The Other America: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871
HISTORICAL MEMORY IS like a remote control whose batteries are on the blink: sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, and no particular pattern or reason can be discerned for its success or its failure. Ask any Angeleno about “the riots,” and they will likely mention Watts or Rodney King. The historically discerning may dig into their memory of grade-school California history (or their recollection of mediocre swing-revival songs of the 1990s) and mention the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, in which military servicemen commandeered a fleet of taxicabs and assaulted young Hispanic men on the streets of East L.A. There is no one left who remembers firsthand the events of October, 1871, and the only physical reminder that remains is a small plaque near the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles. The places where eighteen Chinese men were murdered by a violent mob are now gone, replaced by the Hollywood Freeway and the United States Court House.
The city where the massacre of 1871 took place is both immediately familiar—it’s L.A., silly!—and entirely foreign. In 1871, Los Angeles was still a sleepy town, not even on the radar of most Californians. With its adobe buildings and gray asphalt roofs, it more closely resembled other Hispanic towns in the West like Santa Fe and Tucson than it did San Francisco. It was the real-life Deadwood of the West: twenty years earlier, in 1850-1851, Los Angeles had the highest recorded murder rate in American history. It was a place where judges pulled pistols on witnesses in court, and police officers shot at each other in the street.
Its violent tendencies notwithstanding, Los Angeles was surprisingly cosmopolitan for its time. As Scott Zesch informs us in The Chinatown War, Italian, German, and French could be heard spoken on its streets along with the semi-official languages of English and Spanish. For the preceding two decades, so could Chinese. Chinese laborers had begun to arrive in California during the Gold Rush. Would-be gold diggers had made a habit, incredibly enough, of sending their clothes to Hawaii to be cleaned, waiting months for their return via mail. Chinese immigrants, knowing a good business venture when they saw one, made steady work of scrubbing clothes, and many of them stuck around in California.