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The Forgotten Los Angeles Race Riot: Interview with Historian Scott Zesch on the Chinatown Massacre of 1871

Downtown Los Angeles in 1869. Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

When Los Angeles and race riot are mentioned in the same breath, the words may conjure for most the jittery newsreel images of fires and looting after the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King in 1992 or the devastation of Watts in 1965.

But long before those explosions of urban violence in the City of Angels, one of the most costly -- and least known -- race riots in United States history erupted in the Chinatown district on the night of October 24, 1871 when a paroxysm of mob brutality left 18 Chinese tortured and dead, and many injured. The bloody episode grew out of small-scale turf war between Chinese gangs, and the xenophobic non-Asian community responded with murderous rage. The Chinese gunslingers who ignited the initial violence that night were long gone when the mob killing spree began, and the innocent victims included shopkeepers, laborers, and admired local physician Gene Tong.

In his groundbreaking new book The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (Oxford), historian and writer Scott Zesch explores the virtually forgotten Chinatown massacre. Based on extensive research of contemporary source material, he chronicles the violent history of Los Angeles, the growth of the Chinese immigrant community from the 1850s, the civic leadership, the tense atmosphere that led to the massacre, and the aftermath for the city with an eye to legal proceedings that followed this hate crime. He takes pains to share the few human details known about the Chinese victims who were demonized by their killers.

Mr. Zesch’s book has been praised for his meticulous and unprecedented research, for his narrative skill, and for the resonance of his words today on issues such as racially motivated violence, social justice, and immigration. Acclaimed history professor Kevin Starr wrote: “For more than 140 years, historians have tippy-toed around this Los Angeles massacre. Emerging from the archives, Scott Zesch recounts this shameful event in all its representative horror -- and thereby does both history and the future a favor.”

Scott Zesch’s other books include The Captured: The True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, which won the TCU Texas Book Award, and a historical novel, Alamo Heights. He earned degrees from Texas A&M University and Harvard Law School.  He has worked as an editor and, since 1993, as a freelance writer. He lives in Mason County, Texas.

Mr. Zesch spoke from his Texas home by telephone about the Chinese Los Angeles and the 1871 massacre.                            

I had never heard about this horrific mob violence and murder of eighteen Chinese people in Los Angeles in 1871. How did you learn about this incident and then decide to write about it?

It was entirely by accident. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a Chinese community in Pendleton, Oregon, where persecution had literally driven the Chinese underground. I was doing some preliminary Internet research on Pendleton when I accidentally stumbled across a reference to the Chinese massacre in Los Angeles in 1871. I was shocked, first by the fact that it had happened and second that so few people knew about it. That’s when I put aside my plans to research Pendleton and started delving into this story instead.

The research must have been very challenging. Can you talk about your research process? Did you find sources from the Chinese community?

It was extremely difficult. I quickly learned that the early Chinese who lived in America between 1850 and 1880 left behind very few written records, at least that have surfaced so far. Many who were literate wrote letters to friends and family in China, but scholars have located very few of those.

Unfortunately, we have to rely largely on what American journalists wrote about the Chinese. Another source I found to be very helpful was the Los Angeles County court records from that era. The Chinese brought many small claims, so I was able to piece together a lot of information from those.

When I arrived in Los Angeles to do research, one of my first stops was the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. The leaders invited me to address one of the monthly meetings and explain a little bit about my research project. I told the members what I was doing and that I was hoping to collect some oral history from descendants of Chinese families who lived in Los Angeles in 1871. However, they told me that their families arrived much later. They didn’t know a whole lot about the earliest Chinese residents, and they were interested in finding out what I discovered about them.

What brought the Chinese to the Los Angeles area?

The Chinese immigrants tended to fan out all the way up and down the West Coast and eventually farther eastward into the continent, looking for new economic opportunities. Laundry was their primary trade. They went out and looked for communities where there were no commercial laundries.

Many may tend to think of the Chinese as rather docile and uninvolved in their communities, but you point out that the Chinese in Los Angeles soon learned to use the legal system.

That was one of the big surprises of my research. The Chinese were very aggressive in prosecuting their legal claims. They would go to the justice of the peace court to collect on a laundry bill of a dollar fifty. There would be a hearing and, in most cases, the Chinese would prevail. That also tells us that lawyer fees must have been reasonable at the time if it was worth it for the laundrymen to hire attorneys for those small claims.

One of the misconceptions many us have, myself included, was that the first large-scale wave of Chinese immigrants to America did not arrive until the transcontinental railroad was built in the 1860s. But it was the gold rush that first brought the Chinese to the West Coast. Many of them arrived in 1849-50 in San Francisco and then headed to the mining camps. That was the origin of the Chinese laundries. The Chinese immigrants were astonished to learn that the miners were shipping their clothes to Hawaii to be laundered. They saw an opportunity to provide faster service at a lower cost. So it was not a business that they brought from the homeland. It was entirely American-born.

What do you see as the major causes of the 1871 race riot? The extreme hatred and complicity or passivity of local authorities as well as the racism advanced in the press are all impressive in your account.

I don’t think the virulent anti-Chinese racism was something that developed naturally. I believe it was entirely orchestrated. When the Chinese first arrived, they were very well received, and non-Asians’ positive attitude toward the Chinese seemed to continue into the early 1860s.

As the anti-Chinese labor movement grew, the fear that Chinese would displace non-Asian workers led to the political demagoguery against the Chinese and the vicious editorials that appeared in the newspapers. It happened suddenly. It wasn’t a gradual shift. In Los Angeles, hateful editorials suddenly appeared calling the Chinese animals and idolatrous barbarians. About the same time, unprovoked physical attacks against the Chinese started.

Wasn’t there also a concern in the non-Asian community about Chinese organizations? You describe the benevolent associations as well as tongs or gangs involved in underworld crime such as sex trafficking and gambling.

There were certainly vice industries in Chinatown that were controlled by Mafia-like organizations, usually called the fighting tongs. Unfortunately, the criminal element started getting so much publicity that non-Asians came to believe that the entire Chinese community was made up of nothing but racketeers and miscreants. The honest Chinese laborers suffered because of the heavily reported activities of these gangs.

Your description of the role of Chinese women is chilling. Many of them came to the U.S. as virtual slaves or indentured servants.

Yes. That started in 1852 when Chinese women were brought to America against their will. Some were sold into slavery, some were under four-year indentured contracts to work as prostitutes, and others were tricked into coming here believing there was a job or a husband waiting. The Chinese racketeers who brought them here placed them in brothels. The American police force and judiciary helped keep this business going, and Chinese racketeers learned how to manipulate the American legal system in order to discourage these women from escaping and to restore them to sexual slavery if they did.

It seems there was widespread bribery of the police.

Some of it was surprisingly open. The Chinese organizations would advertise a reward for the return of a missing woman. Usually, police officers were the ones who would try to get the reward by searching for the escaped woman and bringing her back. So the police and judges were very heavily involved in returning these women to their keepers.

It’s fascinating legal history. If there’s a hero in your book, in may be justice of the peace William Gray.

Yes. He’s completely unknown in Los Angeles history. He was one of my happiest discoveries. His minute books are housed at the Huntington Library. He was a pithy writer, and he had some choice comments about the people who appeared before him and the stunts they were trying to pull.

Gray was very articulate in his attacks on corruption and slavery.'

Right, and he was the lowliest jurist in town. His court was restricted to hearing minor cases. I couldn’t find much biographical information on him, and I don’t know if he had any legal training or if he was just elected. In retrospect, he was much more of a legal visionary than many of the judges of the district courts and even the California Supreme Court.

What do you see as the immediate cause of the riot? It’s striking that it occurs as a Chinese organization, See Yup Company, splits and there’s a violent struggle within that organization that attracts local non-Asian attention.

There was a major feud between members of two Chinese factions. Like many feuds, this one was based in commerce. The Chinese community in Los Angeles was very small, and the businesses in Chinatown were competing for the same customers, mostly Asian.

I think this situation exploded in violence mainly because of the indifference of the larger population toward the events in Chinatown. They saw this feud as the internal affair of a foreign community and were not that interested. Also, when the vicious editorials appeared in the press and Chinese were physically attacked on the street, you didn’t see any non-Asians speaking out in protest. The perpetrators got the impression that they could get away with it. One of things that allowed the violence to spill out of control on the night of the massacre was the belief among the mob members that nothing would happen to them if they robbed and murdered the Chinese.

Do you have a sense of how the riot may have been prevented? It seems that the local authorities were very passive before and during the riot.

I think the apathy of the local population during the years beforehand was a major factor. They witnessed injustice and didn’t say anything. The influential citizens helped set the stage for the massacre more through their omissions than their acts.

The riot resulted in the deaths of 18 Chinese and one non-Asian. Can you talk about the course of the riot? What prompted a mob to gather and attack Chinese in Chinatown?

The feud between the two Chinese factions finally resulted in a shootout. The mob gathered initially because they heard gunfire coming from Chinatown. A lot of people went there out of curiosity. Within a short time, a white rancher shot his revolver into a store and was killed by return fire. Rumors began to circulate within Los Angeles that the Chinese were “killing the white men by wholesale.” That’s an actual quote from witness testimony. That inflamed people, and the mob eventually grew to an estimated 500. The mob members were clamoring to drive the Chinese out of their homes and shops where they had taken refuge.

At this time, Los Angeles had only six police officers, some of whom weren’t even on duty that day. So there was a relatively small law force trying to control a huge crowd, and they had to decide what their priorities were.

I believe the biggest mistake the law officers made was not trying to disperse and push back this unruly mob. They were much more focused on trying to apprehend the Chinese gunslinger who had shot the white rancher, even though they must have known there were many innocent Chinese who were in great danger. They allowed this mob to grow, and the law officers even deputized some of the bystanders.

After a three-hour stand off, the mob was not going to wait any longer. That’s when they broke into the Chinese headquarters and dragged out Chinese victims. At that point, I don’t think there’s any way the small police force could have controlled the crowd. They missed their chances to try to break up the mob early on.

You point out that Los Angeles had a history of mob justice and violence before this riot.

It did. San Francisco was better known for its vigilance committees, but the citizens of the much smaller town of Los Angeles actually lynched more people. There were an estimated fifty lynchings between 1850 and 1870 -- and that’s not counting the eighteen men lynched in the Chinatown massacre of 1871. Los Angeles had a reputation as a very violent place. There were times when it had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation. I don’t think there’s any single reason for that. It was a town with a transient population. There were a lot of drifters from the mining camps and cattle-driving trails. They didn’t intend to stay there and put down roots. Some of them were young, aggressive thugs.

Could you talk about the aftermath of this horrible hate crime? Some might expect that this violence would have led to increasing tolerance after one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

First, I disagree with most historians on the aftermath. The consensus is that the law failed not only on the night of the massacre, but also during the aftermath. I take the opposite view: that the judiciary of Los Angeles actually performed very well in prosecuting the perpetrators. Their convictions were eventually overturned in an appeal that I think was wrongly decided, but that decision was made by the California Supreme Court, not the local district court.

Afterward, the public’s increased confidence in the judiciary probably helped bring about the end of mob rule in Los Angeles, because there were no more lynchings of suspected criminals in the city after 1871. The only good thing to come out of the massacre was that Los Angeles proved to the nation that its judiciary was finally functioning. That helped lay the groundwork for the modern city.

Unfortunately, this horrible incident did not lead to greater tolerance for the Chinese or other minorities. In fact, anti-Chinese prejudice increased in Los Angeles in the latter 1870s. One of the reasons for that was the increase in the Chinese population in 1875 when more Chinese immigrants arrived to work on the San Fernando railroad tunnel. The Chinese became much more visible in the labor force. Another factor was the growth of the national anti-Chinese labor movement in the mid-1870s. It started in San Francisco but eventually took root in Los Angeles as well, and finally led to the [Chinese] Exclusion Act of 1882.

It’s surprising that the Chinese didn’t all leave Los Angeles after the riot and massacre, but instead they had a continuing presence.

That’s true, and that’s impressive. The early Chinese in America are sometimes depicted as transient laborers who returned to China and did not put down roots. What happened in Los Angeles showed that many of the Chinese immigrants were interested in staying there. Many of them had relatives in town. Within a surprisingly short time after the massacre, some were re-establishing their businesses in Chinatown.

How do you see the riot in terms of the larger history of anti-immigrant episodes in the U.S.? It seems we have had waves of anti-immigrant sentiment from the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and anti-Eastern European movements of the 1800s to our own anti-immigrant movements today.

It’s something that really resonates today. A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article about Latino immigrants in the Hamptons in New York, and how there is grumbling by white workers against them. Their comments seem very much like the ones Californians were making about the Chinese in the 1860s and 1870s. Those same issues are still with us.

I had tended to think of this story in terms of race and race relations when I started. By the end of my research, however, I concluded that the reason the Chinese were attacked was not so much because of their race, but because they were seen as people on the margins of society who were not in a good position to fight back. In the end, I drew parallels not so much to racially tinged incidents such as the Trayvon Martin shooting, as to the unprovoked violence against homeless people of all races in recent years. I believe they are attacked because people think they can get away with it, as was the case with the Chinese massacre. Similarly, illegal immigrants are beaten and brutalized not so much because of race as because the perpetrators think [the immigrants] will not go complain to authorities.

Your closing chapter is very moving and you conclude that the Chinatown massacre was a race riot “that didn’t change a damned thing.”

Right. I think that the only real positive change it brought about was a demonstration that the legal system was finally functioning in Los Angeles. Other than that, it changed very little in terms of race relations. I think the main lesson we can draw is the danger of not speaking out when we see injustices committed against powerless people or when inflammatory lies or propaganda about minority groups go unchallenged in the press. The lesson, in my opinion, is that hate talk can have real consequences.

The Chinese massacre happened during the first era of boosterism in Los Angeles, when the city leaders were trying to build up business and industry and bring newcomers to the area. Of course, the massacre was a terrible embarrassment to the city, and it was also the first event that drew national attention to Los Angeles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the city’s leaders tried to cover it up, but they did downplay it in an effort to overcome the negative publicity. In fact, in a history of the city published five years after the massacre, the event was not even mentioned. I think that’s one reason it’s so little known today.

I also wondered about your interest in history. I read that you’re a graduate of Harvard Law School, a songwriter, a novelist, and a former Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa. How did you decide to write about history and who are some of your influences as a historian and a writer?

I started researching and writing history mainly as a way of educating myself about episodes in our nation’s past that interested me. I brought some of my legal training to my approach. I learned not to rely on common assumptions but to document everything for myself and draw my own conclusions from the evidence I found.

I admire historians who are good narrative storytellers. At the same time, I’m not a fan of popular histories that rely mostly on other people’s research, even if they’re well-written. I’ve been most heavily influenced by historical writers who don’t skimp on the original research and who go back to the primary sources and even conduct personal interviews when possible, but at the same time have the literary skill to turn the raw material they discover into a story that will hold general readers’ interest. One of those was Walter Lord. Another was C.L. Sonnichsen, an English professor in El Paso who wrote about Texas feuds. They both did very thorough research but also wrote wonderful narrative prose. That’s the kind of writer who really drew me into the study of history.

Thank you for your comments and for illuminating this sobering episode of race hatred and mob violence.