1871 Anti-Chinese Massacre

Los Angeles today is having many community discussions related to race, conflict, and social justice. Tonight marks the 149th anniversary of one of the most significant events in our city’s history. During the 1850s and 1860s, many families in Los Angeles had Chinese household help: people who worked as cooks, servants, and gardeners. Some Chinese residents started their own businesses in the growing downtown of Los Angeles, such as Chun Chick, who opened a store in 1861, and Dr. Chee Long (or Gene) Tong, who started advertising in the local newspaper in 1870. Dr. Tong was a respected herbalist, providing remedies and therapies to support the health of local Americans. The United States Census of 1870 placed 171 Chinese people living in the City of Los Angeles. Most lived in the “Chinese quarter” south and east of the Old Plaza. Los Angeles in 1871 was in transition, economically, socially, and politically. Local government was in place but not well disciplined. Gambling, drinking, fighting, and shootings were common. Vigilante groups would mete out mob “justice,” sometimes breaking into the city jail and hauling off hapless victims—innocent or guilty—to be hanged or beaten. Internal conflicts within and among groups were sometimes settled peacefully, and frequently not. The Chinese were harassed for being labor competitors, for their race and culture, and for being “different.” On the afternoon of October 24, 1871, a shootout between two groups of Chinese residents just south of the plaza drew the attention of the small Los Angeles police force. Officer Jesus Bilderrain was wounded in the crossfire. A local rancher and former saloon owner, Robert Thompson, attempted to intervene, even though he was told to stay away. He shot into a Chinese store in which there was an active shooting scene, got hit by return fire, and died an hour later. In the two hours that followed, an angry mob killed a total of 18 Chinese people who were pulled from the Chinese quarter and shot, beaten, or hanged. One of the victims was Dr. Tong; one was a teenage boy. Other victims included cooks, a storekeeper, and a laundryman. None were involved in the earlier shooting. This event of terror hit newspapers across the nation. Los Angeles dutifully called a coroner’s inquest. Indictments followed, and then a trial by jury, and nine men were convicted of manslaughter. All were sentenced—for terms of two to six years—and sent to San Quentin State Prison. A year later, all were released due to an alleged technical flaw in the indictments. Tonight, 149 years later, we ask if justice was served. Our city continues to grapple with how to resolve race and class conflicts and social imbalances. Obviously, a lot of public dialogue and negotiation is needed. We must honor the people, the early Angelenos, who lived and worked in our community, and whose names should not— and must not—be forgotten. 

Excerpted from remarks made by Eugene W. Moy at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles on October 24, 2020. Moy is a native of L.A.’s Chinatown and a fourth-generation Californian and has been an active member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the Chinese American Museum, and other organizations. October of 2021 will mark 150 years since the massacre.

Looking east down Calle de los Negros toward the plaza, Los Angeles, 1882. Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Massacre Victims (list may be incomplete)

+ Johnny Burrow, shot to death in Coronel Building

+ Wing Chee, cook, shot and hanged from a wagon on Commercial Street

+ Wong Chin, storekeeper, hanged from a wagon on Commercial Street

+ Ah Cut, liquor maker, shot to death on Calle de Los Negros

+ Wan Foo, cook, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Lo Hey, cook, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Ho Hing, cook, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Day Kee, cook, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Ah Long, cigar maker, hanged at Tomlinson’s Corral

+ Ah Loo, teenager, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Leong Quai, laundryman, hanged at Tomlinson’s Corral

+ Wa Sin Quai, shot to death in Coronel Building

+ Dr. Chee Long Tong, herbalist and physician, shot and hanged at Tomlinson’s Corral, body mutilated

+ Ah Waa, cook, hanged at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Chang Wan, housemate of Dr. Chee Long Tong, hanged at Tomlinson’s Corral

+ Tong Wan, cook and musician, beaten, hanged, and shot at Goller’s wagon shop

+ Ah Wing, worked in Pico House Hotel, beaten and hanged at Tomlinson’s Corral

+ Ah Won, cook, hanged from a wagon on Commercial Street 

Anti-Chinese Massacre Trial Results and Timeline

February 14, 1872 Quong Wong, Ah Ying Acquitted of murder of Ah Choy, San Francisco tong fighter

February 17, 1872 L. F. “Curly” Crenshaw Convicted of manslaughter

March 27, 1872 Adolfo Celis, Dan W. Moody Acquitted of manslaughter

March 27, 1872 Esteban A. Alvarado, Charles Austin, Refugio Botello, A. R. Johnston, Jesus Martinez, Patrick M. McDonald, Louis Mendel Convicted of manslaughter

May 21, 1872 California Supreme Court reverses convictions, killers released from San Quentin State Prison Reversal order signed by Judge Robert Widney June 10, 1873

November 1872 Sam Yuen Acquitted in death of Robert Thompson 

Fatalities and trial results compiled from Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).