This opinion piece by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Geography and Environmental Sciences Professor Reece Jones first ran in The Washington Post on October 24, 2021.
The phrase “mass lynching” generally reminds us of thousands of violent acts of racial terror committed against African Americans, mostly in the Deep South, between the end of the Civil War and the late 20th century.
But one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of the United States, which occurred 150 years ago Sunday, happened in Los Angeles and targeted Chinese immigrants. On October 24, 1871, a mob of White and Hispanic Angelenos rampaged through the Chinese quarter of the city, burning buildings and attacking residents. When the dust settled, 17 Chinese men had been lynched in a fit of racist violence that presaged the coming Chinese exclusion laws and pogroms across the American West to drive out remaining Chinese residents.
The treatment of the Chinese in the late 19th century is often forgotten today, but without it, one can’t fully understand the era or its lingering legacies. The violence of white supremacy in the United States, which was grounded in anti-Blackness, also upheld the color line against other groups, including Native Americans and non-White immigrants. Revisiting the history of Chinese exclusion, the broader extent of white supremacist violence in the 19th century becomes clear.
In 1830, the U.S. Census recorded only three Chinese people living in the entire United States. However, after the United States gained control over significant Western territory after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the discovery of gold in 1848, opportunity seekers from China joined the global migration to California. There were no national rules about who could immigrate from abroad to the United States, so the Chinese, along with all others, were free to come. In 1851, 2,716 people arrived from China, while the following year, that number shot up to 20,026. However, what they found in the wilds of California was not an open and welcoming country.
Already by late 1849, the California gold fields were crowded with prospectors and depleted of treasure. Frustrated miners from the eastern United States blamed their lack of success on increased competition from Chinese miners, while laborers, including unlucky miners, accused Chinese workers of undercutting their wages. White residents blamed Chinese immigrants for bringing vices such as prostitution and opium, and they fretted that newcomers might be the vanguard of a Chinese “invasion” of North America.
Pushed by nativists, the state and local governments of California instituted laws designed to discourage Chinese immigration beginning in 1852 and continuing through the 1880s, even as the constitutionality of those laws was questionable. In 1849, the Supreme Court had struck down immigration laws imposed by Massachusetts and New York in a ruling known as the Passenger Cases, finding that only the federal government could impose restrictions on immigration.
Still, the California laws not only included rules to prevent the entry of Chinese people but also measures to make life difficult for the Chinese already in California. These included taxes on foreign miners, the exclusion of Chinese children from public schools and even bans on Chinese-style haircuts and the use of gongs at ceremonies. Despite these laws, the Chinese population grew to over 100,000 people by 1880 and accounted for about 10 percent of the population in California. Chinese residents often concentrated in the safety of burgeoning Chinatowns in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Official and popular antagonism toward Chinese people boiled over in Los Angeles on a cool October evening in 1871. As the sun went down, Chien Lee Tong was finishing his day’s work in his small storefront office in L.A.’s Chinese Quarter. Tong was the city’s only Chinese doctor who treated patients using traditional Chinese medicine.
There was tension in the air as Tong tidied his office before heading to his residence in the same building. Over the preceding days, two rival Chinese businessmen, Yo Hing and Sam Yuen, were engaged in an escalating conflict, which had resulted in multiple police visits to the Chinese Quarter. On the evening of Oct. 21, Jesus Bilderrain, one of only six police officers in Los Angeles, was having a drink in Higby’s saloon when he heard a gunshot. He rushed to the Chinese Quarter to investigate but was shot in the shoulder by an unknown Chinese assailant. When a rancher named Robert Thompson came to the officer’s aid, he was shot and killed.
As word spread of the shootings of Bilderrain and Thompson inside the Chinese Quarter, a mob of 500 White and Hispanic residents, almost 10 percent of Los Angeles’s population at the time, descended on the district, looking for revenge against those they assumed responsible. A New York Times report described the crowd as targeting Chinese residents, “determined to clean them out of the City.” Los Angeles’s few police officers retreated from the scene as they watched the mob’s size and rage grow.
Chinese residents, including Tong, barricaded themselves in buildings. By the time the mob arrived, the feuding men involved in the original shooting had fled. Only bystanders from the community remained. But the mob was whipped into a frenzy and out for blood, seeing any and all Chinese residents as suspect.
Men in the mob grabbed axes from a nearby dry goods store and methodically chopped holes in the roofs of the buildings and then shot inside at random. As wounded Chinese men stumbled out, a White woman watching the riot began to shout “Hang them!” and offered some twine for a noose. A 10-year-old boy ran back to a shop and returned with ropes for a lynching.
Tong hid in his shop in the Coronel Building hoping to avoid the carnage surrounding him. When the mob found him and dragged him out into the street, he begged for his life, wagering that his station in society would spare him. He desperately offered $3,000 cash and the diamond ring on his finger in exchange for mercy. Instead, a man in the crowd shot him in the mouth to shut him up and cut off his finger to take the ring. Meanwhile, someone else removed Tong’s pants in search of the $3,000. Tong’s desecrated body hung from the wagon shop roof, and then the mob rigged up ropes on two covered wagons for their other victims. In just a few hours, all of the Chinese businesses in the city were looted and destroyed and 17 Chinese men had been lynched in a cataclysm of racist violence.
The L.A. Massacre was only the first major incident of anti-Chinese violence in the United States, and it would be followed by riots, arson and murder in other cities in the West in the years that followed. Across the American West, people of small towns and cities banded together to forcibly and violently drive out Chinese residents.
Rather than move to curb this racial violence, Congress responded to anti-Chinese movements in the West by banning most Chinese immigration to the United States through the Page Act of 1875 and then the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While in 1880 there were over 100,000 people of Chinese ancestry in the United States, by 1920 the number fell to only about 60,000, in part because of new immigration restrictions but also because many Chinese people left the United States, some returning to China, while many more sought safety across the border in Mexico and Canada.
Blanket restrictions on Chinese immigration stayed in place well into the 20th century. In fact, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained law until 1943, when, during World War II, the United States repealed it as a gesture to China, an important ally in the war against Japan. Even after the act was taken off the books, however, the United States allowed just 105 immigrants from China per year. In 1965, this cap was finally lifted.
The history of anti-Chinese violence and exclusion does not comport with popular ideas about the United States as a nation that has long-welcomed immigrants. Anti-Chinese sentiment, exhibited both through policies and racist violence, was a crucial element of 19th and 20th century American history. An accurate understanding of this past requires acknowledging and learning this history. Doing so helps explain the enduring issue of anti-Asian violence, which has new visibility during the coronavirus pandemic, as hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased by 164 percent. The Los Angeles Massacre and the violence of the Chinese Exclusion era remind us that today’s anti-Asian bigotry is not a new phenomenon, but part of a much longer history of racist xenophobia in the United States.
—Reece Jones is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Hawaiʻi, and the author of White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall.