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Commemorating a Los Angeles massacre driven by anti-Chinese racism

  • Hao Huang (second from left), musician and professor of music at Scripps College, performing an original piece for the 150th commemoration of the 1871 Chinese massacre, with the Flower Pistils and the Chinese Music Ensemble at UCLA. (Photo: Barbra Ramos/ UCLA.)

  • Movement artist Young-Tseng Wong. (Photo: Barbra Ramos.)

  • Members of the Chinese Music Ensemble at UCLA performing at the commemoration. (Photo: UCLA/ Barbra Ramos.)

  • From left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, Congresswoman Judy Chu and Chinese American Museum Board of Directors Chair Gay Yuen were among the speakers at the downtown LA event. (Photo: Barbra Ramos/ UCLA.)

  • From left: Professors Min Zhou and Karen Umemoto of UCLA, Chinese American Museum Board of Directors Chair Gay Yuen, and Helen and Morgan Chu. (Photo: Barbra Ramos/ UCLA.)

UCLA, in partnership with the Chinese American Museum and Scripps College, commemorated the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles with a series of three events.

UCLA International Institute, October 28, 2021 — “Education is our most powerful weapon against racism and hate,” said Karen Umemoto, Helen and Morgan Chu Endowed Director’s Chair of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, said of UCLA’s weeklong commemoration of the 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles. Uememoto is professor of urban planning and Asian American studies at UCLA.

The UCLA commemoration spanned three events: a K–12 teachers’ training workshop, an in-person public event with livestreaming in downtown Los Angeles and an in-depth panel discussion. The program was spearheaded by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC) and UCLA Asia Pacific Center (APC), with support from the Chancellor’s Arts Initiative and cosponsorship with the UCLA History-Geography Project, Chinese American Museum and Scripps College.

One of the bloodiest attacks against Asians in U.S. history, the relatively unknown 1871 Chinese massacre in Los Angeles was the first in a series of race riots and killings that were documented in places like Rock Springs, Wyoming, San Francisco and other towns along the Pacific Coast.

It was in the midst of these attacks that the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented the emigration of all Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years (a time period that was subsequently extended through 1943) and denied Chinese living in the country a path toward naturalization for over 60 years.

A public elegy in words, music and movement

The public commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the LA Chinese massacre was held on Sunday, October 17 at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the organizing site of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown where the massacre took place.*

After remarks by a number of leading educators and officials — including UCLA Chancellor Gene Block; Professor Umemoto; Professor Min Zhou, director of APC; Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park); Gay Yuen, Ph.D., chairperson of the Chinese American Museum Board of Directors; Kevin de León, LA City Councilmember; and Arturo Chavez, manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles — the Chinese Music Ensemble at UCLA provided a musical prelude to the performance.

The featured performance by Hao Huang (concert musician, Bessie and Cecil Frankel Chair in Music at Scripps College and creator/narrator of the “Blood on Gold Mountain” podcast) followed. Huang was accompanied by the Psychopomp Contemporary Ensemble, with original songs by the Flower Pistils. Movement artist Young-Tseng Wong brought the story to life.

“The music, narration and body movement helped us travel back in time for a visceral glimpse of the horrific series of murders, a tragedy that repeated itself in different forms along the Pacific Coast and inland through the rest of the 19th century,” said Umemoto.

“The speakers’ remarks sent a resounding message at this critical moment in time that we will not tolerate bigotry, injustice and racist scapegoating of Asians or any group in our society.”

UCLA Chancellor Block signs the event program for Cathy Choi, president of the Guangdong Association in Los Angeles and a supporter
of APC, at the downtown event. UCLA Vice Provost Cindy Fan is visible in the background. (Photo: Min Zhou/ UCLA.) 

Educating teachers about the massacre

The performance was preceded by a professional development workshop for educators hosted by APC and the UCLA History-Geography Project. A group of 27 teachers met virtually to explore the 1871 massacre against the complexities of race, violence and vigilante justice that characterized early American Los Angeles, using a lesson developed for KCET’s “Lost LA.”

“The presentation connected the history of the 1871 massacre with the racism and anti-Asian hate that we see today, together with the social activism occurring to counter it,” said Elizabeth Leicester, executive director of APC.

“The workshop attracted educators from high schools, community colleges and universities from the Los Angeles region, as well as across the U.S. and even internationally. The teachers especially appreciated the strategies offered for guiding students through discussions about race in the classroom.”

Understanding the massacre as part of a history of anti-immigrant exclusion and violence

A panel discussion, “Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles: Reflecting on the Past to End Racial Violence,” moderated by professors Umemoto and Zhou brought the week to a close on Friday, October 22.

The panel featured Hao Huang; Eugene Moy, Chinese Historical Society of California community scholar and activist; and Hiroshi Motomura, Susan Westerberg Prager Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA.

Chinese began to immigrate to Los Angeles in small numbers in the mid-19th century, with their number reaching roughly 270 by the 1870s, said Moy.

“There was a schizophrenic attitude toward [the] Chinese population. On the one hand, you had people welcoming Chinese into their households. On the other hand, there were cries to fire all the Chinese or not hire Chinese. [It] was also a very violent environment, with the conglomeration of many cultures in the area.”

Physical clashes among Chinese who came from different parts of China were just one part of that violence. A shootout among Tong groups in the neighborhood surrounding Calle de los Negros sparked a riot on October 24, 1871. Some 19 Chinese men were killed, although details of the events and the number of dead remain inconclusive.

Moy said the massacre prompted the city of Los Angeles to come to grips with decades of vigilante justice. “In this case the city actually called [a] coroner's inquest, they called [a] grand jury [and] people were caught and indicted.” The convictions were, however, later overturned on a technicality.

Professor Huang noted that Chinese emigrants to America were the largest group of Asians in the country at the time and remained the consistent focus of prejudice and violence for a century.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted during a period of sustained violence against Chinese immigrants. “It the first federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality … [It was] definitely an outcome of years of racial hostility and anti-immigrant agitation by white Americans against Chinese,” said Huang.

“You … have these cartoons that depict Irish, German, Italian and African American citizens lynching a Chinese man in 1880,” said Huang. “And I can tell you from personal experience that there’s no way to make someone feel more American than beating up a Chinese guy.”

UCLA law professor Motomura put the anti-Chinese violence of the 19th century into the context of national and California legal history, describing an historical pattern of crimes against people of Asian ancestry in the U.S. He began by citing an 1854 decision of the California Supreme Court that held that people of Asian descent could not testify against a white person.

“That virtually guaranteed that whites would escape punishment for the kinds of anti-Asian violence [we're talking] about,” he said.

Attacks in the 20th century (and more recently) echo the anti-Chinese violence of the 19th century, with perpetrators expressing similar hatred inspired by economic fears and resentment.

Examples of this pattern, said Motomura, can be seen in the killing of 27-year-old Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 by two white men who blamed him for “the Japanese taking their jobs” and the sustained attacks against Vietnamese fishing boats along the Texas Gulf Coast organized by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s.

Immigration and citizenship laws in the U.S., explained the legal scholar, have functioned to enforce racialized quotas or controls that treat certain immigrants as disposable labor while offering them very few legal opportunities to work and live with their families in the U.S., while encouraging others to immigrate and enabling them to bring their family members to the country as well.

Citizenship laws in particular, whether regarding Chinese or immigrants from other parts of the world, “memorialize attitudes in a way that provides a license for vigilantes and for state and local governments,” he remarked.

“It’s really a very corrosive myth that immigration laws separate people from the outside from people on the inside,” he concluded. “What immigration laws actually do is ... favor some people who are already here and disfavor some people who are already here. So immigration laws in that sense enable discrimination.”

*The event and performance were made possible by the UCLA Chancellor’s Initiative on the Arts, with support from the UCLA Walter & Shirley Wang Endowed Chair’s Fund, Xiangli Chen China and Beyond Forum, Helen & Morgan Chu Chair's Fund and Stanley Kwok Lau and Dora Wong Lau Endowment.

Additional Resources on the 1871 Chinese Massacre:
> “Anti-Asian Racism in United States History,” by Professor Cecilia Tsu (UC Davis)
> KCET curriculum for “Lost LA” episode on Anti-Chinese Massacre of 1871
> Padlet for educators prepared by Miguel Sandoval De La Torre, history teacher, Ánimo Pat Brown
   Charter High School; and Teacher Leader for K–12 workshop

 Mediea coverage of the downtown LA event:
NBC News
> uschinapress.com

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Published: Thursday, October 28, 2021