Laying Some History On You: The 1871 Chinese Massacre

A few months ago, I linked to a story in the LA Weekly about the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles. The story highlighted one of the most vicious mass murders in California’s history, and pointed out that it has been almost forgotten, in no small part because the City’s leaders wanted to make sure the story got buried, and manipulated the events surrounding the massacre, using political clout and clever machinations to wipe this particular incident from the history of Los Angeles.

On the evening of 24 October, 1871, a quarrel between two men, Hing Yo and Yuen Sam, erupted in violence. Most sources seem to agree that it involved two rival tongs, the Nin Yung Company and Hong Chow Company, and the abduction of a Chinese woman; her name seems to vary depending on the story. It’s notable that many descriptions of the tongs refer to them as ‘gangs,’ leaving the reader to figure out what that means. The role and identity of the tongs in the Chinese communities was far more complex than a ‘gang,’ though, and this particular careless word use highlights the lack of understanding of the structure of the Chinese community at the time.

A police officer responded, shots were fired, and when the smoke cleared, a white rancher lay dead, caught in the crossfire. Evidence seems to suggest that the police were aware of an ongoing conflict in the Chinese community and should have known that violence would be a concern, that a single police officer would not be enough to respond to a report of violence, and this lack of preparation certainly contributed to formation of a mob. One police officer had no opportunity to enforce order in the face of hundreds of enraged people. In fact, LA’s finest stood idly by during the massacre, despite obviously being aware that it was occurring.

An estimated tenth of the city’s total population at the time, 500 people, mobbed the Chinese districts of Los Angeles, leading members of the Chinese community to barricade themselves into buildings to protect themselves. At least 17 people died outright at the hands of the vigilantes, and the actual number of deaths may be much higher. As with the San Francisco earthquake, accurate estimates are hard to come by, a stark reminder of the value of Chinese lives at the time.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1883, a presumably white journalist condemned the violence of the mob:

The rope broke and the unfortunate wretch, innocent of any wrong, again asked for mercy from his tormentors. This was denied with jeers and he was again hung up, this time successfully…When the entrance at the doors was barred they beat in the roofs and set fire to the interior of the dwellings, thus forcing the occupants out…They utilized all the posts and sheds in the vicinity to hang their victims upon, and spared neither old nor young in their awful thirst for blood.

A well-respected Chinese doctor was murdered, his body looted, and the mob tore through the Chinese district, setting fire to homes and businesses, ransacking and destroying property. The low end of the damage was estimated at $30,000, which would have been almost $540,000 in 2010. It may have been twice as high. Who has held responsible for over half a million dollars worth of property destruction? Only a handful of men went to trial, and while some of them were convicted, the convictions were later overturned on a ‘technicality.’ While the initial convictions included jail time, the convicted members of the mob for the most part didn’t serve it; such was the nature of frontier ‘justice’ in California.

Racial violence in California was by no means unusual. Spanish colonists enslaved and abused the Native American population upon their arrival, and with the white domination of California in the 1840s came further abuses. Chinese immigrants to California seeking their fortune in the Gold Rush often encountered racial violence in the mining camps and the rough streets of cities like San Francisco and Sacramento. This incident was so violent, and so extensive, that it startled even many California residents, not to mention the national media; the Chinese massacre was a significant news event.

And it’s been almost entirely forgotten in the dominant, white community. The shifting landscape of Los Angeles has made it easy to sweep under the carpet, as has the persistence of racism in California. Confronting the vicious attitudes about Chinese immigration in the 19th century would require talking about some of the parallels with anti-immigrant attitudes today, including attitudes about new immigrants from Asia, Chinese among them.

A handful of white citizens spoke out in protest at the time and they were effectively steamrollered by the mob. Most of the citizens of Los Angeles turned out to gawk over the bodies laid out the next day, and it’s clear that the mob mentality swept up many bystanders to the scene. The mob included women and children who swept behind the crowd, volunteering clotheslines and sheets for hangings and shouting ‘hang them.’ I can’t help but think of images of Klan hangings from the 20th century where people of all genders and ages were represented in the audience.

Violence is often talked about as an adult male purview, mobs of intense violence that end in death are often thought of as primarily male, but as the Chinatown massacre illustrates, racial hatred is an equal opportunity -ism, and the women of California were just as eager to expel Chinese immigrants as the men.

The City considered the massacre a PR disaster when the national media started covering it. It was less concerned about the simmering racial tensions in California than it was about the financial consequences of being known as a place where police would stand by while angry mobs swept through neighbourhoods, lynching people. So it embarked on a coverup, starting with rigging the circumstances of the trials to bury the event. Today, even detailed texts on the history of Los Angeles often leave out the massacre.

History forgotten is doomed to repeat itself.