Yee Shun was new to Las Vegas, in New Mexico Territory, and he didn’t intend to stay long. Though he’d secured a job at a local hotel, he’d decided to move on to Albuquerque, a frontier city even more promising and bustling than 1882 Las Vegas. But first, he planned to look up a friend at a local Chinese-owned laundry.
That decision proved fatal—in more ways than one. It set the stage for one man’s murder, and another’s suicide. It also resulted in something unexpected: a legal case that overturned a longstanding practice of refusing to allow Chinese people to testify in U.S. court.
At the time Yee immigrated to the United States from China, Chinese people had few civil rights. Men from China had been immigrating since the 1840s, drawn by the country’s ample opportunities for laborers. As railroad companies competed to grow as quickly as possible, they needed a pool of cheap labor willing to take on dangerous and often backbreaking work, and Chinese immigrants fit the bill. Up to 15,000 Chinese men became railroad workers, then branched out into mining, farming, sewing, laundry, and other fields.
But though Chinese immigrants were essential to westward expansion, they were not welcomed by many white Americans, who felt threatened by enclaves of unfamiliar workers who spoke a different language, practiced a different religion and made significant contributions to both labor and business in the burgeoning West. By the 1880s, anti-Chinese sentiment reached its peak with the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a series of laws that restricted immigration from China and limited Chinese-born people’s civil rights within the U.S.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration for ten years, required Chinese people to carry documentation at all times, and refused Chinese people the ability to become naturalized citizens. “The coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof,” the Act read.
Chinese people lacked another civil right: the right to testify in court in many states and territories. Laws and court cases denying them that right went back almost as far as Chinese immigration in the United States, and in states where there were no such laws, Chinese people who wanted to testify were often dismissed as liars before they even took the stand.
In 1854, a white man, George W. Hall, who was convicted of murder based on the testimony of Chinese witnesses had his conviction overturned by the California Supreme Court. His attorneys argued that the Chinese witnesses’ testimony should be invalid based on other laws that banned Native Americans and mixed-race people from testifying in court.
In the decision reversing Hall’s conviction, the court called Chinese people “inferior” and warned that if Chinese-born people were to have the right to testify in court, they would soon claim the right to vote. Despite laws and practices that excluded Chinese testimony in court, white witnesses could testify against Chinese people in court with impunity.
Yee learned of the taboo on Chinese testimony firsthand after he arrived in Las Vegas. At the laundry where he went to meet his friend, there was an altercation and Jim Lee, another Chinese man, was shot and killed. Yee, who was 20 years old at the time, was accused of the murder.
At the trial, Jo Chinaman, the laundry’s owner, was called to testify. When he faced the judge, he was asked about whether he was Christian and whether he understood the court’s oath. Jo Chinaman said that he was not a Christian and didn’t understand the oath, but that he would tell the truth. Then he testified that Yee had killed Jim Lee.
Yee’s defense claimed that Yee had been unarmed and that the murder was due to a grievance between the town’s tongs, or Chinese gangs. But based on the testimony of several witnesses, only one of whom pointed the finger at Yee, the jury found Yee guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Yee’s lawyer believed that Jo Chinaman’s testimony was invalid, since taking the Christian oath required of witnesses was predicated on being Christian. But since Yee’s attorney had not called witnesses of his own and asked them about Chinese religious beliefs and oaths in front of the jury, the appellate court ruled that Jo Chinaman’s testimony, and Yee’s conviction, should stand. A despairing Yee killed himself in prison shortly after.
“Prior to Yee Shun, the legal right of Chinese to testify in court was unclear,” writes historian John R. Wunder. “The stumbling block was the oath.” The appellate court’s acceptance of Jo Chinaman’s testimony in court set a precedent that opened up the door for Chinese people to testify.
But, writes Wunder, the new precedent was double-edged. It meant that Chinese people’s religions could be openly questioned in court in front of juries—treatment that no non-Chinese witness had to go through in order to exercise their civil rights. An attorney’s probing of a Chinese witness’ religious and moral views could taint the jury and serve to make the testimony seem untruthful or suspect before it had even begun.
Slowly, thanks in part to the legal precedent set by Yee’s case, Chinese people began appearing as witnesses in court. His case was used to ensure Japanese Americans’ right to testify in 1909, and states slowly dropped overt laws against Chinese testimony.
Though it broke new legal ground, Lee Shun’s case didn’t stop discrimination against Chinese people in the United States. Ten years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, it was extended. It wouldn’t be revoked until 1943, and Chinese immigration was severely restricted until the late 1960s. Though Chinese people were finally allowed to testify in court, attorneys often stated that Chinese men were incompetent and not to be trusted.
The supposed untrustworthiness of Chinese people reinforced racial stereotypes and fed into laws that made people of Chinese descent permanent aliens in a country they contributed to. Did Yee Shun really shoot Jim Lee? In a legal system that viewed people of Chinese descent as untrustworthy aliens, there was little chance the court would give a Chinese defendant—or a defendant whose case relied on Chinese testimony—a fair trial.
But though Yee Shun’s case did little to stem a tide of anti-Chinese sentiment in the country in which he saw so much opportunity, it was a small step in an ongoing battle for civil rights.
In 2018, officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico approved a two-story sculpture that commemorates the case. “Chinese Americans are pioneers in civil rights, and this case shows that while we were victims we were not victimized,” Cheryll Leo-Gwin, a Chinese American artist who co-designed the memorial, told Hyperallergic. “We fought back. We didn’t give up.”