Remembering a Victim of an Anti-Asian Attack, a Hundred and Fifty Years Later

Los Angeles, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, was an isolated and rough-hewn town, known for its lawlessness and disorder. A small population of Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province made their way there, working as laundrymen, or as household cooks and servants; some leased small plots of land to farm vegetables that they then peddled from one-horse wagons. Most settled on a squalid stub of a street, near the former city center, called Calle de los Negros. The name originated during the period when the city was still governed by Mexico, apparently a reference to the dark-skinned inhabitants of the thoroughfare. American settlers who came later referred to it as “Nigger Alley.” It was a narrow dirt byway, no more than five hundred feet long, notorious for violence and vice, populated by gambling halls, brothels, and saloons that sold beer for five cents. A newspaper account described the neighborhood as “the chosen abode of the pariahs of society.”

At the street’s southern end was a crumbling, low-slung adobe building that belonged to Antonio Francisco Coronel, a Mexican settler who became the city’s fourth mayor, in 1853. Coronel divided the one-story building into separate storefronts, from which various Chinese merchants ran their businesses, and where many also lived. It was here that Chee Long Tong, a popular herbal-medicine doctor who was known as Dr. Gene Tong, maintained an office, with a signboard hanging outside. Census records and contemporaneous accounts suggest that Tong was in his twenties or thirties. He spoke good English and was an unusually enterprising businessman. He had previously operated a store on Main Street, in a house belonging to William Abbott, a furniture dealer. Tong advertised his services to white clientele, in the Los Angeles Daily News, as a “Chinese physician” and as an employment agent who could furnish “farmers, gardeners, cooks, etc.” Chinese immigrants at the time were overwhelmingly male, but Tong lived in the Coronel building with his wife and a boarder named Chang Wan. A pet poodle also shared the quarters.

On the evening of October 24, 1871, a dispute occurred between rival factions in the Chinese quarter. A gunfight erupted in front of the Coronel building. When a police officer arrived on horseback to investigate, he was shot in the shoulder. He managed to stumble to safety and blow his police whistle; another white man, attempting to help with his pistol drawn, was also shot. Men who had converged on the scene dragged him to a nearby drugstore, where he died shortly afterward. A restive crowd gathered in front of the Coronel building. Men streamed in packs toward the quarter, bearing knives, pistols, iron pipes, and clubs. “The whole city seemed moved by one grim and tacit purpose,” a magazine later recounted. A line of men encircled the neighborhood. Some began chanting, “Hang them! Hang them!”

A group of men propped a ladder against the façade of the building and clambered up. They used axes to chop through the roof, opening several holes, and began shooting inside. A man who came running out of the building was immediately shot down. A group of rioters went from apartment to apartment. They entered apartment No. 6 and dragged out Tong, his wife, and Chang Wan. The mob took the two men up New High Street to the gate of an old corral. Two other Chinese men already dangled there, half-naked in the moonlight. Tong begged his captors to spare him. He had money, he told them. But someone in the crowd shot him in the head, and he was strung up. There are varying accounts of Tong’s death, but a teen-age boy who witnessed the lynching recalled that the mob hauled Tong’s body up and down, smacking his head repeatedly against the gate’s crossbeam, and that the sound reverberated “like the breaking of a watermelon.” On Tong’s left index finger, he wore a diamond ring; the finger was wrenched from his hand and the ring with it. In all, according to most accounts, eighteen Chinese men were killed, about ten per cent of the Chinese population of the city; fifteen of them were hanged, including Tong and Chang Wan. It remains one of the worst mass lynchings in American history.

Few Americans are aware of the massacre, or of the racist violence targeting Chinese immigrants on the Pacific Coast during the late nineteenth century. In 1992, Congress designated May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, directing the President to deliver annually a proclamation asking the people of the United States to observe the month with “appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.” Joe Biden’s proclamation, issued on April 29th, promises to redouble his Administration’s commitment to combatting the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes, which increased more than three hundred per cent last year, and to “confront shameful chapters in our history.” The City of Los Angeles announced last fall, on the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Chinese massacre, that it would erect a public memorial to the victims. In February, the Board of Supervisors of the city and the county of San Francisco approved a resolution apologizing to “Chinese immigrants and their descendants for systemic and structural discrimination, targeted acts of violence, and atrocities.” Last year, the nearby cities of Antioch and San Jose issued similar apologies.

I’ve wondered about how to properly memorialize the nineteenth-century victims of anti-Asian violence, given that they are mostly anonymous, even to historians. The Chinese in America were strangers in the land, alienated by language, culture, religion, and race. They’re almost entirely absent from newspaper articles and other historical archives, except as victims of persecution. During the surge of anti-Asian attacks over the past year, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon, particularly when the victims have been recent immigrants. We may know their names, but their lives are blank slates. That’s why I was so affected, last month, by a deeply reported article in the Times, by Corina Knoll, which told the story of GuiYing Ma and her husband, Zhanxin Gao, who made their way to the United States from the city of Fushun, in northeastern China. The couple, both in their mid-fifties, arrived in Queens, in June, 2017, knowing no English. They commenced lives of grinding labor, with the hope that they could save enough money to send some home to their adult son, Yang, and their two grandchildren. The article is filigreed with humanizing details: a description of Ma, during her childhood, as the “kind of girl who preferred sledding with the boys over jumping rope”; how she burst into tears after her husband came home following an eleven-day stint working the fry station at a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia, prompting him to promise that he wouldn’t leave her alone again. Ma initially worked at a bakery, but later she mostly attended to her husband, making him meals, while he worked long hours. At around eight o’clock in the morning, on November 26, 2021, Ma was found unconscious on a street near the couple’s apartment, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, the side of her head crushed by a rock. The police arrested Elisaul Perez, a thirty-three-year-old man with a long list of prior arrests, and charged him with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. Ma was taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where she remained in a coma for more than two months. In early February, she opened her eyes and seemed to be improving, but then her condition worsened; on February 22nd, she died. Thanks to Knoll, history will now know at least a bit of her story.

Over the past several months, while researching a book about Chinese exclusion from the United States, I’ve accumulated some two hundred newspaper articles, personal histories, and other primary and secondary accounts of the Los Angeles massacre. Gene Tong’s facility with English and his interactions with the white residents of Los Angeles made him the most well known of the victims, and, therefore, the most likely to emerge in a pointillist portrait. But I’ve only managed to cull a few facts about his life—from the newspaper ads for his business, from scattered mentions in articles, and from various other records. After the massacre, his widow, identified in court documents as Tong You, swore a complaint against a Chinese man who had been involved in the initial dispute, accusing him of inciting the riot, but the case went nowhere. A newspaper report suggests that a brother of Gene Tong’s survived the massacre, with a gunshot wound to the neck. I’ve been unable to trace what became of either Tong’s brother or his widow. Two days after the pogrom, a reporter visited the Tongs’ ransacked store. “Human gore could be traced in all directions,” the account read. Thieves had cut open all of the suitcases in the apartment and sliced through the pockets of Gene Tong’s clothes. There were broken chairs and tables; Tong’s stores of herbal medicine were strewn across the floor. The pet poodle was found starving under a counter, with a broken leg.


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