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The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871by Scott Zesch
Synopses & Reviews
In October 1871, a simmering, small-scale turf war involving three Chinese gangs exploded into a riot that engulfed the small but growing town of Los Angeles. A large mob of white Angelenos, spurred by racial resentment, rampaged through the city and lynched some 18 people before order was restored.
In The Chinatown War, Scott Zesch offers a compelling account of this little-known event, which ranks among the worst hate crimes in American history. The story begins in the 1850s, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Los Angeles in the wake of the 1849 California gold rush. Upon arrival, these immigrants usually took up low-wage jobs, settled in the slum neighborhood of the Calle de los Negros, and joined one of a number of Chinese community associations. Though such associations provided job placement and other services to their members, they were also involved in extortion and illicit businesses, including prostitution. In 1870 the largest of these, the See-Yup Company, imploded in an acrimonious division. The violent succession battle that ensued, as well as the highly publicized torture of Chinese prostitute Sing-Ye, eventually provided the spark for the racially motivated riot that ripped through L.A. Zesch vividly evokes the figures and events in the See-Yup dispute, deftly situates the riot within its historical and political context, and illuminates the workings of the early Chinese-American community in Los Angeles, while simultaneously exploring issues that continue to trouble Americans today.
Engaging and deeply researched, The Chinatown War above all delivers a riveting story of a dominant American city and the darker side of its early days that offers powerful insights for our own time.
"In 1871, Los Angeles was a fraction the size of today's metropolis, but it was already a hotbed of crime and racial tension when conflict between rival Chinese gangs led to one of America's worst racial massacres. Despite a relatively small Chinese population, writes Zesch (The Captured), Los Angeles developed its own Chinatown, where life centered on the huiguan, fraternal organizations, and hard work in the burgeoning laundry business. Other immigrants joined tongs, or gangs, and engaged in less savory (and more violent) occupations like prostitution. A tug-of-war over a woman, Yut Ho, that culminated in a dead white man sparked white mob violence, resulting in 18 Chinese lynched on makeshift gallows. Zesch describes not only the structure of the Chinese community but the atmosphere, created by the Los Angeles elite, in which such a massacre could occur. In trials that gained national attention, eight rioters were found guilty, but their convictions were overturned. In this sobering look at racial hatred run rampant, Zesch doesn't draw easy parallels between this long-forgotten episode and today, but rightly underscores that 'remembrance is one way of restoring our blemished humanity.' Maps. Agent: Jim Hornfischer, Hornfischer Literary Management. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
In the peak postwar years of American Red-baiting, Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans were considered suspicious by the mainstream whether or not they were actually Communists. Far more than other immigrant or ethnic groups, Chinese Americans found that their political activism intersected with U.S. foreign policy, larger Asian American struggles for access to equal opportunity, the growth of Great Society programs, and the black civil rights movement, making for an exceptionally dense and fraught experience. This was particularly apparent in the two cities that saw the development of the largest and most prolific Chinese and Chinese American communities, New York and San Franciscoand#151;each of which saw Chinese American men and women form political clubs, campaign both secretly and openly for an array of local, state, and federal politicians, serve in both partiesand#8217; bureaucracies, and push for racial equality and access to social welfare programs. Brooks highlights the many facets of Chinese American political culture in the postwar decades. The Chinese American community of New York, a city with a tradition of radical and leftist politics, contained both the founders of the Chinese Anti-Communist League and the communist sympathizers who ran the China Daily News. San Franciscoand#8217;s outspoken Chinese American liberals, meanwhile, worked to forge multiracial coalitions and encourage voting and moderate activism. Across this spectrum, Brooks focuses not only on political activism but on the meanings of political involvement vis-and#224;-vis ethnic identity and Americanization.
During the Cold War, Chinese Americans struggled to gain political influence in the United States. Considered potentially sympathetic to communism, their communities attracted substantial public and government scrutiny, particularly in San Francisco and New York.
Between Mao and McCarthyand#160;looks at the divergent ways that Chinese Americans in these two cities balanced domestic and international pressures during the tense Cold War era. On both coasts, Chinese Americans sought to gain political power and defend their civil rights, yet only the San Franciscans succeeded. Forging multiracial coalitions and encouraging voting and moderate activism, they avoided the deep divisions and factionalism that consumed their counterparts in New York. Drawing on extensive research in both Chinese- and English-language sources, Charlotte Brooks uncovers the complex, diverse, and surprisingly vibrant politics of an ethnic group trying to find its voice and flex its political muscle in Cold War America.
About the Author
Scott Zesch is the author of The Captured, which won the 2007 Ray Allen Billington Award and TCU Texas Book Award. He lives in Mason County, Texas, and New York City.
Table of Contents
1. "Let them come and settle with us"
2. Bound Together by a Solemn Oath
3. Daughters of the Sun and Moon
4. The Chinese Must Go
5. Hating Each Other Like Christians
6. The Night of Horrors
7. An Unpleasant Promincence
8. "We may hope at least to see partial justice done"
Epilogue: It Will be Forgotten in a Brief Time
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