“A Man Carrying a Kodak is in Bad Odor in Chinatown”: A Photographic Intrusion Into the Lives of the Chinese of Los Angeles, ca. 1901

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is an extraordinary and disturbing collage of a half-dozen images, blandly titled “No. 11 Scenes in Chinatown,” but the cabinet card photograph that is tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is about as clear an evocation as can be imagined as to why the “exoticism” that drew many Anglos to view the Chinese of Los Angeles could make so many of the latter uncomfortable and angry.

After all, imagine a photographer running up to you and snapping, without explanation much less permission, images of you, but then try to put yourself in the position of an oppressed people, frequently subjected to many forms of violence and discrimination even if, by the early 20th century, the worse examples of these were less common. What often remained was the Chinese in the Angel City being looked at as a curiosity, pointed out by locals and tourists as if artifacts in a living exhibit.

For women, the intrusion was even more offensive and unsettling, a violation of personal space that is all too obvious in the three images taken at busy intersections, perhaps on Apablasa Street or Marchessault Street (note the second floor rail on the exterior of the brick building is the same–so it appears that these were all taken in the same general locale), a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, showing young ladies covering their faces and looking down and away from the boorish photographer, who remains unknown to us.

Others in these striking scenes are Chinese men walking through the streets, though at the upper left, one man stands with his hands on his hips as if disapproving of what is taking place. At the upper right, another man looks back, though whether it is at the young women is, of course, hard to say. In the background, an Anglo gent with a derby rakishly tilted forward stands in the street as if it was his neighborhood.

At the center right, the woman on the right looks particularly distressed, while a group of men and boys stand on the street corner taking in the situation. Viewing these photos, some 120 years later, it is easy to feel empathy for these subjects, accosted on the streets of the Chinatown that existed where today’s Union Station stands.

The remaining three photos show Chinese men and there are a range of expressions on their faces. At the center left, a trio of them walk near a brick building and, while two of them look down with one holding his right hand at his mouth, the one at the left stares directly at the camera and it is tempting to think he does so with displeasure.

At the bottom right, on a wooden sidewalk with Chinese lanterns hanging from the underside of what looks like a wooden balcony, a man turns back and the expression on his face also seems to show unhappiness with being photographed, while the other man may have been more bemused than upset.

The lower left photo, on the other hand, shows a beaming Chinese launderer as he walks toward a modest clapboard outbuilding or addition to another structure (note the brick chimney behind him). In the yard are clothes drying on lines, linens piled on a table, and buckets and baskets on the ground. It may be that the subject was more at ease because of his dealings with Anglo residents and that he was somewhat prepared for the photo being taken.

On its own, the commercially produced photograph, with this one unmounted but pasted down onto what looks like a photo album page, is compelling enough, though hazarding guesses about what was going on in the minds of the mostly unwilling subjects is somewhat of a dicey proposition. While doing research, however, for another of this month’s posts on objects related to the Chinese in Los Angeles at the end of 19th and early 20th centuries, a lengthy article was found from the 17 February 1901 edition of the Los Angeles Times that not only reproduces this collage, but has remarkable and telling material relating to the Chinese community during the New Year season. Not only does the piece provide plenty of context, but it has a section directly tied to the photography issue.

The article is titled “Happy, Noisy Oriental Holiday Festivities in the Quaint Chinatown of Los Angeles.” The tenor is far from the angry, virulent anti-Chinese rhetoric of two or three decades before, but the tone is still redolent of the “otherness” that separated the residents of the neighborhood from the Anglo majority comprising the readership of the city’s leading newspaper, even as there are critiques of Caucasian treatments of the Chinese. The opening paragraphs are worth some quoting at length:

Down in Chinatown the lilies are bursting into bloom in the windows and balconies; the doorways are ablaze with the scarlet and gold of the prayer papers; the city Chinamen are out in their silk attire and the countrymen are swarming in on their wagons; every barber in Chinatown is busy scraping foreheads and chins; the New Year’s festival of rejoicing is at hand . . .

Chinese New Year is an inspirational sort of a celebration. Very few Chinamen seem to know much about it . . . It may be due to the caution of John Chinaman, whose bland and childlike ignorance at times becomes amazing.

New Year is not celebrated here as it once was. This is on account of the outrageous behavior of the white people, who have made themselves unwelcome visitors. Toughs have created such disturbances on festival nights and respectable people have made themselves so obnoxious that most of the Chinamen no longer keep open house to the white folks.

Still, the unnamed author observed, “‘Doing Chinatown’ is not so daring as many people seem to fear” even as “women after often timid about going through the Chinese quarter, but their fears are quite absurd” because “murdering innocent females is not the exclusive amusement of the Chinese population.”

In fact, it was averred that the inhabitants were given to “receiving with grave courtesy the white highbinders who poke their noses in where they are not bidden.” Last week’s post featuring a pamphlet featuring H.C. Noll’s Chinatown tours is interesting to contemplate with the statement that a Chinese guide could be found who gave excursions for twenty-five cents and that these “are highly interesting characters and worth the price of their society.”

The next section, though, is titled “No Likee Kodak” and began with the statement that “one thing excites the red-hot wrath of every Chinaman” and the reader was warned that “if you are looking for trouble just take a kodak picture of him [or her].” It was added that the reason why the Chinese were so opposed to having their photos taken, but an assertion that it was due to superstition about a person’s image being captured on film was said to be debunked as “educated Chinamen say this is not a fact.”

In any case, the writer continued,

A man carrying a kodak is in bad odor in Chinatown. The little shoe cleaner who squats in a doorway rubbing the soles bright, ducks out of sight like a rabbit at the sight of a camera man. A big, fat merchant bounded out of his chair in the sunshine and made a wild dash into the blackness of his store at the approach of a Times reporter armed with a picture-taker [was the reporter the photographer of the highlighted image?]

Little Miss Luie Sing, pattering down the sidewalk demurely, turned and fled around a corner as fast as she could scurry . . .

The august writer of New Year’s cards, caught by a strategy at his table on the sidewalk, rose up jabbering and gesticulating angrily as his attention was attracted by the snap of the kodak. The other Chinamen closed in about the reporter, chattering indignant sympathy as though they thought their countrymen was very badly abused.

The Chinamen are especially incensed if pictures of their children are taken. To have the babies noticed by white people, though, makes them very proud and happy.

Leaving this subject, the reporter stated that evenings were the best time to venture into the neighborhood as “people surge along through the narrow, crooked little alleys, lanterns bob grotesquely from the balconies, the din of firecrackers and gong is in the air . . .” After discussing a Chinese theater which showed movies on an Edison projectoscope and Ah Mow’s saloon, the writer referred to “one of the sights that inspires awe in the breast of the tourist,” this being “the bulletin board of Chinatown, where all the dread edicts of the tongs are posted,” though the messages were actually not as dramatic as that at all.

Brief discussions of restaurants and stores followed, including one of the latter that sold “a kind of fudge and rock candy that is palatable” and had the added virtue “of being very cheap.” Yet, the account went on, “after a Chinatown trip, one is afflicted with doubts as to the process of candy making” because “domestic missionaries who have worked with the Chinese wives say that the race has simply no conception of neatness.”

As the tour continued, what was called the Chinese version of a “masonic temple,” a place where theatrical costumes were stored, and the aforementioned shoe cleaner and card writer were discussed. The latter were particularly popular as “it is quite a fad with girls to carry home their own names in crazy chicken scratches as souvenirs.” As to the barber, it was averred that “a Chinaman does not know the luxury of being shaved,” rather, the customer “has to duck his head this way and that while the scraping goes on” and that “they are shaved back to the scalp lock and the barbers also scrub their customer’s faces with vigor.”

With reference to the tongs, or companies, there was a short discussion of “Lou Hoy,” said to be an agent of the Hop Sing tong and accounted “one of the most striking characters of Chinatown” and “pretty nearly always on exhibition,” though “a bad egg.” He was also said to have replaced “Wong Fong” as the main tong figure in the community, but the latter’s “work got too raw” and he “got the ‘dinky dink'” and decamped for San Francisco “where his peculiar talents had a somewhat wider field.”

In the narrow alleys radiating off Apablasa Street, it was recounted, “the slave girls of the order of the shameful scarlet curtain are plenty enough.” It was added that “some of them are cute little things and a few are really pretty,” but the writer provided a tip for the reader in stating “a stock of reasonably plausible explanations for things unexplainable is one of the most valuable equipments for a trip through Chinatown.”

Surprisingly little was said about the gambling houses, which, along with the opium dens that were completely absent in the article, were frequently discussed with breathless and dramatic prose in newspaper articles of the era. Lastly, though, was the joss house, or place of worship, which “is in an upstairs temple on Los Angeles street out of Chinatown proper, and a half block south of the plaza.” Inside were found “a gorgeous altar, yards of magnificent hangings, [and] incense until you are stifled with it.” This, however, is where men worshipped, while women “seek in meekness and humility a plain little rough board box . . . and set out of the way in one corner.”

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