HISTORICAL MEMORY IS like a remote control whose batteries are on the blink: sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, and no particular pattern or reason can be discerned for its success or its failure. Ask any Angeleno about “the riots,” and they will likely mention Watts or Rodney King. The historically discerning may dig into their memory of grade-school California history (or their recollection of mediocre swing-revival songs of the 1990s) and mention the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, in which military servicemen commandeered a fleet of taxicabs and assaulted young Hispanic men on the streets of East L.A. There is no one left who remembers firsthand the events of October, 1871, and the only physical reminder that remains is a small plaque near the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles. The places where eighteen Chinese men were murdered by a violent mob are now gone, replaced by the Hollywood Freeway and the United States Court House.
The city where the massacre of 1871 took place is both immediately familiar—it’s L.A., silly!—and entirely foreign. In 1871, Los Angeles was still a sleepy town, not even on the radar of most Californians. With its adobe buildings and gray asphalt roofs, it more closely resembled other Hispanic towns in the West like Santa Fe and Tucson than it did San Francisco. It was the real-life Deadwood of the West: twenty years earlier, in 1850-1851, Los Angeles had the highest recorded murder rate in American history. It was a place where judges pulled pistols on witnesses in court, and police officers shot at each other in the street.
Its violent tendencies notwithstanding, Los Angeles was surprisingly cosmopolitan for its time. As Scott Zesch informs us in The Chinatown War, Italian, German, and French could be heard spoken on its streets along with the semi-official languages of English and Spanish. For the preceding two decades, so could Chinese. Chinese laborers had begun to arrive in California during the Gold Rush. Would-be gold diggers had made a habit, incredibly enough, of sending their clothes to Hawaii to be cleaned, waiting months for their return via mail. Chinese immigrants, knowing a good business venture when they saw one, made steady work of scrubbing clothes, and many of them stuck around in California.
The unmistakable foreignness of the new Chinese arrivals—their queues, their mysterious rituals, their hometown associations—encouraged a persistent low roar of grumbling about their presence in Los Angeles. The openly xenophobic city newspapers maintained a hum of innuendo implying that all Chinese women were prostitutes, and that many, if not most, Chinese men, were pimps and hired killers for the Chinese gangs known as tongs. “The Chinese have no business here, and never can form part of our people,” fulminated one editorial, “but being here, they must not be suffered to carry out their heathenish customs.” Zesch devotes half of The Chinatown War to the background for the Chinese presence in Los Angeles, and while the pace flags at times, the context is useful for grasping the violence to come.
Matters came to a head when what was apparently a shootout between rival Chinese tongs resulted in the death of a local rancher named Robert Thompson. Rumors of tong members killing whites had spread even before Thompson was shot, and an unruly lynch mob formed, intent on seeking revenge. The mob was indiscriminate about its victims: any Chinese man would do, regardless of whether he had any link to the shootout. A sadistic glee clung to the air, a terrifying revelry. A local named A.R. Johnston, wielding a pistol, threatened others with harm if they did not hang Ah Wing: “God damn him, if you don’t put the rope around his neck I’ll shoot him anyhow.” A fifteen-year-old boy named Joseph Mesmer witnessed the mob from a distance, and later expressed amazement that “from a state of complete tranquility and repose, a mob of men, in a few minutes, can be transformed into a mob of wild beasts who will stop at nothing if allowed free license to continue in a mad orgy.”
Fourteen men were lynched in the span of thirty minutes, and a tableau of horrors was unveiled across the city. A mob ripped open the pockets of a well-respected local doctor named Gene Tong after he offered them money, and shot him in the face. Drunken revelers showed up at saloons after the killing was done, bragging of how many “Chinamen” they had themselves murdered. The dead were, to the killers, faceless embodiments of the Chinese menace. Almost a century and a half later, we too are left with only scraps of personality unfurled by Zesch: “Gene Tong and his wife doted on their poodle. ... Ah Won sported a flashy diamond ring he had purchased with his savings. ... Wing Chee had cooked a sumptuous feast that afternoon, with an abundance of Chinese delicacies, for his company’s headmen. He would not live to receive their compliments.”
Too many people had been involved in the riots for all the guilty to be punished—or even accused. Ten were eventually charged with the murder of Dr. Tong. Most were over thirty years old, and many were family men. Eight of the defendants were found guilty of manslaughter, but the California Supreme Court overturned the sentences on a technicality, and the men were released. No retrials were held, nor were any others ever prosecuted for the massacre. Histories of the city written less than a decade later excluded the lynchings from the official record.
Zesch ends his excellent study by comparing the riots to the wave of violent attacks on immigrants and the homeless, “the vulnerable, marginalized people around us.” He mostly sidesteps the ways in which deliberate forgetfulness allowed further generations of Californians to discriminate against residents of Asian descent. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade Chinese from entering the United States—the first such law of its kind. In the 1920s, the Japanese, too, were banned from immigrating to the country.
California led the nation in anti-Asian hatred, its own visceral loathing for the intruders in its midst guiding the country in its attitudes toward Asian immigrants. The grossest forms of nineteenth-century anti-Chinese bias, as documented in the loathsome newspaper editorials of the time, are mirrored in the stirring of anti-Japanese sentiment after Pearl Harbor. The nineteenth century offered the grotesque mockery of justice that was lynching; the far more genteel twentieth interned its hated minorities in squalid camps. No lessons had been learned. This was, indeed, as Zesch dubs it, “The Race Riot That Didn’t Change a Damned Thing.” 1871 was a blank patch in the history of Los Angeles; before it, the city had been a lawless zone of mob justice, and after it, the rule of law had tenuously taken hold. The grip of Wild West morality had been broken, but at the expense of the unmourned dead of Chinatown, and a ferocious hatred of the Asian foreigner that would recur, yet more tragically, in the century to come.
Saul Austerlitz has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, The National Abu Dhabi, and The Los Angeles Times.