Santa Ana apologizes for burning Chinatown in 1906

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City of Santa Ana Photo via Twitter

On Tuesday, nearly 116 years after Santa Ana deliberately burned down its Chinatown, elected officials gathered to apologize to Chinese immigrants and their descendants.

Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza described the burning as “one of the greatest tragedies in Santa Ana’s history,” according to The Orange County Register.

The politicians called the discrimination imposed upon the Chinese community “acts of fundamental injustice and discrimination.”

“We want to make sure that we use this opportunity to highlight what happened to our Chinatown here in Santa Ana but also recognize that this isn’t an isolated case,” said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento at the event, reports the Los Angeles Times. “This isn’t to try to unwind [or] rewrite but understand what history we have because we can’t go forward without understanding our past.”

On May 25, 1906, Santa Ana’s leaders decided to burn its downtown Chinatown neighborhood, calling it a health emergency. Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez stated that the city’s choice “crippled and hurt the Chinese community that helped build this city.”

Santa Ana Mayor Vincente Sarmiento and fellow council members condemned the shameful episode of the city’s history. He signed a resolution apologizing to Chinese immigrants and their descendants, “who came to Santa Ana and were the victims of systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.” The resolution resolves “to rectify the lingering consequences of the historical discriminatory policies of the City of Santa Ana, and to use this resolution as a teaching moment for the public to move forward towards justice for all.”

“This is a momentous occasion for the city of Santa Ana, recognizing and seeking to atone for the racist and xenophobic actions of our predecessors,” Sarmiento said.

City officials noted being particularly eager to adopt the resolution during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Throughout the western portion of the country, mobs burned down Chinatowns in Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere, but what sets Santa Ana apart is the government’s role.

“This is the only instance in state history I can find where this was done by city employees, and it was civically sponsored by city leaders,” said Dylan Almendral, a local historian, at Tuesday’s ceremonial signing.

Almendral said that recognition of Chinatown’s history had been in development for several years, but he did not find a receptive council until this past year.

Walt and Guy Lau, 67 and 75 years old respectively, are owners of the Santa Ana Food Market, which is one of the oldest Chinese businesses in the city. “We see a healing process started,” they said to The Mercury News.

“A piece of our history was destroyed in 1906. Our legacy has been scarred,” Almendral echoed. “And today is the first day of healing after 116 years.”

Sarmiento announced that a monument is also in planning.

Planning Commissioner Alan Woo, who led the effort with council members Johnathan Hernandez and Thai Viet Phan, said, “As we go forward in the next few years, you will start seeing Chinatown rising again.”

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