“The Life, Habits and Peculiarities of the Chinese People”: A Pamphlet for H.C. Noll’s Official Trip to Chinatown, Los Angeles, ca. late 1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While the days of overt violence against the Chinese by other ethnic groups in Los Angeles, most shockingly the lynching of nineteen males, including a teenager, by a mob of hundreds of Anglos and Latinos in October 1871, were long past by the early 20th century, overt and covert racism was still very much in evidence.

There was also an exoticism that existed in the minds of locals and tourists and this was manifested in such aspects as the appearance of Chinese residents in the La Fiesta de Los Angeles and La Fiesta de las Flores parades from the mid-1890s onward, including when the popular Chinese dragon was introduced.

While news accounts would discuss the “strange” or “weird” cultural components of Chinese clothing, music and the “paralyzing monster” that was the dragon during these festivals, most media coverage tended to focus on sensational accounts of tong wars, opium dens and the like, while the occasional forays of journalists into Chinatown, located where Union Station is now, sometimes highlighted the exotic elements of the community and its people.

Los Angeles Herald, 14 January 1905.

It doesn’t appear to have lasted long at all, but another manifestation of the fascination Anglos had with the Chinese in Los Angeles is represented with tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a pamphlet promoting “H.C. Noll’s Official Trip to Chinatown.” This pocket brochure added that the offering was “under [the] management [of the] Balloon Route Excursion,” a jaunt through greater Los Angeles that got its title from the shape of the route plied by the Los Angeles Pacific Company’s streetcars during the first decade of so of the 20th century.

Notably, these trips were offered from 8 to 11 p.m., as this was considered the best time to visit Chinatown “as their places of amusement and other building of interest are in full blast and attractively decorated and illuminated according to their customs.” One group departed from the Broadway Hotel, located on that central downtown thoroughfare between 4th and 5th streets, while another cadre left from the Balloon Route station, just around the corner on 4th west of Broadway, where The Broadway Department Store later built its flagship structure.

Herald, 14 February 1908.

From these locations, participants were

officially conducted by a polite and accommodating guide who will take pains to show and explain to you everything of interest connected with the life, habits and peculiarities of the Chinese people.

How the guides obtained this expert knowledge would sure be interesting to know, but it was added that they also provided talks on “Chinamen and their Wives and Children, and their Education and Modes of Living,” which sounds awfully all-encompassing, as well as “Marriage Ceremonies and Funeral Mourners and Services.” It was added that these “are the best given by any guide in the city.”

The itinerary included stores, markets, restaurants, and the establishment of jewelers and goldsmiths; newspaper offices and the telephone exchange; the Masonic temple, of which it was added “every Mason should see this interesting place;” the “Joss House and Temple of Worship, with Shrine;” the opium den; and “Chinese Families in their Homes,” this latter of which sounds as if participants actually went into abodes.

Being across Alameda Street from the Plaza, the historic center of Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles, the tour also included a visit there, including the “Church of the Angels” or what we know commonly as the Plaza Church, “Ex-Governor Don Pio Pico’s Old Home Site,” meaning where his Pico House hotel still stands, and an “adobe building 120 years old,” though the oldest such structure extant in the area is the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, dating to 1818.

No doubt because of the nocturnal hours and, perhaps, the reputation attached to Chinatown, it was assured that Noll’s guides were “Special Police” which guaranteed “perfect protection” including the offer that “ladies without escorts will receive every care and attention.” All of this could be had for just a dollar including car fare to and from Chinatown and Noll ended by observing that “we make a specialty of private parties.”

Unfortunately, a diligent search for information on Noll, of whom there is a cover photo with three Chinese children with the purported names of “Ah Sheung,” “Ah So,” and “Ah Yung” (which seem to be attempts at humor) and the Chinatown excursion turned up nothing. In January 1905 the Los Angeles Herald reported that the Pacific Electric Railway’s Seeing California traffic bureau offered a “Seeing Chinatown” trip “in a private observation car” and also starting at 8 p.m. so that visitors could “see one of the principal sights of Los Angeles.” It was added that the Angel City had almost 8,000 Chinese residents, second only to San Francisco in the nation, though it was noted that they were “crowded into a district of a few blocks.”

In February 1908 the Herald noted that a group of the Brotherhood of the Protective Order of Elks was in Los Angeles and it was reported that an official with the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which was responsible for bringing in the 450 Elks from the Utah capital, “had the party taken through Chinatown last night, and the Mormons had their glimpse of ‘Little Asia.'” Whether Noll had anything to do with this visit, as his “official trip” probably was offered just before this is unknown.

In fact, the way that this pamphlet was given a fairly precise date, despite the absence of any indication in the document was through the pair of ads that helped pay for its production. One was for the Chinese and Japanese Bazaar operated by the Sing Fat Company, a prominent San Francisco firm that opened its Los Angeles branch on the third floor of the Central Department Store at Broadway and 6th Street in what later became the Los Angeles Theatre.

The earliest mention of Sing Fat’s presence in the area was in late 1906 when the company looked to build a warehouse at the harbor at Long Beach, while the first ad for the store was in April 1907. By late January 1908, however, the store was moved to new quarters a block north and across Broadway next to where the well-known Arcade Building was built in the mid-Twenties.

In a December 1907 ad, the store noted that “we have the largest and altogether finest display of Oriental goods in Los Angeles” and it averred that it “is the safest and best place to buy your Christmas gifts.” Sing Fat, which had F. Suie One as a major competitor, remained in operation in the Angel City until 1918 with a final auction wrapped by early the next year.

The other advertiser was The Shanghai Chinese Cafe” which was situated on Spring Street, south of Fourth, and which specialized in chop suey and noodles, but also touted that it had “all kinds of liquid refreshments served” and was open until 1:30 a.m. The earliest newspaper reference found was an ad from early November 1907 and the latest just a little over two and a half months at the end of January 1908.

Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1907.

With the brief life of the restaurant, at least as judged by its advertising in English-language papers, and the move of Sing Fat to a new location as a guide, it does appear we can date the Noll Chinatown trip pamphlet to the last couple of months of 1907 or the first month of the following year.

It may well be that the excursion had as brief a life span as the eatery, though the absence of any specific reference is both puzzling and problematic in knowing whether it was a fly by night (literally!) operation. Whatever the situation, the pamphlet is a pretty rare document of its type, both for its existence as a tourist vehicle for the exotic excursions into Chinatown and for the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1907.

It is well worth adding that in those last couple of months of 1907, there were a number of sensationalized press accounts of reported crimes in Chinatown including an alleged tong war discussed by the Los Angeles Times of 15 December which claimed that “Charley Ho” of the Hop Sing tong was shot at as he crossed Ferguson Alley near Los Angeles Street. The alleged assassin was identified as “Yip Do” of the Bing Gong tong and, while two bullets passed through his hat and another through his shirt, Ho escaped uninjured, while Do purportedly jumped into a vegetable cart which went east on Aliso Street and out of the city.

Two nights later, the Los Angeles Record reported that “Ju Sut Tung,” said to be a fan tan dealer was killed at an Apablasa Street gambling house. The unknown killer walked into the establishment to play the widely popular game and, apparently angered by something Tung said to him, pulled out a gun and shot the dealer three times in the head. The killer ran into a nearby building but managed to escape. The paper ended by stating that the murder was firs thought to be part of the tong wars, but Tung was said not to have belonged to any such companies.

Los Angeles Record, 17 December 1907.

While reports of violence, drugs and other crimes were commonplace in the Angel City press, and often played up to the hilt, the 23 December edition of the Times contained an interesting piece titled “Chinese Exclusion Clemency Invoked.” This involved a mass meeting at the Temple Baptist Church’s new auditorium at Fifth and Hill across from Central Park and which venue became a favored venue for music and other entertainment for decades.

The church’s powerful pastor, Robert J. Burdette, offered the sentiment that

The trouble with our exclusion acts are [sic], we have begun excluding on the wrong edge of the continent. We are driving out the wrong people.

If we had closed our gates to these people, President McKinley would have been alive today. It was by the scum of South Europe he was murdered, and you may remember at his death, how nearly every house and place of business in Chinatown went into mourning.

Burdette related an anecdote of how he and his wife were walking home after disembarking from a streetcar and saw a man lurking near them. He added that Mrs. Burdette told him “Come on; it’s all right. I saw a queue” and that “when they knew it was a Chinaman they knew they were safe.”

Times, 23 December 1907.

Another pastor, L.A. Gould, who’d been a missionary in China, told the assemblage that he recently saw at the Southern Pacific’s Arcade Depot that “a train with barred windows pulled out with six cars filled with Chinese who had done nothing to offend our laws, being thrown out of this country—such a small country we haven’t room them.” He added that China had “the right to know what we do in this land where liberty is promised, and where equal rights are guaranteed to all.” He warned that, in twenty years, China would have the greatest army and navy in the world and that its society was rapidly moving from old ways to a modern society.

The gathering ended with the passing of a resolution calling upon Congress to loosen the tight restrictions on Chinese migration to the United States. This was during the time that the next target of anti-Asian sentiment and legislation was the Japanese, who were also excluded and, in California within a few years, were denied the right to own land. By the mid-1920s, the first sweeping immigration laws and quotas were implemented, so the efforts of those like Burdette and Gould were decidedly against the grain.

Here’s an interesting article about the new arrival of English-language books translated into Chinese and causing a sensation in Los Angeles’ Chinatown to the extent that it was averred that they were “supplanting the tong war,” Times, 24 December 1907.

So, while this pamphlet cannot, unfortunately, be well documented, it did appear at a time in which the context of the Chinese in the Angel City contained some very information and notable aspects. Check back next Thursday for another interesting artifact from the museum’s collection pertaining to the Chinese in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century.

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