On a chilly October night in 1871, in a western part of Los Angeles home to about 5,000 souls, two rival Tong clans in Chinatown found themselves in the middle of a dispute over a prostitute. During the quarrel, a shot rang out. In the middle of the street, Robert Thompson, a local rancher lay dead with a single gunshot wound to the chest.
By morning, 17 to 20 Chinese men and boys would join Thompson, after they were tortured and hanged by mob of over 500 men angered by the rancher’s accidental death.
This notorious event would come to be known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in American history. In its aftermath, ten men would be charged with manslaughter, and eight would be convicted. All eight would be acquitted on a technicality, released without spending a single minute within San Quentin prison.
A commemoration marking the day of this day of infamy in Los Angeles is planned at Father Serra Park across from Union Station. The Chinese suffered badly in California from 1857 to 1943 under the Chinese Exclusion Act. But in spite of their long and difficult past, many Chinese American decedents of these first immigrants have gone onto achieve a measure of success as both Californians and Americans. So, I’ve been asking myself the question: What exactly would this memorial be memorializing?
As an ancestor of a Chinese American immigrant myself, I realized I needed to investigate my own family story.
My maternal great grandfather immigrated to Northern California in 1892 at the peak of the anti-Chinese hysteria. He worked on the inter-continental railroad, then later opened a laundry near Stockton, California. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act’s moratorium on the immigration of Chinese women to the United States, he had two choices: 1. go back to China to find a wife and try and immigrate back into the US later (thereby renouncing his ability to become an American citizen), or 2. stay in this new country as a bachelor.
The call to start a family was too great. He left the United States to return to China in the early 1910’s to marry my great-grandmother. He would return to California in the early 1920’s with his teenage son, my grandfather.
My grandfather would have six sons and a single daughter – my mother. Because Chinese were not able to own land in California, any business my grandfather would establish would be dependent upon white landowners, who would raise their rents to take all of his profits. In desperation, he would move the family away from Stockton and into San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Great Depression would leave deep scars as my grandfather struggled to support his family in the slum. My mother would suffer from malnutrition as a child and would be taken away from the family for months on end.
In World War II, my grandfather’s nephew would die of his injuries fighting for the US Army in France. My uncles would fight in both Korea and Vietnam on the front lines. They would return home to be become shopkeepers, butchers, a career military officer, and a laborer. Their children would go onto college to later become engineers, workers in the technology field, real estates agents, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and one landscape architect. My cousins and I would live our lives as Californians, contributing to the economy, helping to build the state into what it is today. Their children continue to follow these footsteps.
Ultimately, I am grateful that my great-great-grandfather did not decide to immigrate to Los Angeles 20 years earlier only to be dragged out from his home, beaten, stabbed, and finally hanged in Chinatown’s Calle de los Negros back in 1871 (razed and rebuilt into what is now known as Los Angeles St.).
So, I found the answer to my question: A memorial at Father Serra Park is not only to commemorate the dead, but to acknowledge the accomplishments of the four generations that followed their undeserved deaths. We’d later become lawyers, doctors, teachers, shop keepers…even a landscape architect or two. The memorial acts as a reminder to all immigrants that the country they see as a beacon of freedom and equality is not always so
In many ways, the United States’ record in immigrant relations is a broken record playing the same sorrowful song, over and over again with different singers: the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and Muslims. It is up to us – the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants – to remind our country that we are here working and fighting for the United States. We are – and always have been – the engine that makes America great.