Interview: Bart Fite on China Club of Seattle and its centennial celebration
By Wen Liu Feb. 8, 2016
Not many organizations, not to say China-related, can say that they are celebrating their centennial. But the China Club of Seattle is unlike any other and IS celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the Year of the Monkey. Try if you can wrap your head around it: when the Club was founded in 1916, the United States was in the depth of enforcing the Chinese Exclusion Act while China experienced a return to a monarchy under Yuan Shikai. It may not be big, but the China Club of Seattle sure has history. What was the Club like in those early years of the 20th century? How has it changed with the change of “China”? And what is it doing to celebrate its big B-Day? For these and other questions, we have Bart Fite, president of the China Club of Seattle, who is, fortunately, much younger than 100 years:
WCWD: First things first. 2016 is the centennial of China Club of Seattle. The Club must be putting together special events to celebrate the big anniversary. So tell us what members and friends of the Club can expect and participate this year?
Bart Fite: We are VERY excited about our centennial! I am told we are the longest running China-related organization on the West coast, having survived changes in governments and economic ups and downs. We are very proud of this and have continued to evolve to be relevant and to promote and encourage better understanding of issues and events in China and its relationship with the U.S. As you know, we take on big issues at our regular dinner speaker events (pollution, the rule of law, reforming the Hukou system) and small (building greenhouses in Yunnan, climbing mountains in Western China, how to make a perfect Guotie). In recognition of our long history, we are creating the new position of Club Historian this year with the likely candidate a PhD candidate who is doing her dissertation on the Club’s past. We also have some surprises in store to mark the occasion which we will announce in the coming weeks.
WCWD: When China Club was founded in 1916 by a group of 27 professional and business leaders in Seattle, according to Time magazine, the “China” in the China Club was the so-called and short-lived Empire of China under Yuan Shikai. Today’s China is the world’s second largest economy under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Do you think the founders, if they came back, would be more surprised by the new China or the fact that their little club has survived 100 years?
Bart Fite: Our founders were extremely progressive and forward looking. I believe they saw the potential of China and how a relationship with the U.S. (and Seattle) could help both. Remember, in 1916 the U.S. wasn’t the world power it was later to become. Our founders, I think, saw opportunity for growth in a relationship with China and took action to make it happen. The Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, for example, presented the Club with a plaque in 1925 recognizing how the Club had ‘been instrumental in securing a good selection of educational and industrial films for exhibition in China to promote a better knowledge of American products and industrial conditions.’ So you could argue the Club played a part in laying the groundwork for China’s industrial rise – with a few hiccups along the way. So I don’t think they would be surprised at all, they recognized the potential.
WCWD: The Club came into being during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was a front-runner in the fight to repeal the laws, according Time magazine. Thomas Burke, the founding president of the Club, helped to halt the violence of the mobs in Seattle to deport the Chinese in 1886. Sen. Warren Magnuson, who helped end the Exclusion in 1943, was also an ally. So was the Club a more active, civic organization than it is today?
Bart Fite: The Club took a consistently strong stand against the Exclusion Act – and against other discriminatory practices. In the 1920’s, for example, it sought to educate and bring awareness to the non-contagious nature of clonorchiasis disease, common in South East Asia, which was being used as a pretext to deny immigration. Senator Magnuson had a strong, almost sentimental, attachment to China (contrasted to Senator Jackson’s more skeptical view) and worked hard to bring the Exclusion Act to a long overdue end. I also understand the Club even lobbied for the U.S. to make reparations for Boxer Rebellion. The Club was also very progressive in including Chinese members, including many notable Chinese Americans like Lew G. Kay, Sam Chin, Don On Long, Henry S. Luke, Wing Luke, Ruby Chow, and others. Today, we are a cultural organization that is essentially politically agnostic – but with a valuable role in increasing understanding and awareness.
WCWD: After 1949, the “China” in the China Club became Taiwan. The Club worked for financial help for thousands of Chinese students in the U.S. and the relief of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1956, for its 40th anniversary celebration, as described in Time magazine on the right, the Club even received a cable from Chiang Kai-shek, thanking the Club for its sympathy and support for their fight against Communist aggression. Do you know if the Club stayed active or dormant in later years, and like the United States, switched its “China” to mainland China in 1979?
Bart Fite: As we have evolved as an organization, we don’t believe it is our role to take a position on this politically charged subject. That said, we welcome discussion on this and other sensitive topics. Our members and guests from the mainland, Taiwan, and other countries represent diverse viewpoints but we always engage with civility. I haven’t seen Club records on how we handled the issue in the years surrounding 1979, so I can’t shed much light here. Personally I could see the Taiwan issue losing some steam as we are now a generation removed from 1949 and young people have other things on their mind. I will be curious to see how President-elect Cai Ing-wen handles the relationship with the mainland, and the mainland with her!
WCWD: Could you tell us how you got involved with the Club, what you have learned about the Club over the years, and if you have enjoyed serving as its president for almost a decade?
Bart Fite: I love this Club. I suppose you could ‘blame’ my grandmother for getting me involved. She visited China in 1978 and came back with deep admiration and a clear-eyed view of the opportunities and problems the country faced, which she shared with me. This inspired me to study Chinese and travel there in 1982 where I saw first-hand the green shoots of Deng Xiaoping’s grand economic experiment. After 8 years in Hong Kong from 1990-98, I returned to Seattle and was introduced to the Club and the wonderful people running it. I was honored to stand for President and am honored to serve.
WCWD: With all that happened in China over the century, wars, regime changes, economic development, and in Taiwan, now under a new female president from the Democratic Progressive Party, and in Washington state, with the growing population of Chinese immigrants, a Chinese-American governor, and the hosting of Chinese President Xi Jinping last September, etc., what is the China Club of Seattle about today, would the Club need an update of its mission statement after 100 years, and would the Club survive another 100 years?
Bart Fite: The China Club has never been more relevant and important to Seattle. The U.S. relationship with China will, without doubt, be the most important relationship on the planet for decades to come. We have a rising, autocratic power that will be flexing its muscles in fits and starts and an established, democratic power that is in no mood to relinquish its position. Seattle is perfectly positioned geographically, economically, and culturally to play a major role in this relationship. The China Club provides a venue for people interested in China, whether they are the sons and daughters of missionaries in pre-war Shanghai, or new immigrants from Beijing starting a business and life in Seattle, to gather, learn, and share. The Club is in a unique position to engage and inform our members and guests so that they can engage and inform their wider circle of friends, business partners, and policy makers.
We are also visiting the idea of engaging younger people who will shape the U.S./China relationship going forward through sponsorships for China related studies or internships.
While there is plenty that could go wrong, even disastrously so, I am optimistic. Part of the reason why I am optimistic is because of the people I meet and learn from at our events. And it isn't all about the big issues, politics, and policies – though we've had some great speakers in these areas. Dongsheng Zang, for example, from the UW Law School's talk about the rule of law in China was outstanding. Sidney Rittenberg’s stories of his time in the Yan'an caves with Mao and Zhou Enlai were unforgettable. Some of my favorite programs, however, dealt with smaller topics or historical China. Michael Liu spoke to us about how he helped small mountain villages in rural Yunnan to improve farming techniques – spending his holidays and own money to do so. Mimi Gardner Gates gave a mesmerizing talk on the Buddhist paintings in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. The important thing is to continue to create opportunities and an environment that allows us to get together. This is what we are good at.
Our mission statement reads: Our mission is to increase the awareness, understanding and appreciation of developments in Chinese culture, history, philosophy, and current affairs. I think it's perfect. Like a good Constitution, it sets a solid course but allows some flexibility getting there.
(For more information about Bart Fite, go to WA China Hands. For more information on China Club of Seattle, go to WA China Nonprofits. For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)