Through the Viewfinder at a Chinese Dragon Dance in Los Angeles, ca. 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the 1860s onward, one of the most oppressed and marginalized ethnic groups in Los Angeles were the Chinese.  Many of the earliest arrivals to town were railroad laborers, veterans of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad for the Central Pacific Railroad and who came here to build the Los Angeles and San Pedro line to the rudimentary harbor.  However, in the 1860 census, William and Nicolasa Workman’s household here at the Homestead, included a 30-year old Chinese cook listed only as “John Chinaman.”

By the early Seventies, a substantial community of Chinese congregated at the Calle de los Negros, a street southeast of the Plaza and set up their homes, shops and other enterprises there.  Rising anger by Americans, Europeans and Latinos, fueled by inter-Chinese fighting, led to the single most horrific criminal event in Los Angeles history: the massacre of nineteen Chinese males on the evening of 24 October 1871.

Despite the disaster, the resiliency of the Chinese was demonstrated as their community persisted and grew.  After Calle de los Negros was dismantled to reroute Los Angeles Street northward to Alameda, the “Chinatown” of the era moved to the east side of Alameda.  Restrictions on Chinese immigration limited the growth of the population, though distrust and discrimination continued.

Yet, by the end of the nineteenth century, a strange fascination among Americans and Europeans towards the Chinese (and other ethnic groups) manifested itself:  the “exotic” nature of “Chinatown” began to be seen as a way to tap into the burgeoning tourist trade that was rapidly rising in the region.

LA Chinatown ca. 1905 2
This snapshot, probably taken by a tourist, shows part of the “Chinatown” in Los Angeles, circa 1905.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

Tourists flocked to “Chinatown” to walk its streets, gawk at its residents, peer into businesses and homes, and feel that they had gone on some great adventure.  These visitors probably gave little, if any, thought, to the intrusive nature of their treks and there are photographs that show Chinese, especially women, hiding from photographers blatantly and directly snapping photos of people in broad daylight on the streets.

Another element of the exotic, which really bears comparison with the highly romanticized take Americans and Europeans took on Spanish and Mexican California–what is sometimes called the “Spanish Fantasy Past,” was reflected in the enormous growth of pageantry that gripped Los Angeles in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century.

The Tournament of Roses in Pasadena and La Fiesta de los Angeles both became hugely popular festivals from the 1890s and were soon joined by innumerable parades for all kinds of reasons, whether it be fraternal order conferences for the Elks or the Odd Fellows, military parades during the Spanish-American War and World War I, visits by prominent figures like presidents, or what have you.

Chinese dragon at parade LA 1900s
A street-level view of an approaching Chinese dragon dance, probably taken at a spring La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade, ca. 1900s.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

The photo shown here is of a Chinese dragon dance, in which dozens of persons use poles to carry a colorful serpentine dragon made of a wood structure with a decorative paper or cloth overlay as it undulates, rising and falling through a downtown street, probably during a La Fiesta de los Angeles parade from the 1900s.  Dragons are a symbol of good luck in Chinese tradition and musicians played horns, gongs and drums to accompany the dance.

For non-Chinese observers, this dance certainly must have represented a strange, alien and, yes, exotic presence, but it seems highly unlikely that many of those watching had any deep interest in trying to understand a people whose cultural practices and achievements go back for millenia.  This was one day when most Angelenos had any exposure, however superficial, to their Chinese neighbors.

Later, when Union Station was being built during the 1930s, “Chinatown” was moved north and west to its current location.  While Chinese emigration did not begin to pick up until recent decades, greater Los Angeles has seen a large influx of migrants, especially here in the eastern San Gabriel Valley where the Homestead is located.  This hasn’t happened without some controversy and conflict, which in general might reflect some of the same issues (if not reactions) of our region’s past.

Now, however, we can move beyond the superficial in understanding the Chinese-American community and the best way to do that is to visit the Chinese-American Museum at El Pueblo de Los Angeles.  Check out the institution’s website here and then pay a visit to learn about the remarkable history of a community, whose stories go back some 150 years in this area.

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