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Review: A powerful look at 'The Chinatown War'

Scott Zesch skillfully reexamines an 1871 massacre of Chinese residents in a Los Angeles undergoing great change, and questions whether the right lessons have been learned.

By Michael Woo

September 2, 2012

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The Chinatown War
Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871

Scott Zesch
Oxford University Press: 272 pp., $29.95


You know about the 1965 Watts riots (34 deaths) and the 1992 Los Angeles riots (53 deaths). But you probably know less about the shocking violence that stained the mean streets near the current locations of Union Station, Olvera Street and the Civic Center on the night of Oct. 24, 1871.

Los Angeles had few pretensions in those days. In the early 1870s, California's new wealth generated by the Gold Rush, the growth of agriculture and the expansion of transcontinental railroads and trans-Pacific shipping made San Francisco the dominant urban center of the state. With a population of 150,000 in 1870, San Francisco was the 10th-largest city in the U.S.

By comparison, Los Angeles in 1870 was a minor backwater with only 5,700 residents. The main attractions were the weather and the landscape, not urban culture. As a contemporary writer then described Los Angeles, "nature has done everything for it, and man very little." Most roads through the city were unpaved, dry and dusty on hot days, muddy and impassable on rainy days. Cattle ranching had been the main agricultural business in the pre-statehood era, with Los Angeles developing as a village serving the commercial and social needs of the ranch population.

But cattle ranching was being supplanted by more lucrative fruit growing, and the one-story adobe structures typical of Los Angeles were being replaced with taller brick buildings.

The physical and economic changes were matched by dramatic changes in society. When California became a state in 1850, Latinos constituted a majority of the population, but within 30 years, that group had declined to 19%. The influx of European Americans to Los Angeles in the 1860s coincided with a local economic boom in agriculture and real estate.

As with other newcomers to the city, the Chinese were drawn by the prospect of jobs and money. Numbering only 30 in 1861, the Chinese population of Los Angeles had grown to 179 by 1870 (about 3% of the town's population).

"The Chinatown War," Scott Zesch's portrait of Los Angeles in the early 1870s, foreshadows the economic paradox of many later American cities, combining the lure of a vibrant economy with the threat of competition divided along class and racial lines. Zesch, who previously has written about racial conflict in the Old West, looks for evidence of white attitudes towards Chinese by surveying the earliest local newspaper articles about Chinese residents in L.A. After finding a mostly neutral or even positive tone in the earliest newspaper coverage, Zesch detects an abrupt change, perhaps reflecting the increasingly virulent anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco. In 1869, the first daily newspaper in Los Angeles began to publish a series of editorials bitterly complaining about the effect of low-wage Chinese workers upon the incomes of whites.

The role of these editorials in the Los Angeles News in 1869 and 1870 as a cause or an effect of an increasingly anti-Chinese mood is arguable. But the town's shift in mood from economic resentment to racial hysteria is undeniable. In 1870, when the California Legislature was debating the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protected citizens from denial of their right to vote based upon race, color or "previous condition of servitude" (slavery), the Los Angeles News railed against the "horde of idolatrous barbarians" coming from China. The paper suggested that "we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls." (The California Legislature failed to ratify the 15th Amendment until 1962.)

Against this backdrop, Zesch skillfully tells the story of a night of mayhem on Oct. 24, 1871. In the 1850s and 1860s, Los Angeles had a reputation as "undoubtedly the toughest town of the entire nation," according to Charles Dwight Willard, one of the city's earliest historians. It was a magnet for roughnecks and ne'er-do-wells coming from the mines, cattle drives and the frontier with money to burn and little respect for the law. Reacting to inadequate law enforcement (the first paid police officers were hired in 1869) and an ineffective justice system, Los Angeles frequently resorted to vigilantes and mob justice to maintain order.

On the night of Oct. 24, a pair of police officers tried to break up two groups of Chinese who were shooting at each other. One of the two officers, along with a bystander who volunteered to help quell the shooting, were wounded by gunfire. Robert Thompson, the volunteer whom Zesch calls "a popular rancher and former saloonkeeper," died of his wounds about an hour later.

Rumors about Chinese gunmen killing white men spread quickly through the town. As the sun went down, hundreds of white men armed with guns gathered on Calle de los Negros in the heart of the Chinese settlement, a now-nonexistent street near the southeastern corner of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. According to one estimate, the mob swelled to 500 men, about one out of every 10 in the town's population.

In an eerie precursor to the role of police during the Los Angeles riots 121 years later, a small number of law enforcement officers in 1871 tried to break up the shooting among the Chinese and then tried to protect the Chinese against the rampaging mob. But, Zesch shows, the "thin blue line" was insufficient to maintain order against the mob, in 1871 as in 1992.

A horrific sequence of atrocities ensued, uncomfortable to read even 140 years later and impossible to summarize here. Eighteen people were killed that night, some shot, some lynched, all of them Chinese.

Near the end of his powerful account of a largely forgotten incident in our city's history, Zesch asks whether the right lessons have been learned. He argues that the 1871 massacre may have marked the end of mob justice in Los Angeles. But Zesch attributes this milestone primarily to improved law enforcement, not to the better angels of our nature taming our impulse to scapegoat, pander and pick up a gun.

Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, was the first (and only) Chinese American elected to the Los Angeles City Council.