Time and Again: From Vashon’s early Chinese settlers to today

A history of some of the island’s first non-Indigenous settlers.

Chinese settlers were among the first non-indigenous people to live on Vashon, and established a thriving community in the 1870s, well before any other American settler community had developed.

The history of these early Chinese settlers has largely been lost because of a lack of accurate records. But historical records are clear that the Chinese residents on Vashon at that time lived in what is today known as Manzanita, the neighborhood at southwest Maury Island.

Their community began in the mid-1870s and lasted until the settlement disappeared in November 1885, when Chinese people in Tacoma were expelled in a violent riot that became known as “The Tacoma Method.”

Land on Vashon was unclaimed after the Medicine Creek Treaty ceded Indigenous claims to the land to the U.S. government. The s ̌xwəbabs, or Swift Water People, were removed by the Washington Territorial Government during the Treaty War of 1845-55.

When the s ̌xwəbabs were placed on the Puyallup Reservation following the end of the War, Vashon remained largely uninhabited.

Land on the island did not begin to be claimed until the mid-1860s under the mechanism provided by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. In 1868, William H. Patterson claimed 131.5 acres on Maury Island, including a 100-foot stretch of waterfront at what is now Manzanita.

It is along this waterfront that the Chinese fishing community known as “Hong Kong” by early settlers was located.

Vashon’s first historian, Oliver Van Olinda, reported that “there was a very large and busy colony, with a wide wharf extending over four hundred feet along the shore. The principal occupation was fishing and fish-drying and it is said that many thousands of tons of dried fish were shipped from here.”

This account is supported by Art Chin’s “Golden Tassels: A History of the Chinese in Washington,” in which he writes: “The Chinese were Puget Sound’s first non-Indian fishermen. Using huge seine nets measuring 900 feet long and 240 feet deep, Chinese fished Elliot Bay, at Port Madison on the Kitsap Peninsula, and established a fishing colony locally called ‘Hong Kong’ near Manzanita on the west side of Maury Island. Chinese fishermen caught, salted, and dried a wide variety of fish. They also bought large quantities of fish from the Indians. The dried fish were at first shipped to San Francisco.”

The Tacoma Herald reported in its July 26, 1878, edition: “Yesterday afternoon a brand-new Chinese fishing boat made its appearance in our bay. It was built on the Sound, about ten miles above here and is to be used in the fishing business by some Chinese who have been upon the Sound for some time catching and drying various kinds of fish for the San Francisco market.”

What is fascinating about this account is that “10 miles above”, i.e. north of Tacoma, is Quartermaster Harbor. It is very likely that the first Chinese fishing boat on Puget Sound was built at Manzanita, a dozen years before American settlers began to build boats on the island.

Following this first wave of Chinese immigration to Vashon and its end with the Chinese expulsion in 1885, the history of Chinese Americans on the island can be organized into four phases.

The first lasted from the disappearance of “Hong Kong” in 1885 to 1910 and consisted of single men working in the resource extraction industries, largely fishing and logging. The 1880 census recorded three Chinese men working as fishermen.

In 1889, a Washington State census recorded three Chinese, two of whom worked as cooks in logging camps. The 1900 census recorded one Chinese man working as a servant and the 1910 census did not record any Chinese people on the island.

The second phase, from 1920 to 1940, saw the arrival of family farmers. Only Gee Wah Jenn, his Caucasian wife and their mixed-race daughter were recorded in 1920, but that number grew to 22 by 1930 with the Gee Tong family of five, the Gee Wah family of nine, a group of six poultry farmers, and a boarder and a student.

The 1940 census recorded 17 Chinese Americans on the island in two family groups: The Gee Wah family of 9 and the Woo Boo family of 8. The Woo Boo children were very active in school athletics, and daughter Amy married — becoming Amy Woo Yee.

The Seattle Amy Yee Tennis Center was named in her honor, for her work as a championship tennis player, coach, and avid supporter of the sport.

The third phase of Chinese Americans on Vashon was from 1950 to 1980, and it is a bit of a puzzle, as Chinese Americans nearly disappeared following World War II.

The 1950 census recorded no Chinese American residents. The 1960 census only reported “Non-Negro/Negro” as race categories, so we will not know if there were Chinese American residents until the 1960 census is more fully released to the public in 2032. Two Chinese Americans were reported in 1970, and none in 1980, which included Taiwanese in the count as well.

These census records need more detailed examination. It is a mystery why the Chinese American population of the island, while always small, seemingly dropped to nearly zero.

The fourth phase started in 1990 and continues to the present. This is a period of fairly rapid growth in the number of Chinese American islanders and reflects the small but growing diversity of the island.

The census figures from this period up to 2010 identify respondents as “Asian-Chinese, including Taiwanese”, and recorded 15 in the 1990 census, 33 in the 2000 census, and 46 in the 2010 census. These numbers reflect the small but steadily increasing Chinese population on the Island.

In the most recent census, Asian Chinese were reported separately from Asian-Taiwanese. In 2020, 51 individuals identified themselves as single-race Chinese. No one listed Taiwanese as their race. These figures show the continual slow steady increase in Chinese Americans on Vashon.

For the 2020 census, individuals could identify themselves as a single race or up to a combination of five races. When multiracial individuals are counted where at least one response was Chinese, the number of Chinese Americans on Vashon increased to 116. That means 65 additional people identified themselves as multiracial Chinese American residents.

This change in identity recorded in the U.S. Census reflects the changes occurring more broadly in American society, as we become an increasingly multicultural and multiracial culture. It also reflects individual respondent’s acceptance and embracing of their multiracial identity.

The saga of Chinese Vashon islanders is long and marked by change. It begins with the first settlement disappearing in 1885 when the anti-Chinese riots drove the Chinese residents out of the City of Tacoma. The history continues with a slow growth of farming families in the first half of the 20th century, then another virtual disappearance after World War II, followed by a slow increase to the present multiracial Chinese population of 116 islanders.

Bruce Haulman is an island historian. Alice Larson is an island demographer. Terry Donnelly is an island photographer.

A Chinese fishing boat, possibly used or similar to one used in Puget Sound. Photo from Art Chin’s “Golden Tassels.”

A Chinese fishing boat, possibly used or similar to one used in Puget Sound. Photo from Art Chin’s “Golden Tassels.”