By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
Former L.A. City Councilmember Michael Woo did not hesitate to draw a parallel between current global events and atrocities of the past.
“There are some horrible things happening in the world today. It may take years or decades, but someday, there will be justice.”
Woo’s remarks, alluding to the ongoing bloodshed in Israel and Gaza, came as part of Oct. 24 ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the 1871 massacre of Chinese residents in Downtown.
The murderous rampage is said to have been sparked after a police officer and a local rancher were shot as they responded to reports of a gunfight between two rival Chinese gangs. As word spread about the wounding of Officer Jesus Bilderain and the death of rancher Robert Thompson, a mob of some 500 white and Latino Angelenos, spurred on by racist rumors that Chinese immigrants were “killing whites wholesale,” stormed through what is now historic Chinatown, targeting anyone they could find who appeared to be of Chinese descent.
Homes and businesses were looted, and dozens were assaulted. At least 18 Chinese immigrants, including a 15-year-old boy, were tortured, shot and hanged. In at least three locations around the center of L.A.’s Downtown business district, bodies were found hanging from trees.
The five-hour rampage, which has been called the largest mass lynching in U.S. history, remains a relatively little-known part of Los Angeles history.
Eight men were convicted for their parts in the massacre and sentenced to state prison. However, a year later, the California State Supreme Court overturned the convictions on technicalities that included finding the verdict “fatally defective in that it failed to allege that [victim] Chee Long Tong was murdered.”
“Historical events like the Chinese Massacre of 1871 provide valuable lessons about the tradition of violence that contributed to the formation of the city and the state, and it informs contemporary issues that move us toward breaking that cycle,” said Rick Noguchi, California Humanities president and CEO. He said 152 years later, we still find ourselves confronting xenophobic attitudes that led to the murders of innocent residents.
“We must continue to be vigilant and insist that we belong,” he emphasized.
The memorial event was hosted by the Chinese American Museum at the Pico House, adjacent to historic Olvera Street. The event included a candlelight vigil and a reading of the names of each known victim.
Woo, who served as the first Asian American on the City Council from 1985 to 1993, provided an update on the plans for a monument that will feature tree sculptures dedicated to each victim, to be erected among live trees on the sidewalk just outside the museum on Los Angeles Street – where the massacre is believed to have begun. The first stage of the monument is expected to be completed in 2026.
In pre-recorded remarks, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, linked racist beliefs on display at the massacre with laws that sought to limit the rights of immigrants and non-whites.
“This ugly distrust is what led to the Chinese Exculsion Act,” she explained, referencing the 1882 federal law prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. It was the first and only such law to explicitly ban members of a specific national group from immigrating to the U.S.
Noguchi thanked the Chinese American Museum for organizing the commemoration each year, ensuring that this sordid part of the L.A. story is not forgotten.
“Knowledge is not only a source of understanding, it is a means of healing and reconciliation,” he said. “Reflecting on this heinous historical event will continue to help new generations to collectively grow where there’s the opportunity to learn from the past.”
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo