by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Previous posts here have dealt with the long-running spring festival, known in the 1890s as La Fiesta de Los Angeles and in the early 20th century as La Fiesta de las Flores, which presented superficial imagery of pre-American Los Angeles for a commercial celebration organized by and almost completely carried out by Anglo merchants and politicians to promote the Angel City.
There was also usually some representation of other ethnic groups during these events, mainly during the downtown parade, including the Chinese community and there was no small irony in the fact that their inclusion came after years of virulent anti-Chinese hatred and violence, including the horrific massacre of nineteen Chinese males (including a teenage boy) in October 1871, discriminatory legislation such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, and much else.
By the late 1890s, with growth among the Chinese population halted and the ascendancy of Anglo supremacy in the city cemented by the enormous influx of migrants from the middle and eastern United States during the Boom of Eighties, there may have been fewer overt manifestations of prejudice, while widespread discrimination continued.
Moreover, a fascination with the exotic elements, including food, dress, some of the arts, and others, of Asian societies, including the Japanese as well as the Chinese, took hold among some segments of the local population. This gave the participation of members of the latter community a context that was surface-level and no more prominent example of this is found that the presence of the Chinese Dragon, a feature, along with lions, that date back some two thousand years in Chinese history.
The first appearance in the La Fiesta parade was in April 1896 and it certainly made a big impression on curious Angelenos. The 5 April edition of the Los Angeles Herald including a lengthy article about “A Paralyzing Monster” reporting that “the Chinese merchants have agreed to introduce in their procession the immense dragon in all its Oriental splendor and Asiatic beauty.” It was added that “the dragon . . . is regarded in China as one of the most sacred religious objects, and, even in their native country, the Celestials view the dragon only once a year—in their religious celebration.” Because of this important aspect, “many obstacles were thereby encountered before the Chinese merchants would consent to allow it to be carried in the procession.”
There was only one dragon in California and so arrangements were made by local Chinese to their compatriots in Marysville, north of Sacramento, to ship it by a special Southern Pacific train to Los Angeles. The “grand spectacle” was described in some detail:
the dragon will measure in length fully 800 feet, and covers nearly the length of two blocks. It is operated by 150 Chinese, who are invisible except [for] the feet, that are made to represent the animal’s claws. Its crested head is bedecked with jewels, and its body is covered with the most expensive velvet and silk robes of resplendent colors. The part that represents the body is gorgeously embroidered with the richest of gold laces and studded with precious stones.
In its march through the streets the Chinese will so operate the dragon that it represents the animal in the wild and ferocious mood that nature has endowed it with, according to the fables. In its monstrous beauty and rich trimmings this part of the Chinese procession will attract more attention and provide a greater novelty than any feature the Chinese have previously introduced in their parades.
On the 21st, just before La Fiesta began, the Los Angeles Times reported that “in Chinatown there is much interested manifested . . . [as] the dragon, that huge creature, sacred to the minds of the Orientals, has been unpacked and is being put together for use in the procession.” A reporter from the paper was present “at the large hall on Los Angeles street where the work is being done.”
It added that “with locked doors and bated breath” workers were busy assembling the dragon “while a score or more of their countrymen, of recognized standing in the colony and known discretion, stood around in mute admiration for the ferocious beast.” About a hundred feet was laid out and scales of embroidered silk placed on its back. The report continued that “the head, a huge and ugly thing, about which the most of the Chinamen were gathered, hung with jaws distended, from which a long vibrating tongue painted red protruded. They eyeballs were large and penetrating and the aspect of the creature was such as would inspire the average Chinaman with dread.”
The paper stated that about forty men, not the 150 stated above, would be involved in carrying the dragon and “by walking from side to side of the streets a sinuous movement will be produced, giving to the dragon the appearance of life and a wonderful degree of vitality.” The Times noted “the huge monster was made in China and few in this country have ever seen it . . . it is an object of Oriental adoration and in the absence of better gods might well scare evil-doers into better behavior.”
While the dragon was considered the “piece de resistance of the Chinese division in La Fiesta parade,” it was added that another prime feature was “the float in process of construction in Chinatown intended for the children.” This was a pyramid-shaped work with three steps for children to sit on and a canopy to shade the youngers, while the festival colors of red (for wine from local vineyards), orange (for the ubiquitous fruit) and green (for olives grown in such places as Sylmar in the eastern San Fernando Valley) were being added to the vehicle.
When the parade took place, the Herald observed that “the Chinese dragon was a sinuous success” and there was an aside that those in the community who had horses “was a revelation to those who associate every Chinaman with a washtub,” there being so many Chinese launderers in the city at the time. In a separate account, the paper recorded that there were Chinese who walked or rode on their steeds and who stood out for “the richness and quaint grotesqueness of their marvelous attire,” including “headdresses that must have resulted from an evil dream.”
Then came the featured attraction:
Eight tom-tom beaters then followed and cleared the way for the great dragon, or the Son of Heaven. This monster was 200 [not 800 as previously stated] feet in length, and was manipulated by eighty [not 40 or 150!] people . . .
To the Chinese the appearance of the dragon is highly suggestive. It is the representation of that invisible power that can overcome evil . . .
Before her majesty [the Fiesta queen and her court] the dragon writhed and twisted and reared his horny crest in most approved good style, but the Fiesta colors about his neck indicated none other than peaceful intentions.
The paper otherwise tried a bit of wordplay and humor in suggesting “the great dragon made all the kotow [kow-tow] he could to the queen and her court, but it required lots of drag’in’ to force him to do it. A Chinese dragon, in a stiff wind, is all but ungovernable.”
The Times offered the interpretation that “the Chinese dragon was admired by thousands of spectators” but “some of the little folks wanted to know where it would sleep.” Elsewhere in that edition, it was advertised “the Chinese dragon had his picture taken by [C.C.] Pierce” and “a full line of Fiesta views” could be purchased at his Plaza Gallery directly across the street from the historic center of pre-American Los Angeles.
Once the festival ended, the dragon was disassembled, packed and sent by a Southern Pacific train back to Marysville, though the Los Angeles Record reported that the $4,000 figure, insured for a few thousand more than that by the event’s organizers, was thought to be missing until it was learned that the car containing it was, for an unknown reason, sidetracked at Berenda, a little hamlet and station stop between Fresno and Merced. It finally did make its way home to Marysville.
A month later, though, the impact of the dragon’s appearance in the Angel City was such that it was then in negotiations to be packed and sent to Salt Lake City for its early July Midsummer Carnival, while a Denver festival organizer inquired about what it would take to have the dragon at a Mile High City event. Back in Los Angeles, however, it was reported in early June by the sarcastic Times that “all the high Celestial authorities express dignified disapproval of the Grass Valley reptile which graced the last fiesta . . . and the reality fell far short of the soaring expectations of Chinatown.”
The paper continued by observing that a meeting was held “in which it was resolved to send to China for a dragon” which would outdo “all the other worms which presume to masquerade as the gorgeous demon of the Flowery Kingdom.” It was stated that money was no object in procuring the best dragon possible so that
with its glittering scales, sinuous body several blocks in length, and monstrous head, the dragon of Los Angeles will be a sight worth coming far to behold, and the Chinese inhabitants of the city evince a praiseworthy degree of public spirit in going to so much trouble and expense to give this gorgeous attraction to the fiesta parades.
In the first days of 1897, the Herald, reviewing the schedule released for the upcoming Fiesta, noted that this new dragon “is made of the richest velvets and silks, richly ornamented with gold laces. It is nearly 500 feet long and is manipulated by one hundred Chinese. The dragon and the costumes of the Chinese have been specially imported for the Fiesta of 1897 at a cost of over $15,000.”
In late March, when a format commitment was made by the Chinese to take part, it was said that “this announcement was received with great joy, as the Chinese display in the procession caused much admiration and enthusiasm from eastern tourists and spectators.” Tellingly, the Herald added that “the Chinese merchants, while anxious to show their public spirit and interest in the Fiesta, have been suffering from stagnation in business [the 1890s featured several years of economic depression] and could not afford to pay the great expense of their part of the parade, as they have done in years past.” They were able, in recent days, to figure out a way, however, and “have loyally pledged themselves to provide the magnificent feature of the day parade.”
The paper now said the imported, but home-owned dragon was 700 feet long and required 120 persons for its operation and cost some $10,000. Despite the impressive quality, coverage in Angel City newspapers was somewhat less extensive in 1897 than it was the year before, though the Herald did offer more discussion than the Times, including its report that “the apparent attempt of the Chinese dragon to reach up and gobble the queen and her fair maids of honor prevented only by the frantic efforts of the Celestial dragon fighters, was highly exciting—to the Chinese spectators.” It added that “it was a great day for the Chinese” as there were thousands of them present, including “greatly excited” members of that community from rural areas.
The Herald, though, had a curious way of analyzing the participation of many ethnic groups in the festival, with 1897 being highlighted as a commingling of nations, saying it was strange for American military personnel to walk with indigenous people “whose ideas and ideals are so opposed to theirs” and then “to witness the magnificently gorgeous display made by the Chinese colony” including its Board of Trade standing and removing their hats when passing the queen on the reviewing stand. The paper asked, “could an anachronism be carried further?”
There was also a lengthy rendition by the Herald of the importance of the dragon in Chinese society and it also reported that a new feature for that year’s parade was an impressive, if grotesque, lion that had working jaws, rolling eyes, dropping eyelids and flapping ears and some discussion of the place of the lion in China was also offered. The paper stated that “no mere description can convey an adequate idea of the picturesque effect of the Chinese display in the procession,” adding that the colors, embroidery and banners and flags “make modern attempts at festal displays look garish and commonplace.”
The 1899 edition of La Fiesta included less coverage of the use of the Chinese dragon, though the Los Angeles Express recorded that “as always, the most unique feature and the most interesting was the display made by the Chinese residents of the city,” even as continuing financial woes led to the merchants of that community requiring considerable persuasion to agree to take part. Yet, they “finally agreed to bring out the dragon and raised $400 for this artistic but arduous task.”
After the dragon was brought out from storage, despite the persistent rain, another $400 was raised and “250 Chinamen consented to take part; grave and reverent mandarins as well as agile young fellows.” A couple of bands were found “carefully treasured religious banners were taken from chests” and other items brought forward. The effect, the paper noted, was “superb and splendid” as the dragon was carried along by 78 persons “with dragonesque notions that only that only an Oriental could impart to the glittering thing. Banners were carried “with spirited flourishes” and Chinese musicians “paid strict attention to their strange harmonies.” Finally, “the more important Chinese merely maintained the imposing dignity befitting their very handsome costumes.”
The two highlighted photographs from the museum’s holdings show dragons being carried in Fiesta parades from this era, though it is not known from which specific years. They are rare photographic examples of the participation of the Chinese community of Los Angeles in a festival that was largely a superficial recognition of them and other minority ethnic groups.
It does appear that Chinese merchants placed some value, however, on taking part, for business reasons as well as, likely, a desire to show the value of their traditions. There was something of a mix of admiration and bemusement in the press coverage of the Chinese involvement in La Fiesta, perhaps a minor improvement over treatment in the past, but still tinged with a sense of otherness, exoticism, and difference. More than 120 years later, as we continue to deal with serious issues of anti-Chinese hatred in word and action, looking back at the past can help understand the roots of these noxious feeling and, perhaps, help play a part in improving the situation.