Homestead Book Club Discussion on the History of the Chinese in Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, the Homestead’s Book Club concluded its 2016 “season” with a discussion of Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War, a thoroughly researched and well-written history of the Chinese in Los Angeles culminating in the horrific massacre of 24 October 1871 that left 19 Chinese dead at the hands of a mob of Americans, Europeans and Latinos.

I had the pleasure of communicating with and sharing information with Scott during his work on the book, because a substantial part of my 1999 master’s thesis, which was on the last years of vigilante activity in Los Angeles during the first half of the 1870s, focused on the massacre and I’d published some articles building off that work.  What Scott did, though, was to develop an excellent social history of early Chinese residents and then have the massacre be a focal point of that narrative in a very compelling way.

This detail from an article in the 11 November 1871 issue of the New York Tribune, from the Homestead’s collection, covered the horrific massacre of 19 Chinese males in Los Angeles, a few weeks before, on 24 October.

As for today’s discussion, I came in towards the end, as I usually do, and share artifacts from the Homestead’s collection that relate to the topic and share insights about the objects and that history.  Whenever possible, I also look to tie-in the Workman and Temple families to the discussion.

This morning, I began with the observation that connections to China date back to pre-American California when trade between China and Mexico (including the department of Alta California, referred to, memorably, as the “Siberia of Mexico”) brought fireworks and designs for women’s shawls, among other items, to the Mexican frontier.

This Lemuel Ellis and Son stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collections shows the Calle de los Negros about the early to mid 1880s, a decade and more after the Chinese Massacre of 1871, which mainly took place in the Coronel Block, the building at the left.  The street was reconfigured and many of the buildings destroyed within a few years of the photo being taken as Los Angeles Street was rerouted through the area.

The under-counted 1850 federal census, taken in early 1851, found but two Chinese in Los Angeles County and the number was 11 ten years later.  Interestingly, one of those found in 1860 was “John Chinaman,” a cook in his twenties here in the household of William and Nicolasa Workman.  Unfortunately, we know nothing else about this individual.

By 1870, there was a significant uptick in the numbers of Chinese residing in greater Los Angeles, with that year’s census recording 230 persons, most of which congregated along the Calle de los Negros, just off the southeast corner of the Plaza.  This street, named for a dark-skinned Latino, decades before, was primarily inhabited by Spanish-speakers before the Chinese arrived in significant numbers at the end of the 1860s.

Many came to work on the region’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, built between the growing town and the harbor to the south and which was completed in late 1869.  Others worked as launderers, household workers or had their shops on the Calle.  In-fighting among the Chinese, who were divided into tongs or companies that had fierce rivalries, as well as hatred and distrust by other ethnic groups in the city created a volatile environment.

The massacre was unleashed when these pent-up forces were laid bare during gunfire involving conflicts within the Chinese community that brought police attention and then the death of an American who intruded himself into the fighting.  Robert Thompson’s killing opened the floodgates and hundreds participated in the invasion of Chinese homes and businesses and lynched 19 Chinese males, including a teenager.

Taken probably in the late 1890s, this cabinet card image from the Homestead collection by the Pollock brothers and their Garden City Foto [yes, Foto] Company studio shows Chinese marchers with the well-known paper dragon in a parade during the La Fiesta de Los Angeles festival.

~Z2, In the end, there were several men, American, Irish, and Latino, convicted of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin state prison, but the verdicts were vacated by the state Supreme Court on a technicality with the indictment and the district attorney declined to retry the cases.

Despite the horror of the massacre and the injustice of the overturned convictions, the Chinese persevered, though their numbers were limited by early 1880s legislation that basically halted Chinese migration for decades.  The Calle de los Negros was dismantled in an early version of urban renewal, but the massacre was not forgotten.

William Henry Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, ran for mayor in 1886, as greater Los Angeles was enveloped in the Boom of the Eighties development frenzy.   One of his opponents’ tactics was to criticize Workman for hiring Chinese laborers on his vineyard in the Boyle Heights neighborhood (which Workman created in the 1870s).  Workman defended himself by having his foreman, Walter Drown (a former Homestead resident, whose guardian was William Workman) issue a statement that the Chinese were the only people who would do the grueling work of digging and maintaining irrigation ditches.

When Workman won the election, he was invited by the Chinese to participate in the Ah Dieu ceremony held annually to commemorate the 1871 massacre, though it is not known whether he participated.

The “exotic” nature of the Chinese could even be reflected in such elements as the building of movie palace impresario Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, built in Hollywood during the 1920s.  This is a theatre program from the museum’s collection.

By the late 19th century, as Los Angeles became a bigger city, with a rapidly changing demographic, the Chinese, whose “Chinatown” was across Alameda Street from where the Calle used to be, became objects of curiosity and something of exotic tourist attractions and the virulent racism that could lead to violence like the massacre was tempered.  This is hardly to say, though, that racism was insignificant–it was anything but the case.

For example, tours were offered of “Chinatown” with potential visitors enticed by descriptions of a strange and different culture than what Americans knew.  At the annual springtime La Fiesta de Los Angeles festival and its main parade, the Chinese marched wearing traditional clothing, lighting firecrackers, and carrying the 500-foot long paper dragon that drew a lot of attention based almost certainly more on curiosity than interest.  More sensationalized was what was assumed to be a pervasive culture of opium smoking, which was discussed on Chinatown tours and even printed on commercially available postcards.

Also troubling is a published set of photos in a collage style from the museum collection, in which it appears that the photographer approached the Chinese on the street and snapped pictures unannounced.  Some of these views show women burying their faces in their hands, obviously embarrassed to have been confronted in such an intrusive way.

The exotic view of the Chinese continued and expanded through the end of our interpretive period, the 1920s.  The building of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was one manifestation of this.  Another was the greater patronage of “outsiders” of Chinese restaurants and the appearance of cookbooks for home use that touted “chop suey” as an authentic dish, though this has been questioned (click here and here for example).  These shallow appropriations of Chinese identity were still reflective of prevailing attitudes of the majority and would not change for many more years.

The authenticity of chop suey is highly debatable, but this 1920s cookbook from the museum’s collection boasted that it might cost just $1, but that it was worth $100.


In fact, after World War II and the emergence of the Civil Right Era, change took place, if slowly.  Immigration quotas were ended after the mid-1960s and a greater understanding gradually emerged among many Americans.  There were still signs of conflict, however, such as when a Taiwanese Buddhist temple, Hsi Lai, the largest in the western hemisphere, was built nearby in Hacienda Heights when I first started working here nearly thirty years ago.

It seems like ancient history now, but the project caused a great deal of conflict.  While some of this concerned large-scale development of a religious complex in a primarily residential area, there was a racial element, too, especially as more Chinese bought homes to be close to the temple or to find more upscale housing in the San Gabriel Valley.  I’ve lived in Chino Hills at the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County for twenty years and recent migration by the Chinese has, sadly, caused some people to refer to the city as “China Hills” and criticize changes they consider undesirable in the community.

Talking this morning to members of the museum’s book club about aspects of the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles is another reminder of how well history can work with self-education and discussion with others in an environment that promotes respectfulness and reasonableness.  One of our main responsibilities at the Homestead is to provide that can of environment for the benefit of anyone who comes here to learn about our region’s history and make connections to how we live now.

To learn more about the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles, visit the Chinese-American Museum–check out the museum’s website here.

2 thoughts

  1. Paul, Thanks so much for writing about book club yesterday. I was so sorry to be sick and have to miss the discussion. I liked the book very much and noted you were mentioned in the acknowledgments! Happy Holidays, Kate

    On Fri, Dec 2, 2016 at 4:25 PM, The Homestead Blog wrote:

    > homesteadmuseum posted: “by Paul R. Spitzzeri This morning, the > Homestead’s Book Club concluded its 2016 “season” with a discussion of > Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War, a thoroughly researched and well-written > history of the Chinese in Los Angeles culminating in the horrific mass” >

  2. Hi Kate, thanks for the comment and for checking out the post. Sorry you missed the discussion and hope to see you for the 2017 sessions!

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