It is healthy to acknowledge the past. It is especially healthy to admit to painful history. That is one way of describing Saturday’s dedication of Astoria’s Garden of Surging Waves. This public space on the block formerly occupied by Safeway commemorates the contribution of the Chinese in building Astoria.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans commonly regarded Chinese immigrant workers as nonpersons. The Pacific Northwest was a particular danger zone for residents identified as Chinese – though in some cases, they had lived here in the U.S. for a generation or more. First lured to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia by gold finds in the 1850s, Chinese-Americans soon began branching into other business endeavors.

But success bred envy and they were conveniently easy to portray as unfair labor competition. Anti-Chinese violence and thriving chapters of the Ku Klux Klan were shamefully commonplace – even in Astoria. “In 1882, for the first time in American history, the national Chinese Exclusion Act aimed immigration restrictions at one ethnic group,” according to Discrimination against the Chinese persisted for decades. The late Duncan Law noted that fish-processing plants in those days had bathrooms for whites and separately for Chinese.

But they were the backbone of many components of the emerging economy in Astoria and throughout our region. Though discriminatory laws excluded Chinese residents from obtaining fishing licenses, they were an essential part of Astoria’s 25 canneries. HistoryLink reports, “In 1895, Columbia canneries produced 635,000 cases of salmon. Many of the laborers who did the difficult and dirty cannery work were Chinese immigrants. George Hume employed the first Chinese workers in 1872 and they proved so efficient that by 1881 more than 4,000 Chinese men were working in Columbia River canneries.”

When we admire the stylish residences for which Astoria is famous, we are in part witnessing the fruits of the hard and sometimes deadly work performed by early Chinese citizens.

It wasn’t until 1965 that the blatant bias against Asian people was removed from U.S. law.

With an inspired design by Suenn Ho, formerly of Mulvanney G2 architecture, the garden serves as a memorial for Chinese Astorians and their contributions to the community, including their work in the canneries, the railroad and on the jetties. She has created a set of features that beckon the observer to stroll, to look and to sit.

The Astoria City Council and Mayor Willis Van Dusen deserve praise for their persistence in creating the garden. Not only does it serve as a belated thank you; it is a tangible symbol of the Columbia estuary’s role as one of the Pacific Rim’s original great meeting places. The garden conveys the message that we welcome and value all people.

Take time while enjoying Sunday Market or on some quieter day to partake of the garden. Contemplate time and change and endurance.

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