Congressman Julius Kahn represented San Francisco in the early 1900s until his death in 1924. He was an influential figure of his time and played a prominent role in the creation of a park that was named in his honor in 1926. But Kahn, using his great influence, also led the United States on a mission of exclusion and ethnic cleansing.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, originally signed into law on May 6, 1882, extended by the Geary Act in 1892 and made permanent by the “Kahn Bill” in 1902, excluded Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. under the purported fear that they endangered “the good order of certain localities.” This act was the first time in American history that the country barred entry of a specific ethnic group.
Chinese Exclusion tore families apart, unabashedly minimized the population of ethnic Chinese in America and reduced the race to a second class. The act required Chinese people already in the U.S. to obtain certifications to re-enter the country if they left, making it difficult and risky for them to travel back to China to see their families. It also prohibited state and federal courts from granting Chinese persons citizenship, even for those who were already in the U.S. And when extended, the act required that each Chinese resident register and obtain a certificate of residence, or else face deportation.
Kahn’s leadership and staunch advocacy made Chinese Exclusion permanent until its repeal in 1943. When he introduced the bill, Kahn pleaded to his fellow congressmen that laws against Chinese immigrants needed to be more restrictive because of their deceitful nature. In a lengthy, racist speech on the House floor, he quoted the writings of Bayard Taylor in calling Chinese “morally the most debased people on the face of the earth.” He lamented about their inability to assimilate in America and played into fears by portraying them as dangerous criminals — rhetoric that is similar to the anti-immigrant sentiment that we still hear today — stating, “[G]ambling and sensuality are the great vices of the Chinese … murderous assaults, robberies, kidnapping, and blackmail are a frequent occurrence.”
In a Washington Post op-ed on March 2, 1902, Kahn described Chinese as “heartless” and “filth[y].” He claimed, “Opium smoking is the recreation of the entire race,” and, “The Chinaman’s principal fight … is with the devil …” He argued, “[A]fter a trip through Chinatown I think no one will doubt the wisdom of making the barriers so strong and so high against Chinese laborers and the vicious and depraved of the race in general that the end will be in sight of Chinese quarters on this side of the Pacific.”
Kahn did not stop at the exclusion of the Chinese; he also pursued the exclusion of other Asians from entry into the U.S. In 1906, Kahn argued for Japanese exclusion just months before the U.S. and Japan entered into the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which effectively prevented Japanese laborers from entering the U.S. Kahn warned of “another Oriental invasion” and declared, “We want the Japanese coolie kept out of our State. … We will never permit our young children to be thrown into close contact with adult Japanese … the oath of naturalization would be to him but a hollow mockery, an empty formality, signifying nothing.”
Kahn also lobbied for the exclusion of Asian Indians. In 1910, he sent a letter to the commissioner general of immigration and claimed, “[T]hey come from a tropical country and … cannot stand the rigors of a northern climate and on that account are bound to become burdens upon the communities to which they go.”
Furthermore, Kahn openly expressed disdain toward Filipinos, especially those of mixed Chinese and Filipino descent, calling them “dangerous” and without “virtues.”
Our parks should be, and stand for, places of inclusion and acceptance. We should not continue to honor or dignify elected leaders whose legacies are built on exclusion, hatred, bigotry or racial purity. Julius Kahn promoted and institutionalized racist and exclusionary policies, and he was on the wrong side of history. Let’s correct this mistake and show our children and the world what our community stands for.
Jane Chin is interim executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Cynthia Choi is co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.