With the exception of a small bronze plaque on a downtown sidewalk, Los Angeles shows very few traces of a massacre that took place there 150 years ago – one of the worst in US history.
Michael Woo, who in 1985 became the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council, says he never heard about the 1871 Chinese massacre growing up, despite being born and raised in the city. It wasn’t taught at school, it didn’t appear in history books and it seemed to him that no one in the city’s Chinese American community knew about it either.
It wasn’t until 2012 when Woo was invited by the Los Angeles Times to review a book about the massacre that he learned about that dark chapter in his city’s history.
“It was shocking,” Woo, who is now retired from politics, said. “It had a huge effect on me because I couldn’t figure out why I’d never heard about it.”
Los Angeles in the 19th century was a Wild West town of under 6,000 residents with a reputation for lawlessness and vigilantism. On October 24, 1871, a gunfight broke out between two rival factions of the city’s small Chinese community and as police officers tried to break up the argument, one of them was killed. Word soon spread that Chinese men had killed a White man and soon after, a mob of about 500 people descended on Chinatown, looting and burning homes and businesses and killing around 18 Chinese people – about 10% of the city’s Chinese population at the time, according to Woo and historic records.
Woo is now one of several local leaders in Los Angeles involved in an effort to build an ambitious memorial to the 1871 massacre. The proposed project has taken on a new urgency given the surge of violence against Asian Americans brought on by the pandemic, as well as the deadly Atlanta spa shootings earlier this year, he said.
“This anti-Asian sentiment in the United States caused some people to start to realize that the massacre in Los Angeles in some ways laid the foundation for later violence,” Woo said.
The 1871 massacre wasn’t an isolated incident. It took place during a time of heightened violence, xenophobia and discrimination against Asians in the US, many of whom had come over as laborers during the Gold Rush and had since started working in other low-level jobs. Woo and other local leaders feel that this piece of their city’s history bears reflection, given recent violent events.
Leaders want the memorial to be more than a statue
In April of this year, a working group commissioned by Mayor Eric Garcetti to examine how Los Angeles might better reckon with its history recommended that the city work to commemorate the 1871 massacre. In July, Garcetti and councilmember Kevin de León established a committee of more than 60 people, including Woo, to begin considering how exactly the event might be memorialized.
Last week, that committee – formally known as the 1871 Memorial Steering Committee – released a report offering suggestions on how the story of the massacre might be told through a memorial.
The committee was clear that they wanted to go beyond just a traditional statue. Since the events of the massacre took place at several locations throughout the city, they proposed a memorial spread across multiple sites. It could be connected by a walking tour or involve digital technology that would allow visitors to use their smartphones to learn about the significance of each site.
“We’re very committed to making this a world class memorial – something that people will really want to see, which includes not just physical monuments but is very effective in telling the story about the violence,” Woo said. “[We want] people to see that this is not only about the past, that it’s about something very current in terms of the overlapping of race and violence that is still a big problem in America today.”
Los Angeles has committed $250,000 toward the project, which Woo said will go toward funding a design competition that will allow artists to propose ideas for the memorial. That process is set to begin early next year and it will likely be several more years until the project is completed, Woo said.
“Los Angeles is making a long overdue apology and step toward healing with this memorial,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement to CNN on Monday. “We’re also affirming that this is a city of belonging and we will never again tolerate violence directed against our Asian-American communities.”
The planned memorial to the 1871 Chinese massacre comes as communities across the country are reckoning with their histories: what events have been memorialized, what events have been omitted and how they might imagine fuller, more truthful accounts. At the same time, students, educators and lawmakers have been pushing for Asian American studies to be taught as part of K-12 curricula.