Through the Viewfinder: A Photograph of Chinese Men at Ferguson Alley, Los Angeles, ca. 1890s, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is quite rare to find 19th century photographs of Chinese residents of Los Angeles and the community in which they resided, which included the “old” Chinatown immediately east and southeast of the Plaza as well as the “new” neighborhood east of Alameda Street where Union Station was constructed and which led to the movement of the community to today’s Chinatown, north and west of that site.

The Homestead is fortunate to have in its collection some images of Chinese citizens and the Chinatown section from this period, including today’s featured photo in this latest “Through the Viewfinder” entry. It seems quite obvious, however, that the photographer’s intrusion in taking his view was offensive to the four men in the frame as it was clearly unsolicited and unwelcomed and they averted their faces from the camera.

A carte-de-visite photograph of William Ferguson, ca. 1870, uploaded by Kevin Quimby to Ferguson’s Find-a-Grave page.

There is a pencil inscription on the reverse of the print labeling the location as Ferguson Alley, a narrow passage between Los Angeles Street off the southeast corner of the Plaza and Alameda Street to the east. In the distance is the Kerckhoff-Cuzner lumber mill and yard, which was situated at the corner of Alameda and Macy (now César E. Chávez Avenue), so it looks like this shot was actually taken on Los Angeles, or that portion not that long before that was part of Calle de los Negros, or Negro Alley, the first Chinatown in the city and which was largely razed for the realignment and extension of Los Angeles Street north past the Plaza, and looking north or northeast at the intersection with Ferguson Alley and the northeast corner of that junction.

A later detail from a Baist’s Real Estate Atlas, found on Pinterest, shows the 20-foot wide Ferguson Alley with its slight bend about halfway through and lined by several buildings. The little thoroughfare got its name from William Ferguson (1832-1910), a native of Arkansas who came to California with the hordes of migrants seeking their fortune during the Gold Rush and then who settled in Los Angeles in 1869. For some years, he owned a livery stable with a partner named Metzger before opening a commission warehouse with a gent named Ward, but Ferguson was also a city council member and a shrewd real estate investor.

Los Angeles Express, 4 January 1890.

The earliest located reference to Ferguson Alley is from the first days of 1890 and on the last day of March 1892, after council approval, Ferguson deeded the alley to the City. While we don’t have an exact date for the photo, it does look to be from sometime during that decade, so we’ll take the opportunity to share some information relating to the alley during that period. It should be noted at the outset that, while the community was largely comprised of Chinese-owned businesses and residences, there were other ethnic groups that were there. Another point to make is that everyday activity and routine living and dying would not generally make the news.

When the local press did report on happenings related to Ferguson Alley, however, they tended to be sensationalized accounts of crime or alleged criminal activity and this was especially manifested in terms of the ethnic composition of those who lived, worked and patronized businesses there. It is also important to observe that this area along the alley, as well as Alameda Street and Marchessault Street, which paralleled Ferguson to the north, were part of the city’s main “red light” district, sometimes also referred to as the Tenderloin or Gay Paris (Paree).

Los Angeles Times, 5 January 1890.

This meant that gambling, prostitution, saloons and opium dens comprised part of the activity on Ferguson Alley, though this was certainly not all of what transpired there. When it came to media coverage, though, it would seem like that was basically all that could be found there, so we have to temper the press reporting with what remained out of the pages of the Angel City’s newspapers.

Again, because of the majority Chinese population in the neighborhood, the lion’s share of the articles concerned real or perceived criminal proceedings including warring between the Chinese companies and tongs, battles between individual residents and business people, claims of Chinese “slave girls” kidnapped or held against their will, reports of illegal lotteries and gambling, the notorious opium dens, and the “cribs” inhabited by prostitutes, though these “soiled doves” were of varied ethnic backgrounds.

Times, 28 November 1892.

In fact, that first found reference to Ferguson Alley was from 4 January 1890 and concerned “Shong Hai,” a woman sought by members of the Quong Wa Lung Company, who apparently claimed her, or member “Ah Wong” did, and filed a criminal complaint against her for theft of articles belonging to a woman named “Suey Yet”—said to be a common tactic to bring women back into the fold of these organizations. In its coverage, however, the Los Angeles Express stated that Mrs. H.A. Watson became her guardian , though it said Watson was offered up to $250 by merchant Wong Gong if she would take Shong Hai to the Girls’ Home, where it would be arranged to return her to Ah Wong, who provided the $350 bail for the young woman.

The justice of the peace hearing the matter was quoted as saying that

this grand larceny proceeding is another instance of the frequent flagrant abuse of the power of the courts by Chinese to maintain possession of females for purposes of prostitution . . . It is the intention of the Court to institute a thorough investigation and to call the guilty parties of this proceeding to account for contempt, to the end that in the future the officers of justice may be protected in the proper performance of their duties.

The article concluded that Shong Hai was, purportedly, only 13 or 14 years old and “for a Chinese girl, very pretty and intelligent,” while she was said to have indicated that she wanted to avoid “a life of shame.” Lastly, it was stated that one of the Chinese in town was quoted as suggesting that the girl could be purchased for $2,000 on the “San Francisco market.” It is not known, however, if there was the promised investigation and, if so, what it led to.

Los Angeles Herald, 20 April 1895.

In late November 1892, there was another report of a kidnapped Chinese girl named Chow Fong, who resided at the corner of Los Angeles Street and Ferguson Alley, with the late-night abduction called by the Los Angeles Times, in its edition of the 28th, “the coldest-blooded outrage of its character that has ever been perpetrated in Los Angeles.” Notably, however, it was “a tall, slim white man with a short, black mustache” who pointed a gun at her and forced here into a horse-drawn hack (taxi) and driven to Boyle Heights. She was forced to exchange her fine dress for a coarse one and her earrings, bracelets and rings, valued at $300, were taken and she was held for about a week in substandard conditions.

When she was found by a constable and taken directly to the Justice Court, where, it was reported, “the notorious Charley Ah Him” and sixteen “highbinders,” or hitmen, along with an attorney and a former police officer, there apparently to try to retrieve Chow Fong. It was added by the paper that “this is the first time that white men have openly engaged in the kidnapping of white men” and that “it is believed [the kidnapper] was assisted . . . by white men and a white woman.” The Times continued,

It may not be known to all that Chinese women are bought and sold by the Chinese just as slaves used to be in the South, only the Chinese women are used for the purpose of prostitution. Women are valued at from $1500 to $3000, and as Chow Fung, the woman in question, is only about 18 years of age and very pretty, it is more than possible that her captors could have sold her for $2500 had they succeeded in getting her to San Francisco.

The paper echoed what the Express and the judge in its account said two years before in concluding that, when a Chinese woman (or girl) was taken, the “owner” filed a criminal complaint of larceny, asserting that her clothing and jewelry were stolen “and in this way the police and other peace officers are drawn into all the cases of this kind.” Prior to the Chinese Massacre of October 1871, a major issue involving the Chinese and their internecine conflict had to do with he young woman “Yit Ho” and claims of “ownership” over her by two Chinese companies/tongs.

Express, 25 April 1895.

In its 31 October 1897 edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported on the matter of “Kwai Moy,” who was taken to a Justice Court along with “Wong Lip,” with whom she reportedly was planning to elope. This was done by “Wong Ark,” who was said to be her “so-called husband” and who purportedly had four other wives. “Wong Ark,” the paper commented, “is a slave-holder, and worked the usual dodge to recover a runaway chattel.

That is, he went to the district attorney’s office and swore out a complaint charging “Kwai Moy,” who “might be called beautiful, and is so considered among the higher class of Chinese who dwell along Ferguson alley,” and “Wong Lip” with stealing some $300 worth of jewelry. Accordingly, a warrant was issued and a constable tracked down the young people in Fresno and brought them back to Los Angeles. Nothing could be located, however, of further proceedings in the matter, but it should be added that the paper thought it worthwhile to add that, when the couple was brought before the justice of the peace, it was before “allee samee ‘Melican man,” as if this use of purported language somehow was relevant to the report.

Los Angeles Herald, 19 May 1895.

While there were quite a few articles dealing with prostitutes in the Tenderloin cribs along Ferguson Alley, mention specifically of Chinese women is largely absent. The year 1895 marked a concerted effort by reformers to address prostitution and, in its 20 April edition, the Herald, reporting on “The Tenderloin District,” mentioned French women as prostitutes. Five days later, the Express noted that M.T. Collins, who’d tried to effect reform years before, told city leaders that owners of properties with “cribs,” simply boarded up the fronts to make it look like they were acting as told, but then were “continuing the business in the rear . . . by making narrow alleys running off Ferguson alley and parallel to Alameda street.

On 19 May, the Herald told the story of “Carrie Smith,” who walked into the Ferguson alley saloon and restaurant owned by Jean Lenert, a native of France (other sources suggest Luxembourg or Belgium) and who was long said to own many cribs in his buildings on the alley, and fired three shots from a .32 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol at Joe (or George) Green, her former lover, and his new girlfriend, described only as “a French nymph.” A police officer happened to be near (there were long accusations that underpaid officers were given hefty payments to protect Chinese merchants or work for Chinese criminal bosses or look the other way with illegal activities) and arrested Smith.

Herald, 31 October 1897.

Strangely, it was stated that, because Smith could easily have hit Green, but didn’t, that this meant that “it was then suspected that her demonstration was nothing but a bluff.” While, after a preliminary examination, she was held to answer on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon, the district attorney’s office decided to motion for dismissal “and the young woman was turned over to her uncle, who will take care of her.” The piece ended with the hope that this relative “will take her away from the dissolute people with whom she associated in Los Angeles, and there are chances that the young woman may reform.”

The Express of 9 April 1898 reported about the battery committed by “Wong Kee,” also known as “Wong Gee,” described as a “tough-looking Chinaman,” who was with a compatriot walking along Ferguson Alley “when they came to a crib occupied by a couple of Japanese prostitutes.” This is an extremely rare mention of women of that ethnicity, provided the account was accurate. As “Kee” or “Gee” and the unnamed friend stopped to chat with the women, “they were ordered to move on,” and, in the following argument, he hit one on the face and knocker her to the ground while punching the other in the chest. While the unidentified man escaped, an Italian saloon owner (another example of the ethnic diversity of the alley) detained Kee/Gee, though the fate of “the heathen,” as he was described, was that the cause was dismissed as the women appeared late to the hearing.

Express, 5 October 1898

A short article in the Express of 5 October 1898 concerned a fist fight between the Turner sisters and Vica López in cribs “north of Ferguson alley,” presumably on Alameda near or in the historic Lugo Adobe, which faced the Plaza. One of the Turners stabbed López on the arm before the latter managed to effect her escape and the siblings were arrested and charged with disturbing the pace, though why an assault charge was not preferred is unknown, as is the disposition of the case.

The Los Angeles Record of 23 January 1899 presented the situation involving Lulu Patterson, known as Dora McDonald, and who was also a prostitute on Alameda “above Ferguson alley.” The 19-year old was described as “of a dark type of Spanish beauty.” At 1:30 the previous morning, she was found in her crib “suffering with laudanum poisoning” and was taken to the city receiving hospital, where a doctor worked for two hours to save her life. When she regained consciousness, she insisted that she be left alone to die and that she would take poison again, though the next morning, she changed her mind.

When questioned at the jail to where she was transferred when better, Patterson stated

My mother placed both myself and my 17-year-old sister on the town about a year ago, and is to blame for my act. My father is M.V. Patterson, United States Marshal at Klamath Falls, Ore. but my mother and father have been separated several years. She is half-Spanish, and was to blame for the split-up.

I want to go to my father, who has written to me several times, and I was trying to earn money to go there but became discouraged at the outlook and thought I would find rest in the grave. About six moths ago, my mother, sister and myself were brought in by the police, but no charge was made against us and we were released the next morning.

A city humane officer found a recent missive from the young woman’s father from about two weeks prior and it was reported that he would endeavor to reunite the two (and, one would assume, the sister), though nothing further was found about the matter.

Los Angeles Record, 23 January 1899.

These are remarkable accounts of Ferguson Alley and the Los Angeles Chinatown from the late 19th century, more particularly as they relate to young women of varied ethnicities and whose stories went typically untold. There is much more to the conditions of this little thoroughfare during the 1890s, so we’ll soon return with part two.

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Ellen, as a matter of fact, part two was just published and there just happens to be a detail of a map of Ferguson Alley and the surrounding area! Thanks for your interest.

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