OLYMPIA – For three years, the Legislature has heard proposals to designate a Chinese American History Month, but never passed one. This year, a bill made it farther than ever, receiving unanimous support in the Senate and a House committee, but never got a vote in the House before the Legislature adjourned.
The bill’s failure has advocates asking how a proposal with strong support could fail. Legislators say there were too many questions about the plan, but that a Chinese American History Month is possible with a bit of work.
Senate Bill 5624 would have designated January as Americans of Chinese Descent History Month. That would be similar to the way the state recognizes Jan. 13 as Korean American Day, May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and October as Filipino American History Month.
“If they can have Korean American Day, if they can have Filipino American History Month, why not have a Chinese History Month passed as law?” said Linda Yang, founder of Washington Asians for Equality.
The group has pushed for the designation since 2020.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the history month bill didn’t get a vote because majority Democrats had questions about assigning months to “sub-ethnic” groups.
“It’s our caucus that makes the decisions about bills that they feel comfortable voting on,” Jinkins said.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Wolley, the bill’s sponsor, said the designation would be a kind of “little alarm” for schools to “emphasize these accomplishments and honor these people who are just Americans with a little bit of a different historical background” without mandating it. January was the chosen month because it wasn’t taken, he said.
Weiling Zhu, president of the Spokane Chinese Association, said the group’s leadership was aware of the bill and understands the importance of such a recognition.
“It is certainly a disappointment,” she said. “But at this moment in time, we will just continue doing what we do.”
The Spokane Chinese Association exists to provide support to Spokane’s Chinese community while also promoting Chinese culture and history in the broader community, Zhu said. Having a Chinese American history month “will only help” their efforts to expand cultural enrichment in Spokane, she said.
Yang said the idea of a month to recognize Chinese American history came to her after the 2019 measure to establish the Filipino American History Month. She was inspired to make the push as part of an effort to educate Washingtonians on the “rich Chinese American history” the state has, but not many people are aware of, she said.
“We just want people to realize we have been a part of this country for a very long time,” Yang said. “We contributed to this country, this region’s growth, since the 19th century. But barely people know that.”
Kendall Kosai, a member of the state’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, testified in support of the bill and Yang said several Western Washington school districts she talked to were supportive of the proposal.
The Chinese American History Month bill was one of many that did not receive final consideration and died at the end of the session. Supporters point out the House did manage to designate pickleball as the state sport.
“To not bring that to the floor when there were so many other trivial bills was pretty frustrating,” Wagoner said. “I fully expected it would’ve just flown through, but that was not the case.”
Jinkins said the two bills can’t be compared because they had different topic areas, advocates and raised different questions – with the pickleball bill raising “none.”
Jinkins said she is “generally supportive” of a bill to designate a Chinese American History Month, but even popular bills often fail in short 60-day sessions. Similar efforts have needed a lot of time to iron out details and eventually get a vote in the chamber, she said.
The House Democratic Caucus wanted further consideration of the other history month designations already in place, Jinkins said.
“There’s an Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, there’s a Hispanic Latino Heritage Month,” she said. “If we’re going to move into doing designated months for sub-groups, we should probably think about that strategically somewhat to make sure that we have equity in the process.”
Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, offered a floor amendment to move the designation from January to May, aligning it with the celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Ryu said she had questions about the significance of January as the right place for the designation, the length of the designation and ensuring meaningful and impactful recognitions take place during a period of time with other events like Martin Luther King Jr. day, the opening of the Legislature, and the start of the new year in the Gregorian and lunar calendars.
The amendment, Ryu said, was an attempt to keep the bill alive as concerns grew and time was running out. Since a lot of Chinese American organizations celebrate Asian Pacific Islander heritage month, adding the Chinese American history designation to May seemed like the best move, she said.
Wagoner said he viewed the amendment as “trying to dilute it so it’s less meaningful for that community.” But Ryu said it was not her intention to dilute Chinese Americans “among all the other AAPIs.”
Jinkins said there was also concerns that the bill wasn’t backed by a broad group of supporters. Working “with other racial and ethnic communities,” Jinkins said, would help address the concern of equitably designating the 12 months in a year to certain groups.
“If the Asians for Equality were to actually ask me for advice about what to do, what I would do is tell them to continue to engage – actually engage within their community and then within the broader Asian Pacific Islander community and then with other racial and ethnic communities too,” she said.
Yang said she will continue the push to get an Americans of Chinese Descent History Month into law.
Zhu said she looks forward to working with Yang and others to get a Chinese American History Month in the books to supplement their cultural mission in Spokane.
“We are going to see how we can work together to expand this effort,” Zhu said.
Jinkins said she thinks the bill “hopefully has a chance to get across the finish line” in the future and is open to working with advocates to make that happen. Ryu said she is looking to work with the broader Chinese American community in establishing a “consensus-built, meaningful” period to recognize their history and continued presence.