150 years ago a mob attacked the Chinese community in Los Angeles
This opinion piece from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Professor of geography and environmental sciences Reece jones was first published in the Washington Post on October 24, 2021.
The phrase “mass lynching” generally reminds us of the thousands of violent acts of racial terror committed against African Americans, primarily in the Deep South, between the end of the Civil War and the end of the 20th century.
But one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history, on Sunday 150 years ago, occurred in Los Angeles and targeted Chinese immigrants. On October 24, 1871, a mob of white and Hispanic Angelenos rampaged through the city’s Chinatown, torching buildings and attacking residents. When the dust settled, 17 Chinese men were lynched in a racist violence crisis that portended upcoming Chinese exclusion laws and pogroms across the American West to drive out remaining Chinese residents.
The treatment of the Chinese at the end of the 19th century is often forgotten today, but without it one cannot fully understand the era or its lingering legacies. White supremacist violence in the United States, which was rooted in anti-blackness, also maintained the color line against other groups, including Native Americans and non-white immigrants. By revisiting the history of Chinese exclusion, the wider scope of white supremacist violence in the 19th century becomes clear.
In 1830, the US census recorded only three Chinese living in the whole of the United States. However, after the United States took control of significant western territory after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the discovery of gold in 1848, opportunity seekers from China joined the global migration to California. There were no national rules on who could immigrate from overseas to the United States, so the Chinese, along with everyone else, were free to come. In 1851, 2,716 people arrived from China, while the following year that number jumped to 20,026. However, what they found in the California wilderness was not an open and welcoming country. .
Already by the end of 1849, the gold fields of California were filled with prospectors and exhausted with treasures. Frustrated miners in the eastern United States attributed their lack of success to increased competition from Chinese miners, while workers, including hapless miners, accused Chinese workers of undercutting their wages. White residents blamed Chinese immigrants for bringing in vices such as prostitution and opium, and they feared the newcomers could be the vanguard of a Chinese “invasion” of North America.
Driven by nativists, state and local governments in California instituted laws designed to discourage Chinese immigration from 1852 until the 1880s, even when the constitutionality of these laws was questionable. In 1849, the Supreme Court struck down immigration laws imposed by Massachusetts and New York in a decision known as Passenger Cases, ruling that only the federal government could impose restrictions on immigration.
Yet California laws included not only rules to prevent Chinese entry, but also measures to make life difficult for Chinese already in California. These included taxes on foreign minors, excluding Chinese children from public schools, and even banning Chinese hairstyles and the use of gongs in ceremonies. Despite these laws, the Chinese population grew to over 100,000 in 1880 and represented about 10% of California’s population. Chinese residents often focused on the safety of burgeoning Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Official and popular antagonism against the Chinese overflowed in Los Angeles on a cool October evening in 1871. As the sun went down, Chien Lee Tong finished his work day in his small storefront office in Chinatown Los Angeles. Tong was the only Chinese doctor in town who treated patients using traditional Chinese medicine.
There was tension in the air as Tong tidied up his desk before heading to his residence in the same building. In the previous days, two rival Chinese businessmen, Yo Hing and Sam Yuen, were embroiled in an escalation of the conflict, which had resulted in multiple police visits to Chinatown. On the evening of October 21, Jesus Bilderrain, one of six Los Angeles police officers, was having a drink in Higby’s saloon when he heard a gunshot. He rushed to Chinatown to investigate but was shot in the shoulder by an unknown Chinese assailant. When a breeder named Robert Thompson came to the aid of the officer, he was shot.
As news of Bilderrain and Thompson’s shooting inside Chinatown spread, a crowd of 500 white and Hispanic residents, nearly 10% of Los Angeles’ population at the time, turned out. shot down on the neighborhood, seeking revenge on those they assumed responsible. A New York Times article described the crowd as targeting Chinese residents, “determined to clean them out of the city.” The few Los Angeles cops retreated from the scene as they watched the size and rage of the crowd grow.
Chinese residents, including Tong, barricaded themselves in buildings. By the time the crowd arrived, the conflicting men involved in the original shooting had fled. Only passers-by from the community remained. But the crowd was whipped into a frenzy and in search of blood, considering all Chinese residents as suspects.
Men from the mob grabbed axes from a nearby dry goods store and methodically punched holes in the roofs of buildings, then fired indoors at random. As injured Chinese men stumbled, a white woman watching the riot started shouting “Hang them!” And offered string for a noose. A 10-year-old boy ran into a store and came back with ropes for a lynching.
Tong hid in his shop in the Coronel building in hopes of avoiding the carnage surrounding him. When the crowd found him and dragged him down the street, he begged for his life, betting his position in society would spare him. He desperately offered $ 3,000 in cash and the diamond ring on his finger in exchange for clemency. Instead, a man in the crowd shot him in the mouth to silence him and cut his finger off to take the ring. Meanwhile, someone else took Tong’s pants off in search of the $ 3,000. Tong’s desecrated body hung from the roof of the wagon store, and then the crowd stretched ropes over two boxcars for their other victims. Within hours, all Chinese businesses in the city were looted and destroyed and 17 Chinese men were lynched in a cataclysm of racist violence.
The LA massacre was only the first major incident of anti-Chinese violence in the United States, and it would be followed by riots, arson and murders in other western cities in the years that followed. Across the American West, residents of small towns and cities have banded together to forcefully and violently drive out Chinese residents.
Rather than fight this racial violence, Congress responded to anti-Chinese movements in the West by banning most Chinese immigrants to the United States through the Page Act of 1875, and then the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While ‘in 1880 there were over 100,000 people of Chinese descent in the United States, by 1920 the number had fallen to only about 60,000, partly because of new immigration restrictions, but also because that many Chinese left the United States, some returning to China, while many more sought safety across the border into Mexico and Canada.
General restrictions on Chinese immigration remained in place until the 20th century. In fact, China’s exclusion law remained in effect until 1943, when during the World War II, the United States repealed it as a gesture to China, an important ally in the war against Japan. Even after the law was taken off the books, the United States allowed only 105 immigrants from China per year. In 1965, this ceiling was finally lifted.
The history of anti-Chinese violence and exclusion does not match popular ideas about the United States as a nation that has long welcomed immigrants. Anti-Chinese sentiment, manifested in both politics and racist violence, was a crucial part of American history in the 19th and 20th centuries. An accurate understanding of this past requires recognizing and learning this history. This helps explain the lingering problem of anti-Asian violence, which has gained new visibility during the coronavirus pandemic, as hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased 164%. The Los Angeles Massacre and the Violence of the Era of Chinese Exclusion reminds us that today’s anti-Asian bigotry is not a new phenomenon, but part of a much longer history of xenophobia racist in the United States.
—Reece Jones is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, Professor of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii, and the author of White borders: the history of race and immigration in the United States, from Chinese exclusion to the border wall.