An L.A. mob once killed 18 Chinese people. Now, a push for a memorial

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

A firefight at around 4 p.m. on October 24, 1871 sparked what is believed to be the deadliest example of racial violence on record in the city – the Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles.

Hundreds made up the mostly white mob that invaded what is now downtown Los Angeles. They beat, shot or hanged any Chinese they saw at random.

“Then every rickety shack in Chinatown was ransacked. ‘Guys, help yourselves’ was the cry.” according to a report on the lynchings published by The Times in 1999.

The violence left at least 18 Chinese dead, an estimated 9% of LA’s Chinese population, at a time when the city’s population was barely 5,700. The victims included the only doctor in the Chinese community, Dr. Gene Tong.

The news made national headlines and marked the City of Angels as a frontier city steeped in violence and lawlessness. Embarrassed city leaders built up 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 accused of bulldozing its history, the area of ​​the massacre has been sanitized and the Chinese community rebuilt elsewhere.

Today this story is largely forgotten.

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

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

Mayor Eric Garcetti, the city’s Department of Culture, Councilman Kevin de León’s Office and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument on Friday issued a call for proposals to develop a memorial to the victims of the 1871 Chinese Massacre.

“We … are waking up to the fact that so much of US history is covert history, or underreported history, or inaccurate history,” said Gay Yuen, executive chairman of the Friends of the Sino-American Museum. “This story is our story. It is who we are and what we are. This memorial is important because it allows us to unfold and point out a section of US history, LA history, that has been buried for 150 years.”

Friday’s idea request is the culmination of a year-long effort for community engagement that has emerged from recommendations in 2021 Overdue report by the mayor’s office’s Civic Memory Working Group, according to a statement from Garcetti’s office.

The mayor’s office announced that the first conceptual proposals for the memorial would be submitted by October 12. A jury of art and design experts will evaluate the submissions and select up to five artists or teams, each receiving a $15,000 grant, to further develop their concepts and present them publicly.

According to Friday’s announcement, city officials will select a finalist during the week of March 13, 2023.

“Our Chinese and Chinese-American communities — then and now — are critical threads in the weave of our rich cultural tapestry,” Garcetti said in a statement. “The 1871 massacre of innocent lives is a stain on our history that no memorial can even begin to erase. This memorial will serve as a public memorial to the lives lost and a warning against senseless violence in our own communities.”

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

Creating a memorial is necessary to honor the lives lost, to become a city that makes transparent the shameful parts of its history, and to reconcile 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 Council member Michael Woo has long been an advocate of a memorial to the massacre.

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

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

Project leaders hope to create a design that speaks to the general public, not just the Chinese American and Asian American communities, about racist 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 asking for proposals for memorials at two main sites within the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument where the massacre occurred, according to documents provided by the city on Friday.

Respondents can choose one of the two primary locations, as well as any number of secondary locations related to the murders, which according to the documents will be linked as a walking tour, audio guide, landscape design, QR code, or through other interpretive means.

Though some of the secondary sites were scenes of violence, others mark places where Chinese fleeing the massacre were offered sanctuary by Angelenos, who opened their homes or property, city officials said.

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

He hopes the monument will help Angelenos understand the connection between their city today and that history.

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

The city has provided $250,000 to help emerging artists and those who would otherwise lack the funds to participate, she said. While the funding will not be enough to build the memorial, it will cover $15,000 in grants for each of the five shortlisted artists or teams.

The city government also does not charge any submission fees in order to reduce the financial burden on the artists, according to the idea request.

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

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

For more information about the project, how to submit a submission, and submission deadlines, visit the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs at An L.A. mob once killed 18 Chinese people. Now, a push for a memorial

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