The riot that struck Chinatown in 1871 came after editorials calling the Chinese “animals.”
Los Angeles has given us three of the country’s most jolting racial eruptions of the last century: the Zoot Suit Riot in 1943, the Watts Riot in 1965 and the Rodney King Riot in 1992. Indeed, Los Angeles — if it can be so expressed — practically has a tradition of race riots. The first one dates back all the way to 1871, and its victims were Chinese immigrants.
At that time, the City of Angels was an obscure, Wild West town of only 6,000 residents. Its thoroughfares were dusty lanes, its first three-storied building had just been completed, and its police department was only two years old, consisting of six officers. The town’s diverse population included a tiny Chinese community that had been there since 1850, when Chinese prospectors who had come to California during the Gold Rush ventured beyond the mining camps to try their luck in more stable occupations, mainly the laundry trade and domestic service. Throughout the state, Los Angeles had a reputation for its high murder rate and its citizens’ periodic lynchings of suspected criminals. However, few Americans outside California had ever heard of it. That would soon change.
Shortly before sundown on Oct. 24, 1871, a gun battle broke out on the streets of Chinatown. This fight was the culmination of a yearlong power struggle between two Chinese factions, exacerbated by the abduction and forced marriage of a woman named Yut Ho. Local lawmen and curiosity-seekers rushed to the neighborhood to see what was happening, but the Chinese gunmen disappeared into nearby adobe buildings before they could be captured. One Latino officer was wounded when he tried to make an arrest, and a teenage boy was shot in the leg. A white rancher, ignoring police warnings to stay away, discharged his revolver into a Chinese store where some of the feuding people were holed up. He was killed by return fire.
Within an hour, hysterical rumors had spread by word of mouth that the Chinese were “killing the white men by wholesale,” even though the shooting had subsided without further casualties. As darkness fell that evening, an angry mob of about 500 Anglo and Latino men surrounded and trapped the Chinese inside their homes and shops. Some of these rabble-rousers were toughs and petty criminals, but others were reputable business owners and tradesmen, including a city council member and a well-known hardware merchant. The police, determined to apprehend the Chinese gunslingers who had killed the white rancher, made little effort to disperse the unruly spectators and even deputized some known hooligans to help prevent any Chinese escaping the neighborhood.
After a three-hour standoff, the police were no longer able to restrain the crowd. The mob broke into the sprawling, single-storied adobe building where many Chinese lived and ransacked their apartments. The ringleaders seized random Chinese, beating and robbing them. Then they placed ropes around their necks and dragged them through the streets to the town’s principal business district, where they would be hanged. One victim was a popular doctor, Chee Long “Gene” Tong, who vainly offered his captors his entire savings in exchange for his life. Another was a 15-year-old house servant, Ah Loo, who had arrived from China just a week earlier. The mob murdered a total of 18 Chinese men, only one of whom had taken part in the gun battle that afternoon. Later that night, their killers celebrated in the saloons of downtown Los Angeles, bragging and joking that “some of the long-tails” had “gone up.”
Within days, Americans were hearing about a place called Los Angeles for the first time, as newspapers across the country condemned the massacre. The New York Tribune lambasted the people of the “misnamed ‘City of the Angels’” who had demonstrated the “peculiar principles of civilization affected in Southern California.” Although historians still debate whether the root cause was economic insecurity, general lawlessness or pure racism, the path leading to that terrible night appears clear in hindsight. The tragedy of 1871 was certainly not inevitable. Chinese immigrants had resided peacefully in Los Angeles for two decades beforehand, and non-Asians had generally taken a tolerant attitude toward them. Many households relied on Chinese launderers, cooks and vegetable peddlers. Some affluent Angelenos even consulted Chinese physicians.
In 1869, however, things changed noticeably when a Los Angeles newspaper launched a series of vitriolic editorials denigrating Chinese immigrants as “animals” in “dens,” “filthy and disgusting,” “an inferior and idolatrous race,” and “a foul blot upon our civilization.” Shortly afterward, violent, unprovoked attacks on Chinese residents rose sharply. A white man severely thrashed a Chinese passerby, proclaiming that he had “a great antipathy to the Chinese race.” Young boys pelted Chinese pedestrians with stones. Only three months before the massacre, one local readily admitted that he “hit a Chinaman on the head because I wanted to.”
Even more disturbing, the citizens who deplored these hate crimes remained silent while the attacks continued unabated. No one wrote letters to the editor protesting the Chinese- bashing in the press or the escalating assaults on the streets. Local business leaders, teachers, lawyers, clergy and elected officials chose not to speak out. The “good guys,” through their inaction, helped foster an atmosphere of indifference in which the mob could carry out its crimes.
It might seem natural to draw parallels between the Los Angeles riot of 1871 and recent, racially-tinged tragedies such as the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. But the Chinese massacre teaches a more focused lesson. The victims were targeted not so much because of their race as because they were widely seen as people who didn’t matter. Their killers thought they could get away with it, for they felt sure no one would raise much of a fuss over the fate of these expendable foreigners. In the end, the assumption of the Chinatown killers turned out to be wrong. Los Angeles juries convicted eight of the perpetrators, prompting one gratified local to remark that the verdict “asserts that Chinamen are human beings” who “are entitled to protection under the laws.”
Today, digital technology and social media have made it easier than ever for anyone to speak out against hate talk. Angelenos of 1871 may have helped pave the way for the Chinese massacre through their apathy, but society’s not bound to repeat their mistakes.
Scott Zesch is the author most recently of “The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871” (Oxford, 2012).