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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with this post looking at the Chinese community of Los Angeles during the 1890s in and around Ferguson Alley, a 20-foot wide thoroughfare developed by merchant William Ferguson and deeded to the City in 1892, we turn our attention to the frequent references in Angel City newspapers to crime, which, of course, distorted the view about the city’s Chinatown and its residents by leaving the impression that such activity was pervasive and rampant.

In any area without much in the way of resources, municipal services and support, and educational opportunity and riven with poverty, poor living and health conditions, and racism directed towards the Chinese, social instability was to be expected. Yet, it should also be remembered that the vast majority of Chinese residents were hard-working, law-abiding Angelenos, not as represented in media accounts.

This detail from a Baist’s Real Estate Atlas survey map (the Museum collection has several of these) posted on Pinterest, shows the narrow Ferguson Alley running between Los Angeles Street, across from the southeast corner of the Plaza and where the remaining section of Calle de los Negros, shown as N. Los Angeles St. (Negro Alley) terminated. The horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871 took place to the south, or left, in the long-gone Coronel Adobe between the “Garage” and “Jennette Blk” locations. U.S. 101 now runs through the area where the Baker Block, Arcadia Block, and Aliso Street are shown, while Union Station is where the Baist name and logo is at the lower right.

The many reports, true or not, in the press focused on all manner of criminal enterprise, including opium smoking, gambling, and warring between the companies or tongs, among others. With the former, of which a prior post discussed with a 1900s photo in the Museum’s collection, there was a detailed description of “The Haunts of the Opium Smoker” in the Los Angeles Herald of 23 December 1894, which asserted that, outside of the Chinese and the police, few locals knew of the drug and its users. Advertisements in local papers on that day included one by the maker of Castoria, a common medication for infants and children, claimed that many of its competitors used opium and morphine in their products, while another for Cupidene claimed it could help addicts wean off opium, as well as alcohol and tobacco.

So, regardless of how many readers of the Herald knew about opium, broadly or otherwise, they were given a deep dive into that paper’s view of the “dens” of Chinatown, with no small dose of sensationalist and melodrama, not to mention unfiltered racism:

Chinatown, upon its surface, is bad enough; a stain upon the fair face of nature; a menace to health and civilization, even, but hidden in its dark alleyways and in and under its tumble-down rookeries are reeking dens, so filthy and vile, and their inhabitants so vicious and depraved that their mind revolts when contemplating their influence upon a Christian civilization . . . most people know only by hearsay that Chinatown is honeycombed with vile dens, where not only Chinamen but white men and women, slaves to the most damning vice the world knows, consort with depraved Chinese, and lie in the filth of these hell-holes in drugged stupor, while the world around moves on without them.

There was obviously no interest or concern in understanding what might lead many people, white, Chinese or otherwise, to addiction to opium or other intoxicants like morphine, alcohol, and cocaine, and the social and economic conditions in a rapidly-changing environment that was involved, but the conclusion drawn by the paper was obvious: white opium addicts were lured by the Chinese to these “haunts.” The piece goes into further detail about the degradation devolving on its denizens and a reporter “went through the dens in the Chinese quarter yesterday and saw enough horrible things to last a lifetime.”

This is a 1920s-era snapshot from the Homestead’s holdings of a portion of Chinatown situated in the Union Station area, though precisely where is not known—unless someone out there knows?

This included go into significant depth about the equipment and the process of smoking the drug, while it was added that, though state law made it a misdemeanor to allow opium to be used in a place or to possess any materials related to its use, there was no law at the time concerning the smoking of the drug. In Los Angeles, there was an ordinance with the same level of criminality for anyone keeping or visiting an opium den, but it was observed that neither had much effect with arrests and convictions minimal.

It also talked at length about a prisoner in the jail named Corcoran, who very easily was able to repurpose a medicine bottle procured by pretending he had a cough and then have the opium smuggled in pies by confederates so he could continue his habit while being confined on a robbery charge. It was only considerable time invested by jailers that it was found the prisoner was hiding his materials and stash by lowering them in an old shirt tied to a string into the “water closet.” There seemed to be an inference that the habit ended, but only after he was convicted and sent to state prison.

Los Angeles Herald, 23 December 1894.

As for those Chinatown haunts, the journalist (one wonders who he was with and how he secured access) recorded that

Half way down Ferguson alley, between Los Angeles street and Alameda, on the right hand side, was the first place visited. A little landing is built along the street here in front of the building, and the front door leads into a Chinese store . . . A sentry stood outside [during the late-night outing]. Passing through the store the reporter found himself in a narrow hallway. Down this a few steps a door leads off to the left, opening into a room not more than 10 feet square . . . The layout is ready in the center of the couch [which had space for two]. The small lamp, covered with a glass globe, is lighted and placed upon a tray. The bamboo pipe . . . is alongside and the needles, horn and sponges nearby . . . A smoker lies upon the couch in a deep stupor; a Chinaman wrinkled and emanciated [sic], aged and hideous. The proprietor of the den sits in the corner awaiting another victim.

Yet, the reporter stated this was not considered a typical opium den, as another space upstairs in that structure was a brothel where users were found and “which is far more filthy and vile,” while there was another location in the basement. Moreover, behind a barber shop in the edifice was “one of the worse opium dens in Chinatown,” though the writer had but a glance, enough to see in minimal lighting that “stretched on the couch were two forms, one that of a Chinaman, the other a white woman.” Other than mentioning that nearby Apablasa Street, a west-to-east thoroughfare where Union Station is now, had many such dens, this was the core of the report.

Herald, 10 August 1892.

With respect to gambling, the Herald of 10 August 1892 offered to the police commission plenty of information about illegal lotteries, claiming that “lottery games are conducted in Chinatown right now openly and notoriously, as much, if not more so, than they ever were before, at any time in the history of the city.” There were purportedly twenty companies operating such schemes and with, it was insinuated, full knowledge of the police (accusations were frequently made of payoffs to officers and city officials to turn a blind eye to these and other transgressions, as well as money paid to officers to watch over businesses.)

The paper noted that all of these concerns had capital of at least $5,000 and paid out winnings from drawings made throughout the day, while agents worked out commission plying the local streets with the sale of tickets with complete impunity from law enforcement or any others. Referring openly to the remnant of Calle de los Negros as “Nigger Alley,” the Herald identified three prime locations there and named the companies said to be conducting the lotteries at specific, named times. It continued,

Ferguson alley, which runs from Los Angeles to Alameda street[s], has four lottery games doing business along its way, although the street is about as brief a one as you will find in the city.

Two of the schemes were at one location and said to be conducted by the Ching Chin Wing and Wing Lee companies, with the first holding drawings at 2:30 and 10 p.m. and the other at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.—these apparently timed to limit competition. Next door were the Lee Ying and Leung Lee companies who were “doing a nice business.” Also mentioned were enterprises on Los Angeles Street as well as at “New Chinatown,” this being east of Alameda along Apablasa and other streets and, again, where Union Station is now situated.

Herald, 2 June 1894.

The 2 June edition of the Herald that year heralded the fact that Fong Sing was charged, under a new city ordinance, with possession of a lottery ticket, but his counsel Robert A. Ling, a Canadian whose name may sounds like it was Chinese (Hong Yen Chang, the first Chinese lawyer to be granted a license—in New York—was denied admittance to the bar when he moved to San Francisco in 1890 because the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was used to invalidate his naturalization as a citizen) argued the paper was actually from Tong Goon’s Ferguson Alley loan office. After some heated debate between Ling and the prosecutor, Fong Sing was convicted and it was reported that “the Chinese attempted to defeat” the intent of the law “by issuing their lottery tickets in English characters instead of Chinese.”

In its 12 February 1898 edition, the Times reported on Wong Yuck, said to be “one of the biggest Mongolians in Los Angeles, likewise one of the smoothest” as the owner of a general store in Ferguson Alley, but said to have “given the police trouble on divers[e] occasions,” including the alleged sale of lottery tickets to a white man as an officer, Charles Lehnhausen (who went to be a colorful captain in the department during two decades on the force) paid a surprise visit a few evenings prior. The officer, without a warrant, conducted a search and seized a large amount of “the unlawful billets,” leading the merchant to file a complaint against the officer for disturbing the peace. Subsequently, the merchant’s attorney, Horace H. Appel (who was then handling legal matters for Walter P. Temple), asked for a dismissal though he claimed he would file a new complaint, which apparently never happened.

Reference to a Ferguson Alley fan-tan related fight and the federal seizure of opium and an arrest nearby, Los Angeles Express, 3 February 1894.

Of the many accounts found in the local press during the so-called “Gay Nineties,” were ones involving “fan tan,” a very popular card game. The 3 February 1894 edition of the Los Angeles Express, for example, briefly recorded that two men, said to be from the Wong Chee company, “engaged in a duel with revolvers” over the fact that “trouble arose over a fan tan game” at the Ferguson Alley saloon of Jean Lenert, who among several Anglo owners of property and businesses in Chinatown.

Another example involving fan tan came from the Herald of 3 January 1897, with the sheet briefly noting that an operation in Ferguson Alley was broken up by an officer and “two Mongols captured and sent in to the police station.” It was added, however, that the dealer and player were in jail about an hour when a white attorney arrived with three Chinese men and released the accused on bail. In mid-February 1899, reported the Los Angeles Times of the 14th, a Latino man was fined $2 for disturbing the peace after claiming he was cheated at a Chinese-run gambling room in the Alley, though nothing was said about the proprietors and their illegal business.

Herald, 3 January 1897.

Concerning police behavior, it was reported in January 1898 that officer Sam Dugan was accused of extortion, having only very recently been fined $25 for public intoxication. While accounted “a young officer who has done some very good work,” Dugan’s “appetite for strong drink has all along proven his bad angel.” The recent conviction was only one of several instances of his being discovered drunk, but on the 22nd, it was stated, the officer and another man got into further trouble.

It was observed that “about 9 o’clock Monday [a] Japanese woman came running into Jean Lenert’s saloon on Ferguson alley, crying and claiming that two men had just been in to her place [crib] and compelled her to give up $5. She said that one of them was a policeman . . . the Times reporter . . . learned that Dugan and another man entered the Japanese “crib” . . . and demanded money. Dugan acted as spokesman and told the woman that unless she gave him the coin he asked for that he would “run her in.” The creature . . . showed $5 saying that that was all she possessed . . . Both men are said to have been drunk at the time.

Dugan was hauled before the Police Commission, which met secretly in the office of Meredith P. Snyder, and, on the 26th, it voted to fine him $25 for “having visited a disreputable place” with Chief John M. Glass ordered to reprimand the officer for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” with one commissioner opposed to the fine because it was too low. Dugan later was a Democratic Party ward operative, worked as a private officer in a poolroom, and was given a 30-day suspended sentence in 1909 for beating a comedian while drunk as he worked at the Grand Theatre.

Los Angeles Times, 24 January 1894.

We’ll return with a third part of this post dealing with reported warring between Chinese companies or tongs operating in and around Ferguson Alley, so be sure to check back for that.

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