On this day 150 years ago, a mob of hundreds of white men attacked what is now downtown Los Angeles and indiscriminately beat, shoot, and hang any Chinese they saw.
The 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles killed 18 Chinese men and is considered the deadliest example of racial violence ever recorded in the city. This was quickly and impatiently forgotten.
City leaders, embarrassed that the border city made headlines on violence and lawlessness in national newspapers, set up a police department and tried to restore the rule of law. Eight of the attackers were put on trial for crimes but were eventually released and a small compensation was paid to the Chinese government as an apology. Calle De Los Negros has been demolished and rebuilt. The Chinese community was rebuilt elsewhere.
A century and a half later, when Asian Americans are faced with a surge in racial violence caused by the pandemic, I think about the lessons that have never been learned from this forgotten story.
The massacre was buried so deep that even those with deep roots in Chinatown did not know that it happened until several generations later. Gei Yuen, who was born and raised in Los Angeles’s Chinatown and even taught Chinese-American history, didn’t know this until she retired and became a board member of the China-American Museum.
The first Asian city councilor, Michael Wu, whose family helped found Chinatown, learned about it nine years ago, in 2012, when he was asked to read a book about the massacre. There was no memorial until 2001, when a small plaque was installed. In the 150 years since then, the relatives of the survivors have not reported, and there is no eyewitness account.
But perhaps this is not surprising. One of the criteria for the success of the racial terror campaign is the terrifying silence that follows.
“It was ethnic cleansing,” said Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis who has studied anti-Chinese law. “And it was successful.”
The Los Angeles massacre was only part of a multi-year campaign of anti-Chinese violence and racism, and it was not even the deadliest: in Rock Springs, Maryland, in 1885, at least 28 Chinese miners were killed by a group of white miners who accused them of economic fight.
Beth Lew-Williams, professor of history at Harvard and author of The Chinese Must Go, found that between 1885 and 1887 there were 86 murders of Chinese people and over 168 violent or attempted evictions of Chinese communities. It is impossible to know the true scale of the violence that has not been contained for almost half a century.
The massacres, forced evictions, and the constant threat of white violence against the Chinese helped put pressure on politicians to pass a system of laws prohibiting Asian Americans from doing business, owning land, and competing for the same opportunities that white men wanted. Chinese Americans were demonized as filthy, infected with disease and considered a real economic threat. Half a century of racial violence led to the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act and laid the groundwork for the imprisonment of Japanese people during World War II.
This is a story that seems unpleasantly familiar to us in 2021. The economic tension may be different, but the stereotypes are the same. Asian Americans are still seen as a permanent foreigner and an economic threat. And Violence Rises: Hate Tracker STOP AAPI has recorded over 9,000 incidents of anti-Asian violence since the pandemic began in 2020. In Los Angeles County, hate crimes rose 76% last year.
It is difficult to measure how a forgotten history has affected us without thinking.
Los Angeles has a certain generation of Chinese Americans who grew up feeling distanced from their culture. Their parents raised them to speak perfect English without an accent, encouraged them to fit in, and prevented them from learning Chinese out of fear of racism. They were sent to the fields of science, economics and medicine, which, in their opinion, were isolated from racial discrimination. They learned to bow their heads and tolerate racism because justice was not guaranteed. Did their parents remember the massacre?
The cultural distance of one generation has resonated and intensified in the next, and many Asian Americans today still have complex relationships with their culture. Is this part of the legacy of the massacre?
During my reporting in Chinatowns across the country, I have met tough, tough old men and women with a uniquely cynical worldview and the belief that nothing is more important than survival and economic success. Is this attitude shaped by memories of violence and discrimination?
There are no unambiguous, comforting answers. The most enduring legacy of the American era of anti-Chinese violence is simply the absence of Chinese and communities where they once were. A group of community leaders and Chinatown elders are working with the City of Los Angeles and the China American Museum to create an appropriate memorial to the victims, in addition to the small plaque currently in place.
When the Chinese massacre of 1871 finally finds its place in history, I hope that history will also include what happened after the violence.
The Chinese community has not just come to terms with its fate. They demanded restitution and a claim for damages, but to no avail. At least 14 out of 15 of all Chinese laundries in Los Angeles refused to pay for a business license in the city a year after the massacre, in what may be the first example of Sino-American civil disobedience. According to reports from the time, some Chinese Americans responded by being even more proud to be Chinese and even more courageous in showing their culture despite the danger.
It took them 10 months, but several Chinese Americans in Los Angeles at the time raised $ 8,000 to pay for proper burial ceremonies – an unimaginable amount of money for a group of poor immigrants at the time.
They hired a priest, built an altar at the site of the massacre, made offerings, and burned incense. From there they went on foot to the city cemetery to bury the victims.
While the carnage has been forgotten by history, the record is clear: The 18 men killed were of great importance to their Chinese-American compatriots in Los Angeles.