antipathy of the Californians to the Japanese is reasonable, and that they are entirely right to legislate against them if they so desire.”
Such political rhetoric likely encouraged racism, as did the drumbeat about the “yellow peril” in Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. But for whatever reason, attacks upon local people of Chinese and Japanese origin were both more frequent and more violent in 1909. The worst incident happened in Sebastopol during Chinese New Year. After starting a free-for-all with a group of Japanese men, three toughs next attacked Gee Yook in the Chinatown neighborhood, breaking off the tip of a knife in the man’s head. Also in Sebastopol’s Chinatown a few months later, four drunks trashed a “noodle house,” throwing bottles at owner Gee Chung.
These incidents, along with an attack the previous year, should be considered together. One of the attackers in the stabbing was Irving Masse, and the Press Democrat reported that a man involved in the later noodle house fracas was also named Masse. Another restaurant rioter was identified as Joe Poggi. Readers of this journal may recall that a year earlier, Johnny Poggie and a friend smashed the same shop owner in the head with a brick, breaking his jaw.
Now, the odds are pretty high that “Johnny Poggie” and “Joe Poggi” were the same person, just as it’s very likely that the same guy named Masse was involved in both attacks of 1909. Today a District Attorney would probably spot that Poggi and Masse were committing serial racial hate crimes and prosecute them aggressively to get them off the streets for a few years. But this was Sonoma County a hundred-plus years ago and the victims were Chinese, which together meant that the crimes weren’t taken that seriously. Masse was punished with 50 days for his role in the knife assault and 90 days for his acts at the noodle house. Poggi(e) apparently received no jail time at all; he was not charged in the brutal 1908 bashing of Gee Chung – although the judge suspected he was lying under oath – and two 1909 Sebastopol trials for his role in the restaurant melee ended in hung juries (the case was moved to Santa Rosa where the jury appeared headed for another stalemate).
In the local press, assaults like these were considered routine and often treated as humor items. Per the knife attack, Gee Yook was not fatally injured, according to the Santa Rosa Republican, because “the skull of the Celestial was more than ordinarily thick.” Like the Republican, the Press Democrat called the gang of attackers “half-breeds,” and belabored a joke that “the Indians are going to take a hand in Japanese and Chinese exclusion.” Aside from flinging racist insults, the worst was that neither paper could be bothered to get the story right. Both reported at first that the victim was attacked on the street. But when the matter came before a judge, the setting had changed to Gee Yook’s restaurant, where he was stabbed while “Masse was doing his best to disfigure the Chinaman’s face with his fists.” (The man who drove his knife deep into Yook’s scalp was sentenced to a mere four months in county jail.)
The Republican paper also didn’t think much ado when teenagers assaulted a man named Hop Lee near Guerneville. The boys didn’t want to pay for their laundry and Lee refused to turn it over without cash. They took it from him anyway and used the string tying the package to fashion a sort of noose which they knotted over his queue. Hop Lee was left hanging by his hair from a railroad bridge, where he was found sometime later by a horrified passerby. Instead of voicing outrage over the incident (which apparently wasn’t even investigated by the sheriff), the newspaper used it as an opportunity to include some “funny” pidgin: “I washee all you clo’s flee,” he supposedly promised his rescuer.
A final item transcribed below concerns a dust-up between two Japanese and Chinese men that wound up in court, and is notable for being one of the few items that (apparently) involves Tom Wing Wong, the “mayor of Chinatown” in Santa Rosa and father of Song Wong Bourbeau, whose memories of that era were recorded by Gaye LeBaron.
ROUSING SPEECHES URGE EXCLUSION OF ASIATICSWednesdays Session of State Building Trades CouncilExclusion League’s Speakers Arouse Much Enthusiasm–Want Delegates to Indorse the Anti-Race Track Legislation–More Resolutions Adopted
…A hearty greeting was given the fraternal delegates George B. Benham, Charles W. Steckmest and A. R. Yoell, the representatives of the Asiatic Exclusion League. They were not there merely as visitors and in a very few minutes they were called upon for speeches and as each one of them has a natural facility for talking, particularly when it comes to exclusion matters, they were heard with much interest.
Yoell is secretary-treasurer of the Asiatic Exclusion League. He called attention to the rapid increase of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans in the territories of United States. According to his figures there are 72,000 Japanese in the Hawaiian Islands out of a population of 170,000. He also mentioned the births for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1907. The total births in Hawaii were 4,593, and the number of Japanese babies born was 2,445, or over 50 per cent of the total number of children born in the Hawaiian Islands.
In California for the year 1908, Yoell said, there were according to the reports 222 Japanese children were born, 179 Negro children, 155 Chinese and 23 of Indian parentage. This indicates that the increase of Japanese by birth on the soil California is next to that of the white race.
Benham made an exhaustive address. He spoke of the dangers confronting the county by Asiatic immigration and claimed that the press and the pulpit were too indifferent and apathetic on this question…– Press Democrat, January 14, 1909HAS A PIECE OF STEEL IN HEADAged Chinaman Injured by Half Breed Indians
A Chinese resident of Sebastopol is going about that place with a piece of knife blade an inch in length in his skull. Were it not for the fact that the skull of the Celestial was more than ordinarily thick, his remains might now be occupying a slab in the morgue. The Chinese was stabbed by one of three drunken half breeds and despite the piece of steel sticking in his head, declined to go for medical attendance until Friday, asserting that he was “too busy” attending to the joss during the New Year’s festivities.
The onslaught on the Celestial was made without provocation or warning. The three Indians had attacked three Japanese in Sebastopol, and in a free for all fight had routed the men from the Mikado’s realm. Emboldened by their success in this fight they wandered to Chinatown and made an assault on the Celestial, whom they found standing at the outside door of the joss house. One of the aborigines wielded a knife on the cranial adornment of the Chinaman and broke the blade, a portion of the steel remaining in the man’s skull.
The injured man has identified two of the half breeds taken before him as his assailants, and they will be held for the crime. Another Indian was arrested here by Constable Orr of Cloverdale on suspicion of having been implicated in the assault. His name is Smith, and he was turned over to City Marshal Fred Mathews of Sebastopol.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 28, 1909
CHOPS COMPANION WITH A BIG AXEThree Half Breeds Put to Flight Three Japs and Then Make Attack Upon an Aged Chinaman
Are the California Indians arraying themselves of the side of Japanese exclusion? Three half-breeds went over to Sebastopol on Tuesday night and encountering three Japanese a free-for-all started, in which the Indians are said to have come off with the honors, having put the little brown men to flight.
Doubtless encouraged by the success of their onslaught on the Japs, the Indians later wandered into the little Chinatown at Sebastopol, and finding an aged Celestial in front of the joss house, set upon him and one of them stabbed him in the head and broke off a part of the knife blade in his skull.
On Wednesday the Chinaman was still on duty at the joss house and was apparently not bothering about having the piece of steel in his head. He siad he would have the doctor attend to that on Thursday.
Two half-breeds were taken before the Mongolian for inspection and he identified one of them as the knife wielder. District Attorney Clarence Lea went over to Sebastopol to conduct an investigation on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon Constable Orr arrested an Indian named Smith at the Court House here on suspicion of being concerned in the trouble, and City Marshal Fred Matthews of Sebastopol took him in charge.
“Looks like the Indians are going to take a hand in Japanese and Chinese exclusion,” remarked some one among the spectators at the Court House. “The Indians were here before the Japs and before the whites, too, for the matter of that.”– Press Democrat, January 28, 1909
SENTENCED FOR AN ASSAULTBroke Knife in Chinese Skull at Sebastopol
Carolina Smith was sentenced to serve one hundred and twenty days in the county jail, and Irving Masse received fifty days’ sentence from Justice Harry B. Morris at Sebastopol on Friday.
These are the men who filled up on booze Wednesday and attempted to wreck the noodle joint of G. Yook. The fight ended by Smith sticking a knife into Yook’s skull, and breaking the point off in the bone. Masse was doing his best to disfigure the Chinaman’s face with his fists.
The men were brought to the county jail here Friday afternoon by City Marshal Fred Mathews.
– Santa Rosa Republican, January 29, 1909MANY JAPS ARE ROBBEDDesperate Man Holds up a Lodging House
A desperate man, who wanted coin badly, robbed a number of Japanese in Brown’s Chinatown in Sebastopol early Saturday morning.
The robber secured more than a hundred dollars and four watches of the little brown men and made his escape. He left absolutely no clew of his identity. The man had his features concealed behind a mask of cloth and the Japs can give no description of the culprit.
The place is conducted by a Japanese named Ezery and the robbery occurred at three o’clock Saturday morning. City Marshal Fred Matthews was notified at once and was on the scene is less than half an hour after the robbery. He was unable to get a clew to the robber.
If the Japs had had a revolver or weapon of any kind at the time they were compelled to hold up their hands they could have killed the man who took their coin. It was a desperate chance and the robber played his hand in a careless manner. He searched the pockets of his victims.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 27, 1909A HEAVY SENTENCE FOR ANNOYING CHINAMAN
In Justice Morris’ court in Sebastopol this week two youths name Burns and Masse were sentenced to serve sixty and ninety days imprisonment, respectively, in the county jail for throwing bottles and other missiles at on G. Chung’s head. Another man arrested pleaded not guilty, and will be given a trial on Saturday.– Press Democrat, May 13, 1909CHINESE-INDIAN CASE IS ONNoodles Not on Free List Precipitates Litigation
The hearing of Joe Poggi, an Indian, or of Indian blood, who was charged with disturbing the peace of the Sebastopol Chinatown, and who was tried twice on that count in the Justice Court of that place, the jury disagreeing on each occasion, came up in Judge Atchinson’s court Thursday morning, the case having been transferred. The complaining witness was Gee Chung, a Chinese, who alleged that Poggi was one of a party of four who created a disturbance in a noodle house maintained by the former.
A jury was empaneled, those chosen being… The principal question asked the prospective jurymen and upon which their eligibility to act in the case seemed to largely depend, was whether the fact of the defendant being of Indian blood and the complaining witness a Chinaman would influence them unduly in the bringing in of a verdict. None examined gave any such manifestations of race prejudice.
Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle appeared against Poggi and L. C. Scott of Sebastopol on his behalf.
Gee Chung was put on the stand and stated that Poggi and three others came in his noodle establishment at a late hour in a state of intoxication and besought him to treat them to noodles, which he decided to do. And when they offered to let him share in the consumption of several bottles and a demijohn of beer, he persisted in his refusal. It was then the scenes of tumult alleged by him to have taken place commenced. He stated that the glass receptacles of the liquor were hurled violently, striking the partition shivering it into pieces. He ran out and blew the whistle calling the night watch. The latter, Fisher Ames, testified to finding the floor covered with shattered bottles and overturned benches. Companions of Poggi admitted having engaged in a rough house, but denied that Poggi had participated in the exercises. The case was argued at some length by counsel on both sides and the case was submitted to the jury. The hour being late, the court dismissed the jurymen for dinner, to reassemble and deliberate on a verdict later in the day.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1909CHINAMAN IS HUNG BY QUEUETreatment of Celestial Who Tried to Collect Bill
Because he refused to return articles of laundered apparel unless payment was made on delivery, several Oakland high school boys, who are camping in the vicinity of Guerneville, are believed to have been responsible for the treatment accorded Hop Lee, who was discovered Monday morning hanging by his queue to a tie on one of the railroad trestles.
Brunner, who had arisen to go fishing, while crossing a trestle between this place and Guernewood Park, was horrified to see the body of the Chinaman swinging in mid air beneath his feet.
After much effort he managed to pull the Chinese up through the opening between the ties. According to the laundryman’s story he incurred the disfavor of the fellows by refusing to deliver laundry without pay.
The Chinese left his shack Monday morning to deliver laundry and on his return was met by the same crowd of lads. The twine, which Lee had used to secure his bundle, was knotted to the Chinaman’s queue and he was left to dangle above the ground.
Aside from a strained scalp, Hop Lee seems none the worse for his experience. “I washee all you clo’s flee,” he is said to have told Brunner.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 18, 1909BAD MAN BROUGHT SAFELY INTO COURT
John Belesto battered up Wong Gum, the well known Chinese vegetable man, the other day, until he was almost unrecognizable, and Monday morning a warrant was issued for his arrest, which was served by Constable Boswell. The trouble was occasioned, states Wong, by Belesto having a habit of borrowing tools from the Chinaman and not having the habit of returning them. When Wong went Friday to get a plow that the other had borrowed, he was met with a single tree in the hands of Belesto, who proceeded to beat the owner of the implement in the manner stated above.
Belesto was brought in by Constable Boswell without trouble and fined ten dollars by Justice Atchinson. Some trouble was anticipated with him, as he had at one time, when in trouble before, threatened to shoot both Constable Boswell and Gilliam.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 19, 1909INFORM ON EACH OTHERJapanese and Chinese Did Respective Tattling
Things are happening in the Mongolian district of Santa Rosa that may yet perhaps develop into international complications between the courts and peoples of Japan and China. And it all grew out of the gambling roundup by the police the other night.
A Japanese and a Chinaman, W. K. Hyama and Wong Wing respectively, appeared in the justice court Tuesday afternoon and swore out a complaint against each other for battery. Wong stated that Hyama owed him $5 and that there remained no way of collecting it other than having recourse to fisticuffs or litigation, which he didn’t want to resort to. Then Hyama hit him, he said.
Hyama asserted that Wong insisted that he, Hyama, reimburse Wong for the $5 fine imposed upon him for gambling on the ground that Hyama had informed the police of the game that the Chinaman had in progress Sunday night. He confessed to hitting the yellow brother, but alleged that the other had struck him first. He also admitted having “tipped” the officers in regard to the Chinese gambling deal. It appears that he had supplied the information in question because he was one of the inmates of the Japanese gambling house, raided the same night by the police, and he and his fellow residents of that place believed that the Celestial had told on them, the Japanese.
Hyama was arraigned before Justice Atchinson on the charge of battery and pleaded not guilty. He gave bond to appear for trial later. He didn’t seem to have much faith in our American courts, for he insisted on Justice Atchinson giving him a receipt for his ten dollars bail.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 28, 1909JAPS AND CHINKS AT OUTS IN COURTSequel to the Arrest For Gambling on Sunday Night Now to be Aired in Courtroom
As the result of the arrest of a number of Japanese Sunday night for gambling by the police, W. K. Hymana [sic] was arrested yesterday on complaint of Wong Wing, charged with battery, while Wong Wing was arrested on complaint of W. K. Hyana on a similar charge. Both Jap and Chinese were released by Justice Atchinson on $10 cash bail and the trial will be held Thursday.
The men got into a fight over the forfeited bail of the Japanese. Wong Wing claims that Hyama put up his watch for the loan of bail money, and later demanded the watch back without paying the loan, and when refused Hyama attacked him. Hyama on the other hand, claims Wong Wing introduced him to the game and after his arrest when he went to him demanding that he pay the fine, Wong attacked him and he simply defended himself.– Press Democrat, September 29, 1909