An LA mob once killed 18 Chinese people. Now a push for a memorial

This happened in the early days of Los Angeles, when the city was a dusty, violent frontier town.

An eruption of gunfire around 4 p.m. on October 24, 1871 sparked what is believed to be the deadliest instance of racial violence ever recorded in the city – the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre.

Hundreds of people made up the largely white crowd that descended on what is now downtown Los Angeles. They blindly beat, shot or hung any Chinese they saw.

“Then all the ramshackle slums in Chinatown were looted. “Boys, help yourself,” was the cry, according to an account of the lynchings published by The Times in 1999.

The spasm of violence left at least 18 Chinese, or about 9% of Los Angeles’ Chinese population, dead at a time when the city was registering just 5,700 people. Among the victims was the Chinese community’s only doctor, Dr. Gene Tong.

The news made national headlines, marking the City of Angels as a frontier town plagued by violence and lawlessness. Embarrassed city leaders established the police department and attempted to restore the rule of law. Eight of the attackers were tried but eventually released, and a small sum was paid to the Chinese government as an apology.

But in a city long blamed for bulldozing its history, the area of ​​the massacre has been redeveloped and the Chinese community rebuilt in another location.

Today, this story is largely forgotten.

A bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk outside the Chinese American Museum on Los Angeles Street is a rare memorial. It’s smaller than a pizza box.

More than 150 years later, city officials have issued a public call for ideas to commemorate this history.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Office of Councilman Kevin de León and the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Landmark issued a call Friday for ideas to develop a memorial to the victims of the Chinese massacre of 1871.

“We are … realizing that much of the history of the United States is covered history or underreported history or inaccurate history,” said Gay Yuen, chairman of the board of directors of Friends of the Chinese American Museum. “This story is our story. It’s who we are and what we are. This memorial is important because it allows us to uncover and point to a segment of United States history, of Los Angeles history, that has been buried for 150 years.

Friday’s call for ideas is the culmination of a year-long community engagement effort that stemmed from the recommendations of the 2021 Late payment report of the mayor’s office civic memory task force, according to a statement from Garcetti’s office.

Officials aim to have initial design proposals for the memorial by Oct. 12, the mayor’s office said. A panel of arts and design experts will evaluate submissions and select up to five artists or teams who will each receive a $15,000 stipend to further develop their concepts and present them publicly.

City officials will select a finalist the week of March 13, 2023, according to Friday’s announcement.

“Our Chinese and Chinese-American communities — then and now — are critical threads in the fabric of our rich cultural tapestry,” Garcetti said in a statement. “The massacre of innocent lives of 1871 is a stain on 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.

Councilman Kevin de León, whose district includes all of the areas where the massacre took place, called the violence “one of the most savage and horrific events in our city’s history.”

Creating a memorial is necessary to honor lost lives, become a city transparent about the shameful parts of its history, and come to terms with that past, De León said.

“We owe it to all Angelenos to be honest about our past — the good and the bad,” he said.

Former City Councilman Michael Woo has long been an advocate for a memorial to the massacre.

The community is very grateful that the time has come to consider this part of Los Angeles history, Woo said.

“The fact that the city of LA is really stepping up, not just with symbolism but with financial commitment, means a lot to Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans,” he said. declared.

Project leaders hope a design will emerge that speaks to the general public, not just the Chinese-American and Asian-American communities, about racial violence, said Woo, who co-chairs the steering committee with Yuen and three others.

The memorial, he said, will not just be a statue on a pedestal.

The steering committee is calling for proposals for memorials at two main sites in Los Angeles’ El Pueblo Historic Landmark, where the massacre took place, according to documents provided by the city on Friday.

Respondents can choose one of two main sites as well as any number of secondary sites related to the murders, which will be linked as a walking tour, audio guide, landscaping, QR code or by any another means of interpretation, according to the documents. .

Although some of the secondary sites were sites of violence, others mark where Chinese fleeing the massacre were offered refuge by Angelenos who opened their homes or properties, city officials said. .

“The 1871 massacre was not only the greatest massacre of Chinese people in California history, but the greatest massacre of any kind in the history of Los Angeles,” Woo said. “LA in the 1870s was considered a Wild West town. It was one of the most lawless places west of Arizona and New Mexico. It’s hard to imagine what it was. »

He hopes the memorial will help Angelenos understand the connection between their current city and this history.

Yuen said she and the other committee members hope to get submissions from a variety of artists and businesses, and not limit the project to those with significant wealth and resources.

The city has set aside $250,000 to help emerging artists and those who otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to participate, she said. Although the funding will not be enough to build the memorial, it will cover stipends of $15,000 for each of the five shortlisted artists or teams.

City officials are also not charging a submission fee in an effort to ease the financial burden on artists, according to the Call for Ideas.

Garcetti called for the memorial during his 2021 State of the City address and delivered the first official apology on behalf of the city during an Oct. 24 vigil at the Chinese American Museum.

To accompany the city-sponsored memorial, Yuen said she secured $2 million in state funding for a unity garden at one of the massacre sites.

For more information about the project, how to submit a submission, and submission deadlines, visit the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs at

Los Angeles Times

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