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

The Chinatown War by Scott Zesch
The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871
by Scott Zesch
Oxford University Press, 283 pp.
CLR [rating:4.0]

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.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Year of the Dragon, #93

Movie Still: Year of the Dragon

Mickey Rourke stars in Year of the Dragon (1985-R)

Somewhere in the middle of this overwrought and overwritten gangland shoot-’em-up, there is a decent story. But we’re never quite able to get to it. Michael Cimino’s direction of a screenplay that he cowrote with Oliver Stone is full of action. But it’s built around a narrative that makes little sense.

Year of the Dragon could have done for the Chinese underworld what The Godfather did for the American Mafia—offer a plausible and engrossing explanation of how and why it operates. Instead, we get short speeches from several characters that are part history lesson, part political diatribe. We learn of the ancient culture and customs of the Chinese from several individuals who come in contact—and often clash—with Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam vet and the most decorated cop in the city.

The name White is one of several less-than-subtle attempts by Cimino and Stone to make a point about race. The character carries lots of baggage and anti-Asian sentiment from his days in ’Nam—issues that both Stone and Cimino have dealt with much more ably in other movies.

For all his critics and celebrated flops (Heaven’s Gate, anyone?), Cimino did write and direct one of the most moving and definitive Vietnam movies. But while we cared about the characters in The Deer Hunter, we have trouble even getting a fix on the central figures in Year of the Dragon.

White is a crusader out to clean up Chinatown after he is assigned to head the police district there. He is not content to maintain the status quo—an arrangement between the businessmen/gangsters controlling the neighborhood and the police and politicians content to ignore the crime and corruption as long as it doesn’t spill over into nasty headlines and street violence.

But a push by a group of young Chinese gangsters out to replace the “uncles” in charge of the Triads turns into open warfare, with shootings and stabbings in restaurants and revenge killings on the streets. White is told by his superiors to tamp it down, to get things back under control, to work with the old heads to reestablish what has long passed for law and order in Chinatown. He, of course, will have no part of it. Instead, he wants to root out the corruption and lay bare the international heroin trade that the various factions are really fighting over.

Along the way, White manages to insult or denigrate just about everyone. Turning down a bribe offered by young Joey Tai (John Lone)—the emerging new power broker in Chinatown—White says, “I’m not an Italian. I’m a Polack. And I can’t be bought.”

“Slant eyes” and “yellow nigger” are two phrases used to describe Asians in the film and Tony, a hardworking Chinese-American, gets to take a shot at whitey in a rant about the young Chinese punks shooting up his neighborhood.

“Young people, no respect,” he says in halting English. “Steal. Shoot. Kill. Like white man.”

Those kinds of ethnic slurs are rampant in this movie, which attracted strong criticism from Asian-American groups concerned over stereotyping. The arguments were some of the same offered by Italian-American groups protesting films like The Godfather.

Our position has always been on the side of free speech. If you don’t like the movie, or the message, don’t buy a ticket.

The important difference is that The Godfather is classic cinema, while Year of the Dragon falls well short of that standard.

There are plenty of gangland shootings and one beheading. And there’s lots of talk about how the corruption is systemic and so deeply rooted in the culture that it can’t be changed.

“This is not the Bronx or Brooklyn” Tai tells White in a meeting to discuss life on the streets. “It’s not even New York. It’s Chinatown.”

White brings his own distorted sensibilities to the conflict, complaining at one point, “This is Vietnam all over again. Nobody wants to win this thing.”

That’s the kind of simplistic writing that keeps the movie from developing. That and a totally unrealistic romantic subplot that further erodes the film’s credibility. White, his marriage on the rocks, takes up with Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi), a young Asian-American television newswoman whose breathless reporting gives us updates on the gang war that drives the main plot. Koizumi’s stilted delivery and lack of emotion got her a well-deserved Razzie nomination. But she is nice to look at, especially when she is climbing out of a bathtub.

Tzu is repulsed by White, yet ends up in bed with him. White, in turn, claims to despise everything Tzu represents, yet is happy to use her reporting to enhance his standing and further his increasingly rogue investigation.

Both Tzu and White’s wife, Connie (Caroline Kava), pay a price for White’s action. Connie is killed and Tzu is raped.

In the end, White gets Joey Tai and his group, but life in Chinatown goes on.

And in a final scene that makes little sense—but is in keeping with the rest of the movie’s disjointed narrative— White and Tzu end up kissing in the midst of a Chinatown riot sparked by a funeral for one of the bad guys.

HIT: Even though many of the scenes were shot on a sound stage in Wilmington, N.C., Cimino did a good job of re-creating the crowded and often chaotic feeling of the streets of New York City’s Chinatown.

MISS: The convoluted plotline goes in several different directions, but takes us nowhere.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Once again Cimino’s ability to handle furious action set pieces is well to the fore: a shootout in a Chinese restaurant and a battle with two pistol-packing Chinese punkettes put him in the Peckinpah class. The connecting material, however, is by turns muddled, crass and dull, amounting mostly to Stanley’s interminable self-justification.”—Time Out

REALITY CHECK: There’s no way a reporter for a New York television station could be having an affair with the police captain while at the same time reporting on the captain’s crusade to clean up Chinatown. Page Six would go nuts.


CASTING CALL: Cimino and Stone considered Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges for the role of Stanley White, but Cimino decided on Rourke after working with him in Heaven’s Gate. Cimino also had an uncredited role as a director in The Pope of Greenwich Village, one of Rourke’s best performances.

BEST LINE: “This is America you’re living in and it’s 200 years old, so you better get your clocks fixed,” White tells a group of Chinatown leaders after they try to explain the ancient customs that still dictate the way many Chinese operate in both their businesses and personal lives. The line embodies the anger, frustration and xenophobia that drive White.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Heavy duty and brutal, with guns, knives and explosives.

BODY COUNT: At least twenty-four. The shooting in the restaurant, where two hit men spray the establishment with machine guns and bodies fly, made it difficult to get an exact count. There’s also the beheading. We don’t see it taking place, but we do get to see the head, which Joey Tai pulls out of a sack and presents to an Army general in Thailand he’s trying to impress.


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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies