Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Crime Seen: LA Chinatown Massacre

One of the things we believe in at the Real Los Angeles Tours is talking about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of history. It’s really the only way of looking at our past, if we ignore the nasty and ugly episodes then we are almost certainly dooming ourselves to continue making the same mistakes. Such an episode is the LA Chinatown Massacre. A sorry tale of corruption, greed, lust, mass murder and racism, it tells us a lot about life in Los Angeles during its Wild West years.

It also demonstrates the dangers of something we’ve seen a lot in recent years, the singling out of a section of the population, based on its skin color or ethnicity, and blaming it for all the problems that exist in that society. In addition to just being plain wrong (they’re obviously NOT responsible for the issues, because they’re already marginalized anyway), history tells us that it’s very dangerous when that happens. However, history only teaches us when we learn from it. So, on its 152nd anniversary, let’s take a look at one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history, the LA Chinatown Massacre of 1871.

Background to Chinatown Massacre in Los Angeles

The small farming pueblo that Los Angeles was then had only recently celebrated its 90th anniversary on the night of the massacre. In that relatively short time it had passed from being in the territory of Spain, to Mexico and then, in 1848, to the United States.

Throughout those years it had been a pretty unremarkable place that was largely unknown outside Southern California (apart from, perhaps, its wine). That was about to change, because of the awful events of October 24, 1871. 

LA in those days was the wildest place in the West (as well as being the Westest). At least forty-four murders were reported here in the year or so up to the massacre, to this day the highest per capita murder rate EVER recorded in the U.S. And that record was achieved BEFORE the Massacre!

There was an alley running southwest off the Plaza, where Los Angeles Street is now, called Calle de Los Negros (Street of the Blacks) and there wasn’t a more dangerous or debauched place in the whole country. It was only a short street, but it was filled with brothels, opium dens, gambling saloons, dance halls and dive bars.

The Alley was part of “old” LA Chinatown, which stretched from there east, to the other side of what’s now Alameda Street. The Chinese who lived here weren’t inherently “bad”, the only reason that they were living here was because they couldn’t get accommodation anywhere else, due to racial discrimination. They were forced to live in the part of town that no one else wanted to live.

Chinese people had begun moving here in the 1850’s mostly to work in the gold fields, and later building the Transcontinental Railroad. However the unstable economy following the Civil War led to increasing resentment and, ultimately, downright hostility.

That very hostility made it increasingly difficult for them to integrate – which in turn made white Americans distrust them even more. Sound familiar? They formed beneficial societies, called Tongs (which simply means ‘meeting hall’), that would give Chinese immigrants much needed help and support, but over time some of these Tongs became criminal enterprises.

A Fateful Kidnapping

The dispute that led to the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre started, as so often is the case, with a beautiful woman – Yut Ho. She was kidnapped in San Francisco and brought down to LA, possibly to use as a sex-slave in a brothel in Chinatown, or as a way to settle another intra-Tong dispute.

Her brother Choy, though, set off in hot pursuit, with some of his friends, to rescue her. They took ship to San Pedro and then tracked her down to a property belonging to rival Tong leader Yo Hing, on the Calle de Los Negros.

Accounts differ about what exactly happened next. The official account says that there was a gunfight between Yo Hing and Choy, during which a white man, Robert Thompson, was killed. That then led to a wave of anger as the locals decided to take revenge into their own hands.

That’s the official account – and that’s bad enough – but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s not really what happened. The reality was, incredibly, even worse.

What Really Happened?

The other account goes like this. There was a gunfight between rival Tong gunmen, in which Choy was seriously wounded. He was arrested and Yo Hing bribed the Sheriff to set bail for Choy at $2,000 – a fabulous sum at the time (about $100,000 now). Hing’s thinking probably being that there was no way Choy’s Tong would be able to bail him out and he would die in custody (he did later).

However, in the meantime, Sam Yuen, the leader of Choy’s Tong in LA, went to the Sheriff and posted bail, telling the deputies that he had the money in gold in a trunk in his shop on the Calle de los Negros, in the Coronel. That must have surprised the sheriff and his deputies, but it seems like the emotion swiftly morphed from one of shock to a desire to see that gold.

Now, word of this bounty, just sitting in Yuen’s shop, would have spread around the small town like wildfire. A town, remember, known for a lot of gun violence. On top of this it’s important to understand that the Chinese were hated and feared in equal measure, many would have seen the chance to settle personal debts and scores, and – it gets even better – non-white people were forbidden by California law from testifying against a white person.

It’s almost certain that Thompson and a Sheriff’s Deputy, called Jesus Bilderrain, decided to go to Yuen’s shop to relieve him of the bail money, which is when Thompson was shot by an understandably reluctant Yuen (or one of his associates).

Mob Justice in Los Angeles

Either way, Thompson’s death was the signal for all holy hell to break loose. The bars, brothels and gambling hellholes emptied as a mob five-hundred strong rapidly formed and hurried over to Chinatown. In their hands were guns, but in their hearts was a desire for retribution or, as they would have put it, frontier “justice”.

The angry crowd quickly surrounded the Coronel, where Marshall Francis Baker immediately deputized a dozen of them – and headed off home to bed! Such flagrant dereliction of his duty by LA’s top cop must have sent a powerful signal to the growing crowd. That he was already on the scene also suggests that he had his own interest in Yuen’s gold.

With Baker out of the way a gun battle ensued with the couple of Tong members unlucky enough to be left guarding Yuen’s shop. This didn’t stop the murderous mob though, eventually some climbed onto the roof, hacking holes in it and firing guns into the interior.

Finally, the Chinese men inside surrendered. They were dragged out and then hung, shot or stabbed to death. But the mob still wasn’t done! They marched through Chinatown, grabbing any Chinese man or boy they could find, and killed them too.

One of the few Chinese men in Los Angeles who was respected by everyone was Dr Gene Tong. He had a small office in the Coronel where he dispensed medicine. As Dr. Tong was about to be lynched he tried to strike a deal with his hangmen. He had $3,000 in gold in his shop, his life savings – take it and spare my life he begged! His erstwhile executioners shot his mouth off to silence him and then cut his finger off so they could get his diamond wedding ring. Then they hung him, still alive, from an upturned wagon – and took his gold.

A woman came running out of a nearby shop: “Hang them all” she shouted. Her son hurried out behind her and helpfully offered the mob some rope. When they tried to string up a Chinese man from the front porch of a shop belonging to local councilman John Goller he objected strenuously – and was told to “dry up”, or he’d suffer the same fate!

It doesn’t appear that any of the Sheriff’s Department made any attempt to put an end to the clearly out of control violence until too late, indeed it seems like at least some of them were involved. Having said that there were only five or six deputies in Los Angeles at the time, so even with the city’s comparatively small population of less than 5,000, they were hugely outnumbered.

Eventually, when the orgy of violence was finally over, some twenty Chinese men and boys had been brutally murdered that night. Only one was identified as belonging to Yuen’s Tong, the others were all innocent bystanders.

Aftermath of Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre

In the previous two decades thirty-five people had been lynched in Los Angeles, so vigilantism, regrettably, wasn’t uncommon. Only a year earlier a French immigrant, by the name of Michel Lachenais, had been hung by a lynch mob (right where the Federal Courthouse is now), but even by the lawless standards of LA the Chinatown Massacre was different.

When news of it reached the outside world the reaction was one of abject horror. Ironically, it was the first thing that really put Los Angeles on the map for people outside California. It was reported in newspapers all over the U.S. and world. People were horrified at the brutality and lawlessness of LA Who would have thought that Los Angeles was gaining a reputation for violence?

What was considered even worse by some ambitious Angelenos was that LA was lobbying for the Transcontinental Railroad to stop here (not San Bernardino as planned) and publicity of this nature could be fatal to the boosters’ plans.

The following year twenty-four men were put on trial for their part in the events of that night, but in the end none were convicted. Incredibly the defense in one of the trials claimed that the prosecution hadn’t proved that Dr Tong had been killed, even though everyone agreed that he had existed and that he was by then dead. It was farcical. As quickly as possible the curtains were drawn over the whole affair.

The only reason that there was any kind of effort to prosecute the rioters was because Ygnacio Sepulveda, of the famous family that once owned Santa Monica, convened a grand Jury in his capacity as a County Court Judge. This proves that there were good citizens in Los Angeles then, although they clearly weren’t in the majority.

Five years later the railroad reached Los Angeles and it began its rapid ascent. By 1880 the population of LA had doubled to 10,000, and by the time the new century began in 1900 the city was passing 100,000 inhabitants. Around that time the Coronel was quietly demolished, Calle de los Negros already having had its name changed to Los Angeles Street more than a decade earlier.

Interestingly, nothing was ever heard of Yut Ho ever again. The beautiful woman who had ostensibly been the cause of the dispute that led to one of the worst mass lynchings in U.S. history had disappeared as comprehensively as if she had never existed.

How is the Massacre Remembered?

Now the 101 Freeway runs through part of the old Chinatown and most of the rest was knocked down to build Union Station. Only a few buildings of the neighborhood still exist, the rest only to be seen in fading black and white photos and old newsreels. There is a plan to create a memorial to the massacre on the footprint of the old Calle de los Negros.

The Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles (CAM) is located on part of the footprint of the Coronel and it has a section devoted to the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre. It reminds us of the dangers of intolerance, and that it’s never okay to demonize a section of society based on the fact that their skin color, customs or language are different from the rest.

We would all do well to remember that.

The Chinatown Massacre

We visit the area and discuss the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre on our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost tour, every Saturday night, at 6pm.

If you have any comments on The Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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