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Book Review: The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 by Scott Zesch

Posted By Ed Voves On August 22, 2012 @ 2:25 pm In Asian American,Books,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871
by Scott Zesch
Oxford University Press, 283 pp.
CLR Rating:


Lynch Law

Frontier justice, the hard edge of America’s westward expansion, is often cited in the famous gun battle in 1881 at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Thanks to the many (and mostly inaccurate) film versions of this Wild West “shoot-out,” the myth of the O.K Corral is well established in American popular culture.

But mention the fatal events that centered on the Tomlinson Corral in Los Angeles, California, on the night of October 24, 1871 and you are most likely to draw a blank.

Nineteen people, all but one of them Chinese immigrants, were killed in a frenzy of gang warfare and vigilante reprisal that raged over the streets of Los Angeles. Yet the “night of horrors” that climaxed with innocent men swinging from ropes on the gate post of the Tomlinson Corral remains a footnote in U.S. history.

Thanks to a new book by Scott Zesch, the rampage of gunfire and lynch law that convulsed Los Angeles in 1871 is not likely to be overlooked again. Zesch has written an authoritative and compelling account of a major event in the history of the American West. His vantage point is an unconventional one, however, adding to the significance of The Chinatown War and the power of its narrative.

Zesch cuts against the grain of frontier history because he recounts this episode in terms of the Asian experience of the West. Soon after Anglo pioneers and gold-seeking prospectors reached the Pacific coast in 1849, the Chinese arrived from the opposite direction. These new immigrants, from one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, ventured across the Pacific Ocean to Gum Saan, the Golden Mountain of America. Their demographic experience was vastly different from that of the Anglo pioneers. Where the white, English-speaking frontiersmen usually outnumbered the indigenous Native Americans after a few years of settlement, the Chinese would remain a small and vulnerable minority.

Another unconventional aspect of Zesch’s account is its urban setting. Los Angeles was a very small city, indeed, in 1871. Despite being outpaced in size and population by San Francisco, Los Angeles displayed many of the growing pains of a city on the rise. With great insight, Zesch probes the origins of urban violence in a subject area of U.S. history that almost always places its primary emphasis on the rural, open-range nature of the frontier.

Los Angeles had a reputation for being a tough town even before 1871. Zesch notes that its citizens had organized a vigilance committee in 1836, ten years before the U.S. takeover of California. As Latino numbers and influence declined in Los Angeles, the number of Latino victims of “lynch law” escalated. Zesch estimates that fifty lynchings took place in Los Angeles between 1850 to 1870, three-quarters of the executed being Latinos.

If lynch law had a long tradition in Los Angeles, the events of Black Tuesday, October 24, 1871 set the tone for the future. The anti-Chinese riot of 1871 was a foretaste of ethnic violence in America’s cities as they grew in size and diversity. What happened there was a stark warning that the Jeffersonian ideal of freedom-sustaining farms and manageable market towns was not going to happen in the United States.

Nowhere was social complexity so marked than in the Chinese population of California in the late 1800’s. In 1870, there were 179 Chinese living in Los Angeles, out of a total population of approximately 6,000. They, like the more numerous Chinese population in San Francisco, were divided by membership in a confusing (at least to Anglo settlers) array of benevolent associations known as huignan. Popularly called the Chinese Six Companies, the huignan helped new immigrants become acclimated to life in Gum Saan.

Unfortunately, the huignan became associated in rumors and news reports with secret societies, originally formed to liberate China from its Manchu overlords. These societies or Tongs were incorrectly viewed by many Anglos as being one and the same as the huignan.

The Six Companies always sought legal means to protect Chinese living and working in California. There were few groups more enthusiastic about the U.S. Constitution than the huignan. But Tong fighters were occasionally hired to settle violent disputes within the Chinese community. One of the principal grounds of contention was the importation of Chinese women into the U.S. as wives in arranged marriages and as prostitutes. Opium, the bane of Chinese society at home, was another source of strife.

Ironically, the early decades of Chinese immigration to California were not marked by widespread ethnic discrimination. The relatively small size of the Chinese population and the commendable work ethic of “Chinamen” earned them a reputation for sobriety and dedication. Zesch notes:

For the most part, non-Asians in California who engaged Chinese laborers spoke very highly of them. Charles Nordhoff, a journalist who visited the state in the early 1870’s, suggested that employers held them in high regard because they were industrious, patient, dependable and quick to learn. Another writer, Charles Loring Brace, said that Chinese laborers were the neatest and most respectable group of working men he had ever seen, with faces of “scholars and gentlemen.”

What took place to undermine this early respect for the Chinese in California? What were the underlying factors that led to the “night of horrors” in Los Angeles on October 24, 1871? Zesch’s analysis of the chain of disaster is a model of historical scholarship and compelling narrative writing.

As the 1860’s ended, the steadily growing numbers of Chinese immigrants led to fears that eventually their numbers would outstrip those of California’s white population. And the Chinese themselves became more “Americanized” in their response to insults, assaults and robbery attempts. The 1870’s were the heyday of Samuel Colt’s six-shot revolver, soon to be nicknamed the “Peacemaker.” As attacks by Anglos and Latinos escalated and as factional fighting grew in their own ranks, Chinese in California increasingly armed themselves with Colt 45s. Increasingly, they began to shoot back.

The situation in Los Angeles was exacerbated by the break-up of the once dominant huignan, the See Yup Company. On the evening of October 24, 1871, a gun battle erupted between two Chinese factions competing for the contested leadership role. A Latino lawman, Jesus Bilderrain, recklessly charged into the crossfire and was wounded. Other lawmen arrived on the scene and opened fire on the Chinese. An Anglo rancher, Robert Thompson, rashly joined the fray and fired into a darkened building. Seconds later, he staggered away clutching his blood-stained chest and gasped, “I’m killed.”

And then, Los Angeles descended into a nightmare of violence and death.

A vigilante force rounded-up every Chinese they could lay their hands on. These included the respected Chinese doctor, Chee Long Tong, whose herbal-based practice had numerous Anglo patients. He was dragged pleading for his life to the Tomlinson Corral, shot in the face and hung. When space on the corral gate post ran out, impromptu gibbets were set-up at other nearby points. Despite some heroic attempts by Anglo citizens to save Chinese lives, fifteen were lynched and three shot and killed. Only one of the latter was a known Tong fighter. The rest, including Dr. Tong, were innocent of everything but their racial origin. And that, in the hate-filled eyes of the mob, was the most damning crime imaginable.

To the credit of the majority of the citizens of Los Angeles, the city reacted by thoroughly investigating the events of that terrible night. Ten of the vigilantes were indicted and eight received sentences for manslaughter. This was admittedly far short of the more severe charge of murder that was certainly warranted. But it showed that the people of Los Angeles took the matter of justice seriously, given the standards of racial prejudice of the time.

And then, in what amounted to a high court lynching, the California Supreme Court overturned the verdict and the eight convicts were released from San Quentin. Zesch comments with clear-sighted authority on the notorious decision in the appeals case, People v. Crenshaw.

Considering that the Los Angeles riot cases were among the most highly publicized trials California had ever seen, involving one of the worst hate crimes the nation had experienced, and resulted in eight hard-won convictions under difficult circumstances, it is incomprehensible that the justices did not even try to give the appearance of having wrestled with the issue being appealed. Their deliberations may have been compromised by political pressure, for the anti-Chinese labor movement was building steam by 1873.

This stunning breach of justice by the very people whose duty it was to uphold it bequeathed a terrible legacy for California. The roots of recurrent riots and dubious court decisions, from the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s to the Rodney King case, can be traced back to 1871. People v. Crenshaw, Zesch notes, is still “valid law in California.”

Throughout his admirable book, Zesch shows a willingness to confront the unpleasant realities of American history. It is thus somewhat perplexing that Zesch did not contrast the Chinatown Massacre of 1871 with disturbingly similar events that took place in New Orleans in 1890. Had he done so, the case for the continuing relevance of Los Angeles’ Black Tuesday would have been underscored.

The anti-Italian riots in New Orleans reached flashpoint from as complex a set of factors as occurred in Los Angeles nearly two decades before. But a brief synopsis will highlight the destructive chemistry at work in such situations.

On October 15, 1890, the police chief of New Orleans, David Hennessy was assassinated in front of his home. Hennessy was part of the reform party that had just swept into power. Eager to make a crime-busting reputation, Hennessy joined forces with one of the two Sicilian gangs vying to take over the New Orleans waterfront, targeting their rivals for prosecution. This was a questionable act on several counts, especially since Hennessy’s fellow New Orleans Irish bitterly resented Italian competition for dominance over the dockyards of the Crescent City.

With his dying words, Hennessy implicated the Italians. The New Orleans newspapers screamed for vengeance. Despite being tried and acquitted of Hennessy’s murder, eleven Italians were seized by a blood-thirsty mob and hung. The fallout of this shocking act led to strained relations with Italy and an international “black eye” for the American legal system.

The similarities between the Los Angeles and New Orleans lynch-law riots are noteworthy. Both cities had experience of diverse ethnic groups living together. But the escalating racism of post-Civil War America was compounded by economic stress. The Chinese in California were resented by Latinos and Anglos in the increasingly hard times of the 1870’s, though few showed any desire to do the arduous labor that the Chinese put into railroad building, the laundry trade and domestic work. Likewise, the dark-skinned Sicilians were not considered “white” in Jim Crow New Orleans. This marked them as an easy target for Irish and other poor whites who felt that they had “taken their jobs.”

As Zesch shows, such charges of economic undercutting have little substance. As a political gambit, however, this “divide and conquer” tactic is tailor-made for success on Election Day. Substitute Muslim or whoever the bogeyman of the day might be for “Chinaman” and fear and hatred replace freedom and justice in the polling booth.

And whenever this happens, the tortured bodies of Dr. Chee Long Tong and the other innocent victims of the Chinatown Massacre of 1871 once again dangle from the gate post of the Tomlinson Corral.


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