The Tapia-Saiki Incident:
Interethnic Conflict and Filipino Responses to the Anti-Filipino Exclusion Movement
Arleen De Vera
"I now pronounce you man and wife." With these words, Justice of the Peace H. P. Andrews, County of Sacramento, State of California, on February 3, 1930, formally declared Felisberto Suarez Tapia and Alice Chiyoko Saiki married, and set the seal on a madcap elopement. Tapia, twenty-three, a Filipino box maker employed at the Stockton Box Factory, and Saiki, eighteen, a second-generation Japanese American, had met at Alice's father's pool hall in Stockton. Immediately after the marriage, the happy couple set about making their plans. Alice would return to her parents' home in Stockton, where Felix would later join her. Just two nights apart, and then with the marriage certificate in hand, they could begin their new life together as husband and wife.
But instead of a happy ending, their joining was to lead to tragedy and conflict. The next day, when Felix appeared at the Saiki home, his in-laws flatly refused his requests to see his wife. Believing that his father-in-law had coerced Alice into leaving for Japan, an anguished Felix turned to local Filipino community leaders, who then called for a sympathy boycott and picket of Japanese-owned businesses. In retaliation, local Japanese labor contractors threatened a boycott of their own: to pass over several hundred Filipino farm laborers for work during the upcoming grape and asparagus seasons. Rather than a personal family matter between a recalcitrant father, an absent wife, and an anguished groom, the Filipino and Japanese communities were polarized, ready to come to blows, while European American residents and the police kept a wary eye on both groups.
That local European American residents viewed these developments with such concern spoke volumes about the state of race relations. During the
first month of 1930, minor tensions between Filipinos and Japanese in Stockton were overshadowed by the racial violence then engulfing California. Just days after an anti-Filipino race riot in Watsonville in which one Filipino was killed, a bomb exploded in the Stockton headquarters of the Filipino Federation of America, causing heavy damage. Shocked at the turn of events, one thousand Filipinos gathered at a Stockton mass meeting and voted to hold a major demonstration and parade for Philippine independence through Stockton on Saturday, February 8, to be held in conjunction with other public demonstrations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere. In response, nativists seized the opportunity to call for an end to Filipino immigration to the United States.
This essay is a preliminary exploration of one way Filipinos responded to the anti-Filipino exclusion movement: by asserting a Filipino identity, an identity which in the process was continuously questioned, modified, and reaffirmed. As Michael M. J. Fischer has noted, groups act not upon a single, undifferentiated identity, but upon multiple identities, which are situational and, at times, contradictory. As Fischer notes: "Ethnicity is not something that is simply passed on from generation to generation, taught and learned; it is something dynamic. . . . Insofar as ethnicity is a deeply rooted emotional component of identity, it is often transmitted less through cognitive language or learning . . . than through processes analogous to the dreaming and transference of psychoanalytic encounters." Most historical studies have chosen to focus on European American perceptions toward Filipinos and Japanese, often as groups with common characteristics. In this context, the Tapia-Saiki incident offers an interesting point of departure. How did Filipinos view their relationship to European Americans and Japanese? Did these perceptions change with the rise of the anti-Filipino exclusion movement? How did Filipinos assert their identity when the anti-Filipino exclusion movement lumped them together with Chinese and Japanese as "cheap Oriental labor"? In short, this essay is a preliminary exploration of a much larger question: the process by which a group comes to self-identify and create and re-create its ethnic identity in relation to other racial groups.
This essay will also draw upon two concepts, culture and projection. By "culture," I mean those ideas, views, images, norms, and values a group shares, including racial attitudes and assumptions about human behavior and society. All these elements together constitute culture, by which means order and meaning can be imparted to people's lives. But culture is not static: culture is itself shaped by material conditions, even as it influences people's responses to material conditions. As for "projection," I refer to the psychological act of transferring blame and responsibility for one's fears and condition onto another, in this case, another racial group.
Filipino Migration and Japanese Settlement
The origins of Filipino immigration to the United States date back to 1898. Following Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War, the Philippines became a colonial possession of the United States, and its people American "nationals"—an ambiguous legal status that meant neither citizen nor alien. Beginning in the early 1910s, several thousand young Filipino men and women came to the United States to further their college educations. Educated, Westernized, and English-speaking, these "pensionados," as they were called, made a favorable impression on the American public. Most returned home to become the Philippines' professional elite. Others also came to try their luck. Inspired by the stories of their American teachers, and by the pensionados' letters home, Filipinos arrived by the thousands in the port cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle during the 1920s. From less wealthy and educated backgrounds than the pensionados, many hoped to become self-made men and planned to attend school while working. Others hoped to earn enough to return home and purchase land or pay for their siblings' education. By 1930, more than thirty thousand Filipinos had settled in California, with most finding work in agriculture and service.
Stockton's Filipino community mirrored these general trends. Every February, just before the asparagus season was to begin, Filipino Town came alive: some two thousand Filipino laborers streamed in, joining the town's one thousand permanent Filipino residents. Among the latter were a small group of Filipino entrepreneurs, owning among themselves a grocery store, a photo studio, the lone Filipino newspaper, and a tailor shop.
These businessmen often doubled as the leaders of local Filipino community organizations. Teofilo Suarez, who owned the tailor shop, was also the president of a local fraternal organization. Damiano Marcuelo, a former pensionado and the editor and publisher of the newspaper The Three Stars, was also the head of the Filipino Workers' and Business Men's Protective Association. In all, these businessmen, along with a few labor contractors and professionals, formed a fledgling business and intellectual grouping that spoke for the Filipino community of Stockton. Their leadership would be tested in the following months during the rise of the anti-Filipino exclusion movement in 1930.
Stockton's Japanese community was centered around agriculture as well, though small business played a larger role in this community. A 1930s survey of occupations revealed that close to half of the town's 1,400 Japanese residents were farmers. Another significant occupation was labor contractors, who provided and controlled the supply of agricultural labor, labor provided mostly by Filipinos.
The beginning of 1930, though, raised new concerns about the role and place of Japanese in American society. Before 1930, the Issei, the firstgeneration Japanese immigrants, had guided their community through the difficult years of the anti-Japanese movement, which had led to racial violence and exclusionary laws barring land ownership, intermarriage with European Americans and Japanese immigration. By 1930, however, second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, made up the majority of Japanese communities on the mainland. Worried that this generation would be lost to them, community leaders consciously appealed to "racial" and parental loyalty to discourage Nisei interracial dating and marriage.
Anti-Japanese/Anti-"Oriental" Sentiment and the Boycott Controversy
In January 1930, a columnist for the Manila Sunday Tribune wrote on a paradox facing Filipinos in the United States. Though Filipinos were defined as American nationals, it was Chinese and Japanese aliens who benefited politically:
Once an alien is admitted, his advantages over a Filipino are by far the greater. In case of trouble the alien has his consul to go to for assistance. He is protected by his home government. The Filipino has no consul to whom to appeal for any injustice done to him. . . . it must not be forgotten that [the Filipino] is not entitled to all the rights and privileges of an American citizen, because he is not, and cannot be one.
That their expectations of the United States could be so at odds with the realities was a painful shock. Their treatment as a second-class group violated the principles of liberty and equality and the Christian example of brotherhood they had been taught back home. Typical was the comment of the secretary of a central California Chamber of Commerce:
It must be realized that the Filipino is just the same to us as the manure that we put on the land—just the same. He is not our "little brown brother." He is no brother at all! He is not our social equal! And we don't propose to make him that or pretend that he is. Why the Filipino should be greatly appreciative of the little that we have given him. . . . We have got to have the Filipino to do that work. . . . [T]hat's his place in this society.
Thus, though Filipinos saw themselves as clearly different from both Chinese and Japanese, some European Americans saw them only as yet another wave of cheap "Oriental" labor. At King's Employment Agency in Stockton, one employer saw little social difference between the two groups, saying "[O]f all this cheap labor theJap has always been the best. The Filipino is the same kind of trash but you get worse labor for the dollar."
Another source of tension, expressed by both Filipino workers and small business owners, was economic. Filipino farm laborers filed complaints against some Japanese contractors who they claimed had swindled them out of their wages; likewise, Japanese grocers filed complaints with local authorities, alleging that Filipinos had skipped town without paying their grocery bill accounts in full. Some Filipino businessmen in Stockton also viewed the Chinese and Japanese with suspicion, as they were economic competitors for Filipino patronage. One contemporary observer wrote: "Filipino businessmen complain that their paisanos are disloyal, 'unpatriotic,' patronizing non-Filipino shops when Filipino shops are just as accessible and satisfactory. . . . Encouragement of paisanos to be loyal to their businessmen compatriots is seen in the following advertisement from a Filipino newspaper: 'When you come to town see us and patronize your people."'
For some Filipinos, this tension was at least in part due to historical factors. Under Spanish rule, Filipinos had been excluded from small business positions by law. Though these laws were later lifted in the nineteenth century, the prejudices and stereotypes persisted. That these tensions continued was confirmed by sociologist Bruno Lasker, who noted in 1931 that Filipinos had "a hostile attitude" toward Chinese, resulting from "trade competition." Just as Chinese in the Philippines had been cast in an unfavorable light, so Filipinos viewed both Chinese and Japanese in Stockton in the same way.
U.S.-Japan relations also played into Filipino attitudes toward the Japanese in the United States. Fears that Japan would challenge the United States for domination of the Pacific had worried American military experts stationed in the Philippines for years, since Japan's 1905 victory in the Russo Japanese War. So widespread was Japan's image as aggressor to both American and Philippine interests that one Filipino fruit worker in Stockton told an interviewer in February 1930 that while he favored independence, he thought it best for the Philippines to remain under some form of U.S. protection against the "threat" Japan posed. Others were simply surprised to discover Japanese living in the United States. One twenty-four-year-old Filipino going into a hotel to rent a room on his first night in Seattle was astonished to find it was owned by aJapanese family. He mused, "Now I was in America and I was discovering that not all Americans were white."
But while some disdained the Chinese and Japanese, others, like newspaper editor Damiano Marcuelo, held them up as role models of business acumen. Though acknowledging that Filipino businessmen and farmers had made relatively little progress, Marcuelo asserted that their economic future could still be prosperous, if they copied the Chinese andJapanese collective model of business enterprise:
The Chinese and Japanese people in this state ought to be admired rather than looked upon with suspicion. Laboring under a peculiar legal disadvantage,
they succeed in getting to the top of progress, so that today we see them with zealous eyes, building chains of hotels, stores, banks, grocery and other business houses. It is perseverance, thrift, and tact in them that insure their success. But the greatest of these is ORGANIZATION and CO-OPERATION.
By encouraging owners not to duplicate services and businesses, Marcuelo believed Filipino businessmen could achieve prestige and stability in the United States.
Against this backdrop of increasing tensions, racial violence, and the organized anti-Filipino exclusion movement, Felix Tapia came forward on February 6 with the news of his marriage and his bride's disappearance. Convinced that Mr. Saiki's actions were an expression of racial prejudice against Filipinos, the leaders decided on a boycott. In dramatic fashion, on Saturday, February 8, in front of two thousand Filipinos congregating for Philippine independence, Teofilo Suarez declared a "sympathy boycott" of all Japanese-owned small businesses in Stockton. Suarez explained the issues behind Felix's marriage and the reasoning behind the boycott. His remarks struck a chord, for one observer noted that subsequent speakers "vociferated in dialect at great length, casting aspersions at the Japanese and urging their compatriots to support the boycott." Though emotions ran high, Filipino leaders urged all to remain calm and reaffirmed their admiration of American "altruistic and humanitarian achievements." Left out was any mention of "calmness and order" toward the Japanese.
The increasing frustrations, anger, and fear expressed by Filipinos found a ready outlet in the boycott. That night, under Tapia's direction, "large numbers" of pickets appeared just outside all the Japanese-owned "restaurants, pool halls and shops." Amid the pickets swirled rumors that the local Japanese Association of Stockton had supported the Saikis' actions because they felt that Filipinos were "an inferior people." These rumors were repeated over and over as new picketers joined the lines and as word of the boycott spread. Though economic self-interest may have played a role in the business leaders' calls to nationalism, the allegations of "racial prejudice" struck a chord with Filipinos.
With tensions escalating between their communities Filipino and Japanese leaders quickly recognized the need to take immediate action. Alarmed at reports that the businesses were losing "thousands of dollars a day," and concerned that the Japanese labor contractors' threatened retaliation could lead to increased violence, a meeting between the local Japanese Association of Stockton and the Filipino Safety Committee was hastily arranged for Sunday night, February 9. But at that meeting, though the Japanese Association assured all present that the rumors of racial prejudice were unfounded, and though the Filipino Safety Committee added that they "deplored" the boycott and would do all they could to resolve the situation, in the end, both sides were forced to adjourn.
Without any set plans for resolution, the boycott continued. By Tuesday, February 11, several restaurants and pool halls had closed. And though disruptive, the boycott had resulted in no disturbances according to police reports; still, police patrols were increased, as "the feeling is very tense."
The next day, things heated up again. Leo Cinco, former president of the Filipino Contractors and Laborers Association, issued a statement deploring the Japanese role in agriculture, and charged that the Japanese undercut Filipino wages. The tensions, he maintained, were due to racial prejudice and unfair economic practices of long standing:
The principal cause of the whole situation was when the heads of a certain Japanese organization declared they did not like Filipinos and do not want them. This information was given us by Alice Saiki, the bride of Felix Tapia.
Secondly, the Japanese farmers and laborers make the wages lower. Americans pay 40 cents an hour, but the Japanese pay only 25 cents. Sometimes Filipinos have to accept 25 cents an hour from the Japanese when they cannot find work. American growers, when they come to know this, also reduce the wages and as a result wages in the farm regions are getting lower and lower.
Cinco also alleged that Japanese contractors coerced Filipinos to buy supplies "from the Japanese only," and cited cases of Japanese farmers failing to pay wages to Filipino laborers and contractors.
The charges elicited a strong response. Speaking on behalf of the Japanese Association of Stockton, Secretary Hikida denied reports that the marital separation was due to racial prejudice: "The bride's father acted as he did because the marriage was the outcome of an elopement and contrary to all Japanese traditions, which demand arrangements of a marriage by the parents of the bride. It was because of violation of this tradition, and not because he is a Filipino that Saiki forced separation of Tapia and his daughter."
Hikida also emphasized that dealings between Filipino workers and Japanese farmers had been fair: "The Japanese farmers have been paying good wages and have been treating their Filipino employees as members of their own families, housing and boarding them in their own homes."
By February 19, two weeks after its inception, support for the boycott began to flag as the pickets lessened, then began to subside. The conclusion to the Tapia-Saiki incident came the next month, when Tapia lost his civil lawsuit against the Saiki family in court. With no further recourse, the matter was dropped. In the end, the controversy lasted but a few weeks.
The larger significance of the boycott controversy lay in its foreshadowing of the public debate over Filipino racial classification, a debate that became supremely important with the rise of the struggle for Philippine independence and the anti-Filipino exclusion movement. Around the same time of the Tapia trial, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in a case involving Filipino and European American intermarriage that Filipinos were
"Mongolians" and thus prohibited by law from marrying European American women. The ruling immediately plunged the community into controversy again. And again, the response was a distancing from Chinese and Japanese. The Filipino Federation of America issued an editorial decrying the reclassification: "the Filipino has been classed as belonging to the Mongolian or yellow race. This ruling was made for the purpose of restricting Filipinos to the same racial laws as apply to the Japanese and Chinese. . . . We do not protest because we are denied the privilege of marrying white girls but because as a distinct race we wish to be recognized as such." While acknowledging the presence of racially mixed Filipinos, particularly ChineseFilipino mestizos, the paper insisted on the Filipino belonging to the Malay race, and not the "Oriental."
Other arguments were put forth to bolster the Filipino's place based upon his Westernization. Another Filipino Nation editorial argued that the Filipino was not an Oriental, since he was Christian, Westernized, and easily assimilable to American culture and institutions: "The Japanese, Chinese and Hindus are genuine [o]rientals in family life, religion, ideals, customs, superstitions and civilization, while the Filipino has western customs, ideals, family life, religious, government and civilization." In these contradictory ways, the place of the Filipino was thought to be enhanced.
Despite these efforts, the exclusion movement gained momentum as even those sympathetic to the Filipinos' status viewed them as indistinguishable from Chinese and Japanese. One advocate for Philippine independence, Democratic Senator Harry B. Hawes of Missouri, saw cause to remark on the "basic" differences between European Americans and Filipinos:
The people are orientals, of Malay stock. We will never be able to change their thoughts, their characteristics, their minds or their national aspirations, any more than we can change the color of their hair, the texture of their skin, or their physical characteristics. Over 300 years of Spanish rule did not bring about racial changes. We can not expect them, now or in the future, to conform their thoughts and emotions to our own, or their mental processes to operate as do ours.
Growing anti-Filipino sentiment reached its high mark with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934. While providing for Philippine independence in ten years, the act also reclassified the legal status of Filipinos to aliens, thus excluding Filipinos from U.S. citizenship, and set the annual limit of Filipinos who could immigrate to the United States at fifty persons. But unlike previous restrictions on the Chinese and Japanese, this act had no loopholes that allowed for the immigration of merchants, or of wives and dependents of those already here. The solution to the "Filipino problem," just as it had been for the "Chinese problem" and the "Japanese problem," was exclusion.
As time passed, however, tensions between the Filipino and Japanese communities in Stockton eased, and occasionally points of consensus did occur, particularly between the second generation. During the summer of 1938, a group of boys, among them, Richard Nunez, a twelve-year-old Filipino, and Masao Nishimura, an eleven-year-old Japanese American, went fishing along the Stockton channel. The boys were gathering their things together to go home when Nishimura, who could not swim, fell into the water. Nunez dove in and grasped him, but together, the pair were unable to climb the slippery cement banks of the channel. One of the boys, Darrel Hazelbaker, thrust his hands out to Nunez, who grabbed and held on for a brief second, then slipped. The pair thrashed about until, exhausted but holding on to each other, they sank and disappeared beneath the murky water. Though local authorities quickly pulled them out, efforts to revive the two were in vain.
Their deaths elicited an outpouring of grief and pride within the two communities. The local Filipino community newspaper eulogized Richard Nunez as a hero and an exemplary leader who was tragically lost to the community. Conspicuous among the mourners at his funeral was Mrs. Nishimura, along with representatives of theJapanese Association of Stockton. Also present was Teofilo Suarez, Nunez's uncle and the same Teofilo Suarez who along with Felix Tapia and others had led the boycott of Japanese-owned businesses eight years before.
Such a show of solidarity at that time was extraordinary. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War the year before had caused some local Filipino community leaders to fear the possibility of a Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Some of that concern was carried over to the Stockton Japanese community as well. Issei nationalism had been heightened by the 1937 war, and local Japanese leaders had raised funds for Japan's war effort and distributed pamphlets explaining Japan's side in the conflict. Despite the potential for conflict engendered in international relations and economic envy, that a bond of sympathy could be forged suggests some capacity for consensus.
As the Tapia-Saiki incident indicates, Filipino thinking on race was complex and contradictory. Filipino actions in the boycott controversy and their responses to the anti-Filipino movement suggest that the reconciliation of Filipinos to their inferior status in the United States was predicated upon an "othering" of both Chinese and Japanese as "less civilized, Oriental" groups, based on historical prejudices and/or dominant notions of "assimilability." Angered by the incidents of racial violence and the growing anti-Filipino exclusion movement, and frustrated at their absence of power, Filipinos publicly projected these emotions onto Japanese for the duration of the boycott. But despite Filipinos' efforts to prove themselves different from the Chinese
and the Japanese, in the end the exclusion movement viewed Filipinos as the latest wave of "undesirable and unassimilable Orientals." The timing of Japanese settlement and Filipino migration may have led to different economic niches for the two groups, but what they shared was a common status as "other" forced on them by European Americans.