"One of the victims was hanged without his trousers and minus a finger on his left hand"
24 October 2016: 145 years ago today, 500 white men entered Los Angeles Chinatown to lynch Chinese residents in a racially motivated riot.
In 1871, Los Angeles was a very different city. The glitz and glamor of Hollywood were yet to be cultivated and the town’s small population of just over 5,000 was notoriously plagued with incidents of violence. Whilst the town had a small Chinese community, anti-Chinese sentiment was growing as people feared that the new immigrants were stealing jobs (#Brexit).
The massacre took place on 24 October 1871 in an area called Calle de los Negros, the centre of LA’s Chinese community. Los Angeles historian Morrow Mayo described Calle de los Negros as “a dreadful thoroughfare, forty feet wide, running one whole block, filled entirely with saloons, gambling-houses, dance-halls, and cribs. It was crowded night and day with people of many races, male and female, all rushing and crowding along from one joint to another, from bar to bar, from table to table.”
“There was a band in every joint, with harps, guitars, and other stringed instruments predominating.”
On the night of 24 October 1871, two of LA’s six police officers rushed down to Calle de los Negros after gunshots were heard. The officers found five or six Chinese men shooting at each other in the middle of the street. When the officers arrived, the men disbanded.
A man named Ah Choy was lying in the street with a gunshot wound to his neck. The gunfight had reportedly been triggered by a dispute between two rival Chinese factions over a kidnapping of a Chinese woman named Yut Ho. The gunmen fled into a nearby Coronel Building that housed the core of the Chinese community, filled with shops and small apartments.
Whilst it is unclear what exactly happened next, it is known that rancher and saloon owner Robert Thompson tried to help the police officers but was shot and killed.
Thompson’s death incited a mob of 500 people, which was roughly one tenth of LA’s population, who stormed into Chinatown. The mob sieged the Coronel building, using axes to hack at the building’s roof. Shotguns and rifles were used to fire bullets into the rooms below. The mob even tried to set the building on fire.
The violence escalated quickly and mob members dragged a number of Chinese to erected gallows. One of the most respected Chinese men in LA, Dr Gene Tong was dragged into the street as he was pleading for his life in English and Spanish. The bodies of his neighbours were hanging from a gate nearby. Dr Tong offered his captors his entire life savings but they instead tore open his pockets and shot him in the mouth. A small number of Chinese found refuge at the jail or a few welcoming houses and shops. It is estimated that at least 18 Chinese people were killed that night.
The next morning, bodies were sprawled across the streets.
One report in USC read, “the dead Chinese in Los Angeles were hanging at three places near the heart of the downtown business section of the city; from the wooden awning over the sidewalk in front of a carriage shop; from the sides of two “prairie shooters” parked on the street around the corner from the carriage shop; and from the cross-beam of a wide gate leading into a lumberyard a few blocks away from the other two locations.”
“One of the victims was hanged without his trousers and minus a finger on his left hand”
The criminal trials that followed the massacre resulted in only eight convictions, which were eventually overturned by California Supreme Court based on a technicality.
All of the convicts were set free.
As a result, the event has become forgotten and buried deep in LA’s dark history.
Anti-Chinese sentiment only worsened after the event, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 being introduced only eleven years later, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers.
Today, LA’s Chinatown is located far away from Calle de los Negros. The relocated Chinatown glistens with bonhomie, swarming with convivial tourists unaware of the massacre that took place in the original Chinatown. However, with hostility towards immigration permeating in the west, as demonstrated by Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign, it seems more significant than ever to remember the Chinese Massacre on its 145th anniversary today.
Whilst the Chinese men who were shooting at each other were clearly in the wrong, the entire community should not have suffered for their actions. Understandably the wrongful shooting of Thompson calls for justice. However, targeting an entire community by tarnishing every Chinese person with the same brush is wrong, racist and inexcusable. The incident may have taken place 145 years ago, but Trump’s attitude towards the Muslim community is worryingly similar to this – an attitude that echoes throughout a substantial part of the wider community.
Today, we remember the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre because we simply cannot allow history to repeat itself.