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Los Angeles to recognize 1871 Chinese Massacre

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-29 10:25

The lives of at least 18 Chinese, including a teenager boy and doctor, were tragically cut short during an October afternoon 151 years ago. They were either shot or hanged as an angry mob of around 500 people descended upon Chinatown to take revenge on the accidental shooting of a white man.

The 1871 massacre wiped out close to 10 percent of the small Chinese population living in Los Angeles at the time. Historians estimated that nearly 1 in 10 of the roughly 5,700 residents in the city participated in the slaughter.

For a long time, this dark chapter in the city's history was little known, even to locals in the city. It wasn't taught in history books. A sidewalk plaque in downtown Los Angeles serves as the only reminder of the violent episode.

Los Angeles is reconciling with its past through a plan for a memorial to remember the buried history of the brutal attack against the Chinese.

Plans for the memorial came at a time of heightened violence against Asians amid anti-Chinese political rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers hope the memorial will make more people aware of the massacre and learn from its past.

"The new memorial seeks to simultaneously raise public awareness of the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles and to address contemporary concerns about race, intolerance and violence. It strives to tell the story of the little-known largest mass killing in Los Angeles history but also to convey a broader, more universal message," read a "request for ideas" proposal that the city released in August.

AAPI Equity Alliance, a coalition of community-based organizations working to advance the rights of Asian American and Pacific Islander community in LA and beyond, released the following statement to China Daily.

"The 1871 Chinese Massacre is a dark stain on our community and history. Many of our members are involved in the steering committee to develop a memorial to the victims and we feel the significance of this memorial will be a reminder of a tragic history largely forgotten," it added.

Michael Woo, who became the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1985, said he didn't hear a word about the massacre as an Angeleno born and raised in Los Angeles.

Neither his parents nor grandparents told him about the massacre. It wasn't taught in schools or mentioned in the media or history books, Woo said in an essay he wrote as part of the How Should Societies Remember Their Sins? project supported by the Mellon Foundation.

"LA's barbaric treatment of the Chinese in 1871 was met not with official condemnations or apologies, but with muffled silence. And then forgetting. To the extent that they knew about 1871, older generations of Asian Americans may have chosen not to dwell on negative stories from the past," said Woo.

According to Woo, the idea for the memorial was hatched in April 2021 after the mayor's office released a report with recommendations to better reckon with the city's past. A committee of about 60 people, known as the 1871 Memorial Steering Committee was formed as a result.

On Aug 19, the committee released its request for ideas, which seeks to get architectural ideas not only from established firms, but also from individual artists and designers. The proposal deadline is Oct 12. The artist/team or firm to develop the memorial will be announced during the week of March 13, 2023.

Los Angeles has allocated $250,000 to jump-start the design competition for the memorial.

During last year's commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of the massacre, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti apologized on behalf of the city of roughly 3.9 million people. He also called for a memorial to the victims in his state of the city address.

"Our Chinese and Chinese American communities — then and now — are critical threads in the fabric of our rich cultural tapestry,"' Garcetti said.

"The 1871 massacre of innocent lives is a stain in our history that no monument can begin to erase. This memorial will serve as a public commemoration of the lives lost and a warning against senseless violence within our own communities," he said.

The deadly attacks occurred amid anti-Chinese sentiment that resulted in part from increased immigration of Chinese during the Gold Rush. The new immigrants were scapegoated for problems such as low wages and taking jobs from white workers.

In the late afternoon of Oct 24, 1871, a gunfight broke out between two rival factions of the Chinese community. A local rancher and former saloon owner, Robert Thompson, attempted to intervene but was accidentally shot and later died from his wounds.

Soon after words circulated that a white man had been killed, a mob of 500 people descended upon the tiny Chinese community. They burned down homes and looted from Chinese-owned businesses.

"Chinese were hauled from their hiding places and forced into the street where the unfortunates were instantly seized by others outside, and ropes quickly encircled their necks," according to an eyewitness account published by The New York Times a few weeks after the attack.

Nine men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to terms of two to six years. A year later, all perpetrators were released due to an alleged technical flaw in the indictments.

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