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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with this fourth part looking at the variety of reports in the Los Angeles press during the so-called Gilded Age regarding Ferguson Alley, the 20-foot wide thoroughfare off the southwest corner of the Plaza and passing between Los Angeles and Alameda streets, and the area around it comprising the Angel City’s Chinatown, we pick up with additional information regarding some of the companies, or tongs, that were a major part of many Chinese residents’ lives, but also subject to frequently sensationalized reporting.

Wong Chee, the leader of the Bing On tong whose case involving the February 1895 shooting of rival Lon Suey of the Hop Sing company was dismissed over six months later, was gunned down on Alameda Street around the corner from Marchessault Street, which ran along the north end of the Plaza to Alameda, on 26 July 1896 by “highbinders,” a term used for thugs or assassins, reportedly on orders from the Hop Sing tong.

The 12-year resident of Los Angeles previously served four years in prison for murder but was pardoned when it was determined he was not guilty, but, after the Lon Suey killing, he moved to Hill and 8th streets where he was partner in a drug store, though he remained the Bing On head. Notably, following Wong Chee’s death, Los Angeles Police Department Chief John M. Glass called him “the best Chinaman in Los Angeles” and his funeral, which included rites under a large awning at the corner of Los Angeles Street and Ferguson Alley and interment at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, was covered in much detail.

Los Angeles Herald, 28 July 1896.

This included reference to roasted pigs, boiled duck and chicken and other food near Wong Chee’s favorite chair and a table where a place setting was presented. The Los Angeles Herald of 3 August added that there were so many candles and incense sticks that there was “a stench vile enough to drive away a thousand devils.” As mourners bowed at the scene, a pair of men played a flute-like instrument and large cymbals “from which was extracted presumably mournful music and a priest “chanted for some time to the accompaniment” of the musicians.

Women said to be the deceased’s two spouses and a pair of brothers kept constant vigil to the ornately adorned rosewood coffin and were “keeping up a constant moaning, rising at times into a shriek, then sinking again to a pitiful wail of despair. Police officers kept a tight line enforced, so that only Chinese mourners could approach the scene and pass by the open coffin to pay their final respects. When the hearse departed, there was an express wagon loaded with food, and a caravan of carriages followed to the cemetery, accompanied by two bands “which kept up a constant din” as the half-mile procession of some 100 vehicles proceeded to the place of burial.

At Evergreen, an altar on a cement platform was constructed for graveside services, including the ritual burning of the Wong Chee’s clothing, bedding and personal items, along with money “to pay his way on his long journey.” The priest chanted prayers, more incense was burned, and the musicians continued their dirges and, it was noted that, while Wong Chee was consigned to his grave at the cemetery, “eventually the bones will be removed and scraped, being boxed up and sent back to China” and his final place of rest in the land of his birth.

Herald, 31 January 1897.

Also observed was that food was to be left on the altar and fresh victuals brought for a week “so that Chee shall not be hungry on his journey.” The paper then concluded, with apparent bemusement and fascination with what was no doubt considered obscure and strange to an American,

The crowd was well-behaved, although morbidly curious. Chief Glass had provided an adequate force of officers, and any tendency to overrun the celestials [by whom?] was promptly checked. Chee had a swell funeral, and may now rest in peace.

In its edition of 31 January 1897, just prior to the onset of the Chinese New Year, the Herald featured a lengthy article on tongs, including homeland origins and the local history of the companies. So, the Chee Gong tong, located on Benjamin Street, a north-south thoroughfare where Union Station is now, split into two with the Bing On (Bing Gong) company, led by Wong Chee, formed, but another schism led to the Hop Sing company.

Herald, 2 April 1897.

From that time, it was continued, “there has been intense rivalry among the rival tongs” including arguments and fights including the recent killings of Lon Suey (also called Luey Suey) and Wong Chee. At the time of writing, the Hop Sing company was on Los Angeles Street south of Marchessault, facing the Plaza in the second story of a frame structure, while “the Bing Gong’s meeting rooms are on the second floor of a brick building on the south side of Ferguson alley, midway down the hill between Nigger Alley [the remnant of Calle de los Negros, or North Los Angeles Street] and Alameda street.”

After discussion of planned New Year festivities, mention was made of a boycott of a store because of an allegation that a community leader’s wife “has bribed the policemen to kick and abuse our Chinese people without any provocation or reasonable cause,” leading Chief Glass to order the removal of placards making these statements and stating that “the family is eminently respectable, as Chinese families go.” Glass added that information said to have come from the woman was actually obtained by his officers and “the lives of the Ah Sing family have been threatened by the highbinders and a tragedy may occur any day.”

On the 1st of April, the Herald reported that a group of Chinese merchants and others from San Francisco returned from Washington, D.C., where they went “to settle the differences between the See Yup and the Sam Yup societies through the mediation of the Chinese minister.” When the party arrived, the brightly-ornamented apparel was noted, as was the “expressions of satisfaction at the settlement of the threatened feud.” Before going home, one delegate, Wong Si Shung, said to be among the best-known and wealthiest of the San Francisco Chinese residents, remained to “acquaint the members of the different societies” in Los Angeles “with the terms of the settlement agreed upon in Washington,” adding that he was to stay with Wonk Yuk in Ferguson Alley.

Los Angeles Times, 25 January 1895.

With respect to the Chinese New Year, one example of a somewhat detailed description is from the Los Angeles Times of 25 January 1895, though, again, there is a combination of curiosity and judgment as the paper began with the observation that “the Chinese quarter was gayly illuminated last night, and the heathens’ New Year festivities are now in full blast.” It was noted, though, that the celebrations were more muted than in past years “because [the Chinese] are as hard strapped for their needful as their white brethren,” this referring to the ongoing national economic depression that burst forth two years prior.

Still, the account went on, decorations on Marchessault, Alameda, and Apablasa streets were noteworthy and included lanterns, tinsel, silk flags and parasols, candles and incense, peacock feathers, lilies, banners and more. Several of the tongs were noted for their decorative efforts, including the fact that

The Bing On Tong hatchetmen have headquarters on Ferguson alley, and over it floats their triangular, cream-colored flag with faded red border and black cognizance, surmounted by an American flag. Their altar is finely decorated . . . On Ferguson alley another company, the great Wong family, the Gung Hai Tong, floats its red, white-bordered white silken triangle, with deeply scalloped margin. Their family reunion at the altar is now on.

The Times added that “the minor families that cannot afford a society hall, meet in private stores and rooms” while single men were then rare because the six companies in San Francisco “import nearly all of them and choose their family retainers” while “others are excluded or are menial outcasts.” Finally, it concluded, “the heathen who wants to be considered at all next year is around virtuously paying up his debts and giving hospitality with as open a hand as his means permits” because, otherwise, “he is an outcast and untrustworthy.” Of course, this was just a few weeks before the killing of Lon Suey and the intensification of the tong war that followed.

Herald, 31 October 1896,

Every three years in the fall, from at least 1875, there was a multi-day festival that was bestowed a different name on each occasion and which was generally described as the “propitiation of devils” or sprits or demons. While nothing was found of such events in 1890 or 1893, perhaps because of economic reasons, there were events in 1896 and 1899. For the former, dubbed “Du Gong Ok” by the Herald, in its 31 October edition, the final day’s program included “the big street parade when the huge green dragon will make his initial appearance in this city.”

The massive figure was such that “to convey the dragon through the streets some eighty men will be required and they will perform the arduous task willingly and without compensation as a religious ceremony.” Moreover, the account recorded, “every company in Chinatown will be called upon to furnish its quota of men according to its numerical strength and financial standing.” Of these,

The largest number will be supplied by the Kong Chow company, the largest and richest in Southern California. In their joss house on Ferguson alley they have ready a unique collection of pikes, swords, battle axes and other weapons, together with shields and costumes, which will be carried and worn by their retainers. The expense will be footed by the company. They will also furnish a band to head their detachment.

It was also added that banners used in the parade “are simply marvels of embroidery in gold and silver thread on the heaviest silk” and costing up to $500 each in China, but it was asserted they would be four times more costly in America because of the expense of labor. After observing that the dragon and marchers would be sumptuously outfitted, the Herald continued that, “while to American eyes the decorations may seem garish and incongruous,” the costs were substantial and could outfit a whole military regiment in this country—it was stated that near $100,000 was to be expended on the parade.

This cabinet card photo from the Museum’s collection might be from the October 1896 religious parade as the massive dragon moved through Chinatown. A previous post here speculated the image might have been for a spring La Fiesta de Los Angeles event, but the fall Chinese festival seems far more likely.

The parade was to assemble at 1 p.m. on the east side of the Plaza on Los Angeles Street and then go south to Aliso, then east to Alameda, then north to Marchessault, eastward to the edge of the “new” Chinatown, where Union Station is today, and return westbound on Apablasa Street. While this would take about an hour, the procession was to continue around the Plaza to Main, turn south to the junction at Spring and Temple where the Temple Block (now the site of City Hall) was located, following Spring to Fifth, then east to Main, and return north to Aliso and end at Alameda or thereabouts to end.

At around 10 p.m. or later, would be when “the final ceremony of the burning of the devils will occur in the open space of Nigger alley,” this again being in the very location of the horrific massacre of a teenage boy and seventeen men by Anglos and Latinos almost exactly a quarter-century before on 24 October 1871. An extra contingent of police officers were to be stationed “to see that no one interferes with the celestials in their rites.” With firecrackers and the burning of the effigies, the “evil spirits will ascend again to the skies and leave the frail habitations, well pleased with the attentions they have received, their anger toward the Chinese race appeased by the offerings and sacrifices made, to remain for another three years before they again visit the earth corporeally.”

Speaking of religion, there was a significant loss that year when, during a holiday celebration on 31 March, as recorded by the Times, “there is woe and desolation in Chinatown, for a mighty joss has gone to heaven in a cloud of smoke and the costly trappings of his abiding-place are all ruined.” The paper confused or deliberately conflated the “joss” as a deity, when it was an idol or image depicting a deity, though the Christian bias led the paper to mock the fire that broke out in the temple, but wouldn’t think of talking about a conflagration in a church consuming a statue of Christ in nearly the same way.

Herald, 19 February 1893.

The “joss house” was situated in a building on Los Angeles Street (the paper used that common perjorative of Nigger Alley) “and running down Ferguson alley, in the western part of the Chinese quarter, southeast of the plaza.” The temple, maintained by the Kwong On tong, was on the second floor of a brick structure, with the ground level occupied by shops which constituted “a swarming hive of Asiatics.”

After reporting on the holiday festivities with the pasting of red paper notes on doors, the shooting off of fireworks and firecrackers, and music from “mandolins,” probably the pipa, and cymbals, and the colorful decorations, the Times noted that only three men were present after 7:30, but “the gods must have been displeased by the way the day’s ceremonies were conducted” and signaled their anger as a candle tipped over and ignited a tapestry. The paper went on that “the terrified Chinamen were unable to quench the flames” and “fled in a panic,” while an alarm was sent to the fire house a block away.”

Times, 1 April 1896.

By the time, three fire companies responded, “the whole interior of the joss-house was in a blaze and the smoke and flames pouring through the roof,” but, after a few minutes, the fire was quenched.” As crowds gathered to watch, the Times reported that “the Chinamen were intensely excited and jabbered away with a volubility that was amazing.” A priest led the way in and was said to be near tears and “was well-nigh heartbroken” at the sight of the destruction. Meanwhile, water from the firefighting effort caused some damage to stock in the store below. The account ended with the observation that,

The total loss is estimated as not less than $2000. But this sum does not cover the mental anguish whichh [sic] the Chinamen will suffer through the dread their gods have forsaken them and intend to punish them in some still worse way.

A prior post here features an 1898 photo from the Homestead’s holdings of a “joss house” in Chinatown. We’ll conclude this post tomorrow with some examples of how other ethnic groups were involved in events and activities in Chinatown, focusing at Ferguson Alley and its environs, so be sure to come back for that.

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