Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre

The Chinatown Massacre of 1871, one of the largest mass lynchings in US history

Los Angeles has a lot of fascinating history – many great things have happened here – but, then again, a lot of VERY bad things have taken place here too and one of the things we strongly believe in at The Real Los Angeles Tours is talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of the baddest and ugliest episodes in our history is the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre. A horrible tale of corruption, greed, lust, mass murder and racism, it shines a light on the nature of life in LA during its early, Wild West, years and also teaches us the dangers of singling out a section of the population of a country and blaming it for whatever ills exist in that society. We’ve seen a lot of this type of rhetoric in recent years, and history tells us that it’s highly dangerous when it happens. However history only teaches us when we listen to it – and learn from it.

Background to the Chinatown Massacre

The small farming pueblo that Los Angeles was then had only recently celebrated its 90th anniversary on the night of the massacre. In that time it had passed from being in the territory of Spain, to Mexico and then, in 1848, to the United States. Throughout that time it had been a pretty unremarkable place that was pretty much unknown outside Southern California. That was about to change, because of the awful events of October 24, 1871. 

Los Angeles in 1870

LA in those days was the wildest place in the West (as wells as being the Westest). At least forty-four murders were reported here in the year or so up to the massacre – the highest per capita murder rate EVER recorded in the U.S.

There was a street running North 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 houses and dive bars. It was part of “old” 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.

Chinese had begun moving here in the 1850’s mostly to work in the gold fields, or 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 societies, called Tongs (which simply means ‘meeting hall’), that would give them much needed help and support, but over time some of these Tongs became criminal enterprises.

Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad

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, probably to use her as a sex-slave in a brothel in Chinatown. Her brother Choy set off in pursuit, with some of his friends, to get her back. They took a ship to San Pedro and then tracked her down to a property belonging to rival Tong leader Yo Hing, in 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.

The other account goes like this. There was a gunfight, 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). Nevertheless 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 called the Coronel.

Now, word of that gold, just sitting in Yuen’s shop, spread around the bars and parlor houses of the small town like wildfire. On top of this it’s important to understand that the Chinese were hated and feared in equal measure and – it gets even better – the Chinese were forbidden by California law from testifying against white people. It’s almost certain that Thompson and a Sheriff’s Deputy, called Bilderrain, decided to go to Yuen’s shop to steal the money, which is when Thompson was shot.

Mob Justice in Los Angeles

Either way, it was the signal for all hell to break loose. The bars and brothels emptied as a mob five-hundred strong formed and hurried over to Chinatown. They surrounded the Coronel, eventually climbing onto the roof, hacking holes in it and firing guns into the interior. Finally, the Chinese men inside surrendered. They were dragged out and 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 – take it and spare his life. 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 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! Eventually, when the orgy of violence was finally over, twenty Chinese men and boys had been murdered.

Legacy of LA 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 Frenchman, by the name of Michel Lachenais, had been hung by an angry mob 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 all the East Coast newspapers and that was considered worse. LA was lobbying for the Transcontinental railroad to stop here 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 and as quickly as possible the curtains were drawn over the whole affair. Five years later the railroad reached Los Angeles and it began its rapid ascent.

Now the 101 Freeway runs through part of the old Chinatown and most of the rest was knocked down to build Union Station. However the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles is located on part of the footprint of the Coronel and it has a section devoted to the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre, reminding 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.

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.

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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