Through the Viewfinder: Marchessault Street West from Juan Street, Chinatown, Los Angeles, ca. 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The appalling and unforgiveable hatred and violence directed in recent years to Chinese-Americans and those perceived to be of that ethnic group is a stark and sad reminder of just how much racism still pervades American society. Even while progress has been made over the years, verbal and physical attacks, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrate that more needs to be done to address these horrific stains on our pluralistic society.

The first Chinese immigrants to come to California did so looking for “gold mountain” as the Gold Rush erupted in the late 1840s. Subjected to claim jumping, a foreign miners’ tax implemented by the state government, and violence from other ethnic groups, most left the fields and settled in San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton and other communities. When the transcontinental railroad was built during much of the 1860s, a substantial force of Chinese laborers were utilized, often involving the most risky and dangerous work blasting mountain sides and tunnels.

The earliest Chinese in Los Angeles were a pair of men enumerated in the 1850 federal census, actually taken early the following year because of California’s admission to the Union in September. Ten years later, there were eleven Chinese counted in the census, one of which was a 30-year old cook, known only as “John Chinaman,” who was employed in the household of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and of whom nothing is known other than this listing.

Accounts of Chinese New Year’s celebrations were common in Los Angeles newspapers, but more frequent were sensational pieces about crime and violence, perceived or real, in Chinatown as seen here in the Los Angeles Herald, 21 January 1898.

In the late 1860s, the first large migration of Chinese to the Angel City took place, most imported to work on the first local railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, built between the city and the harbor at the latter location. The line was finished in 1869, the same year that the transcontinental railroad was completed, and, while the owners and operators of the Los Angeles and San Pedro took advantage of the low cost and work ethic of the Chinese workers, some of whom stayed in this area, others were unhappy with their presence.

Tensions built up over the next couple of years as the Chinese settled in the Calle de los Negros, a street southeast of the Plaza named during the Mexican period for a dark-skinned Latino, the historic core of pre-American Los Angeles, residing and often operating businesses in adobe buildings. When the 1870 census was taken, there were about 230 Chinese residents in Los Angeles County, most living in his crowded area.

This October will mark the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the horrific massacre of nineteen Chinese males, one a teenager, by a mob of Anglos and Latinos on 24 October 1871, more about which will be covered in this blog during that month. The mass lynching was a horrendous blot on the reputation of the City of Angels, which was already sullied by levels of violence, even if often exaggerated by later sources, dating back to the Gold Rush years.

Also very typical were purported accounts of intra-Chinese rivalries between tongs (associations) like this example from the Los Angeles Record, 19 October 1898.

After over a hundred indictments were handed down, only a small number of Anglos and Latinos were tried for their role in the Massacre and F.P.F. Temple, the son-in-law of the Workmans, was a foreman of the jury in one of these trials. Two years later, when he mounted a campaign for county treasurer, an El Monte supporter named William B. Lee (who came within a hair’s breadth of being lynched by a mob when he jailed after a murder conviction in the worst period of violence in the mid-Fifties) made a point of publicly telling others to vote for Temple because he’d never hired a Chinese person.

Yet, in 1875, when Temple was a major official (first president and then treasurer) in the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which built a line from downtown to the new resort town of Santa Monica and which did some surveying as well as grading and tunnelling at Cajon Pass for the main line planned to go to silver mining regions of Inyo County in eastern California, Chinese workers were used for much of this work.

The rest of the decade included a major escalation of anti-Chinese rhetoric and action and, broadly, a culmination of this agitation was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which basically ended further migration from that nation. This hardly meant, however, that the sentiment against the Chinese subsided all that much, as witnessed when William Henry Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa, ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1886 as the famous Boom of the Eighties was raging in the city and region.

Another common piece of media fodder were stories of conflict between the Chinese and the police, generally involving gambling, opium and violence within the community, Los Angeles Express, 25 November 1898.

Workman’s foreman on the Boyle Heights estate owned by the candidate and his wife, Maria (Mah-rye-ah) Boyle, Joseph Walter Drown (whose guardian after he was orphaned was William Workman and who was raised by Workman’s daughter Antonia Margarita and her husband F.P.F. Temple) issued a statement to Los Angeles newspapers, stating that, while his employer didn’t want to hire Chinese labor, he couldn’t find white men who would do work like digging and maintaining ditches on the property.

Yet, when Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles held a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the massacre of 1871, a delegation wrote Workman, who won the election and served a two-year term, inviting him to represent the city at the remembrance of the dead. We don’t know, however, whether Workman attended. It was also around this time Calle de los Negros and the original Chinatown were removed as Los Angeles Street was extended from the south to intersect with Alameda Street. The new Chinatown was then located east of Alameda.

With the end of Chinese immigration and the continued growth of Los Angeles and political and economic control by Anglos further strengthened and cemented, overt threats against the Chinese appears to have somewhat diminished. Yet, they were still very much viewed as an “other” that was certainly not part of the dominant society, though there was something of an interest in the exotic nature of their culture, even if this was superficial.

Occasionally, journalists would visit Chinatown and write accounts that professed to show readers the mysteries found there, Los Angeles Times, 4 December 1898.

For example, by the end of the 19th century, the Chinese were invited to bring their well-known dragon dance to events like the La Fiesta de Los Angeles (later known as La Fiesta de los Flores) festival, held in the spring from the mid-Nineties until World War One. There were also tours of Chinatown, with these advertised as a rare opportunity for (white) Americans to see its exotic denizens, who were, of course, not consulted about whether they wanted to be objects of tourist gawking or snapshots.

Speaking of photographs, tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s holdings is a cabinet photograph, mounted on an especially large matte, by Frank L. Park, titled “A Street in Chinatown, L.A.” Perhaps Park took the picture at an especially early hour (the shadows seems to indicate it was morning), but the dirt thoroughfare and the wooden sidewalks that flank it are almost completely absent of human activity, including no vehicles and just a few pedestrians.

The buildings are a mixture of well-built brick edifices, with one a two-story example at the right, and wooden structures that look to be far less substantial. There is a banner with Chinese pictographs at the left clearly signaling a commercial establishments, but it was certainly the case that these were both business and residential buildings. Electricity in Los Angeles was not quite two decades old and there are poles at the right showing some access to power.

It’s a bit hard to see without magnification, but the road does cross an intersection and then turns to the right. In the distance are some tall hillside trees and then a prominent clock tower to the right of one of the trees. These landmarks helped to identify the location, as the tower was for the second edition of Los Angeles High School, built atop the hills just west of the Plaza in 1891.

In fact, just below the school and the tree south of it, the front facade of the Plaza Church can be discerned. Running along the north side of the Plaza, though it is now a walkway and you can’t tell what it used to be, was Marchessault Street, named for Damien Marchessault, a French Canadian and a former council member and three-time mayor who, beset with gambling debts, committed suicide in the council chambers in 1868. The Homestead happens to have a portrait of Marchessault, which appears to be the only known photo of him.

Marchessault Street then crossed Alameda Street (where the turn is visible in the photo) and headed east and ended at Juan Street, named for Juan Apablasa (1810-1863), a native of Chile who owned the land where this second Chinatown was situated. The street to the north of Marchessault was Apablasa Street. This photo by Park is of the thoroughfare in the center of Chinatown, though it was relocated again, this time to the north, in the late 1930s for the construction of Union Station.

The only known photograph, from the museum’s holdings, of the street’s namesake, former mayor Damien Marchessault.

As for the photographer, Frank Leon Park was born in Wisconsin in 1862, though his family moved to Jefferson, Iowa, northwest of Des Moines. Park was in Omaha by the early 1880s and embarked on a career as a railroad news agent, likely working for the Union Pacific, which still maintains its headquarterters in the Nebraska metropolis. It was likely the railroad that brought Park to Los Angeles, where he continued in that line before taking up photography in the waning years of the 19th century.

Park’s career as a shutterbug appears to have lasted about a decade or so, because, by 1910, he was a “notions merchant,” meaning he would have sold sewing materials, though there are references to his running a book store, as well. Later in life, he returned to being a railway news agent and moved to the La Crescenta area living just south of what is now Interstate 210. Park died in early June 1925 just before his 63rd birthday and is interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

We’ll share more items related to the early history of Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles each Thursday this month, so please check back for those posts.

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