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Burning of Santa Ana’s Chinatown

by Kimberly Dennin

We have once again entered a time where violence, hate, and racism against Asian-Americans is at the forefront of the nations’ consciousness. Now that we are in Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month, it seems prudent that we continue to keep the history of Asian/Pacific Americans, and all that entails, at said forefront.

Brief History of the Chinese Experience in California

Many are aware of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but few realize that it was the culmination of the fight between California and the United States over what the response should be to Chinese immigration. The increase in Chinese immigration to California was sparked by the gold rush. Before 1848 there were less than 1,000 Chinese people living in California and by 1852 there were about 25,000. This rapid increase in the Chinese population led to distrust, fear, and hatred of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese became convenient scapegoats for problems caused by economic depressions, increased unemployment, and the worsening of labor conditions. In order to justify the harsh discrimination, violence, and exclusion, Chinese immigrants were labeled as morally deficient, poor, and ignorant (Wellborn 1912-1913).

Chinese in the gold rush via Armstrong History Journal

The state quickly started taking actions against Chinese immigrants, instituting various taxes on foreigners to drive away competition and even passing an act to prevent further immigration of Asians to the state in 1858. The courts would end up banning most of the anti-Chinese legislation, but legislators would continue to introduce legislation to keep Chinese immigrants out of California. Asian immigrants in America were also barred from becoming naturalized citizens until 1943, though in 1898 the case United States v. Wong Kim Ark allowed for “birthright citizenship”. Because Chinese people were denied citizenship, they could not homestead public land, vote, hold public office, give testimony against whites, serve on juries, attend public schools, or use public transportation.

1882: Anti-Chinese Cartoon via Armstrong History Journal

The shift of the Chinese immigration question from the state level to the federal level occurred in 1874 with Chy Lung v. Freeman. In this case the Supreme Court struck down an 1870 anti-prostitution statute that targeted Chinese women and allowed California to deport them. The Supreme Court claimed that the statute encroached on federal power because the power to enforce immigration belonged only to the federal government. With this shift, significantly more pressure was put on the federal government to stop Chinese immigration, and on May 6, 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act became law. This effectively barred any new Chinese immigration. This act also increased anti-Chinese feelings that had already existed for years; there was also a significant increase in violence against, and deaths of, Chinese people living in America. Additionally, there was a rise in anti-Chinese ordinances that on the surface appeared neutral but were actually targeting Chinese people or were unevenly enforced. The Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to be temporary due to the Angell Treaty which only allowed for a temporary suspension of Chinese immigration to the United States. In 1888, however, the Scott Act was passed, which overrode the Angell Treaty and prevented Chinese immigrants who had left the U.S. from returning. On May 5, 1892 the Geary Act was passed which extended the ban for another ten years and required Chinese citizens to carry a passport or permit at all times. Those without were subject to being detained and deported. The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 1943.

Burning of Santa Ana’s Chinatown

Anti-Chinese sentiments were felt all throughout California, including in Orange County, and one of the most significant displays of this was the burning of Santa Ana’s Chinatown. Located in the area that now spans Busch Street, Third Street, and Main Street, it was formed in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Despite this Act the population kept growing; Chinese immigrants were landing in Mexico before illegally coming to the United States, and Santa Ana was a midway point between Mexico and Los Angeles. The peak of Chinatown was in the 1890s when it had about 200 residents.

Original Location of Santa Ana’s Chinatown via Los Angeles Times

Santa Ana officials did everything they could to make sure the neighborhood did not prosper and there were repeated attempts by city officials to drive them out of town. This combined with racist taunts and physical attacks from other residents meant that hate and discrimination ravaged Chinatown and overtime the population significantly decreased. In 1886 a Santa Ana Standard editorial titled “The Heathen Chinee” sent out a call to rally against “his dark ways and vain tricks”. In 1888 the Santa Ana City Council formed a committee with the task of asking downtown property owners to not rent to Chinese people, and they are quoted as claiming “the location of Chinamen right in the heart of the city is a great detriment to all property in the neighborhood”. An article in the Evening Blade titled “Remove the Chinese” stated that “we suggest immediate action be taken to eradicate this plague spot-this eyesore of the city”. In addition to actions by city officials and publishers, white citizens began a campaign of terror and there was a significant increase in violence and theft. As a result of all of this, the 1900 Census reported that only 19 people remained in Chinatown. In the following year there was a statewide convention in San Francisco that sought to renew the Exclusion Act and share strategies on how to rid California of Chinese people. Santa Ana was the only Orange County city to send a delegation.

May 26, 1906 Article via Los Angeles Times

The final blow to Chinatown was in May 1906 when the neighborhood was declared a public hazard due to a resident, Wong Woh Ye, allegedly contracting leprosy. Two years earlier, the city council wrote that “the burning of [the area] will be the occasion of a sort of celebration of the consummation of the first part of the plan to rid the city of undesirable residents”. In 1906, the proposed measure to burn Chinatown down in response to the declaration of it being a public hazard passed unanimously. There was still some conflict, however, over whether or not they could burn down the buildings without the owner’s permission. This conflict ended when the Orange County District Attorney, Horace C. Head, assured the council that no criminal charges would be filed, stating any complainers “would have to come to me for warrants, and I don’t think that you need fear any criminal suit”. Over 1,000 people showed up to watch and cheer as firefighters doused the buildings with coal and oil and burned them down. Two quotes from the LA Times demonstrate the anti-Chinese sentiments felt during this time: “the fire department was ordered out and under the supervision the old shacks and buildings that have so long disfigured this section of the city were burned to the ground.” and “it was as picturesque an event as could be imagined.”. Residents were put in a quarantine pen surrounded by barbed wire and had to watch as their homes, businesses, and gardens were burned down. They received no restitution for lost belongings and were forced to leave. Ye was denied treatment by his guards and was left to die.

Despite the horrors of this event, no apology has ever been given, the event/location of Chinatown has never been commemorated with a marker, and few people today know about what occurred.

References

Ann Wilson Moore S. (2017) “We Feel the Want of Protection.” The Politics of Law and Race in

California, 1848-1878, KCET https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/we-feel-the-want-of

protection-the-politics-of-law-and-race-in-california-1848-1878

Arellano G. (2021) Column: A racist mob burned Santa Ana’s Chinatown to the ground. It still

serves as a lesson, The Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021

03-18/lost-santa-ana-chinatown-shows-la-anti-asian-violence-legacy

Arellano G. (2014) Santa Ana Deliberately Burned Down Its Chinatown in 1906-and Let a Man Die

To Do It, OCWEEKLY https://www.ocweekly.com/santa-ana-deliberately-burned-down-its

chinatown-in-1906-and-let-a-man-die-to-do-it-6446664/

Chiotakis S. (2021) Santa Ana burned down its Chinatown in 1906. What are its lessons on anti

Asian hate?, KCRW https://www.kcrw.com/news/shows/greater-la/affordable-housing

oscars-oc/santa-ana-chinatown-anti-asian

Wellborn M. (1912-1913) The Events Leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Annual Publication of

the Historical Society of Southern California https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41168895.pdf

Yang, R. (2018) “Chinaman” and the Constitution: The Development of Federal Power over

Immigration in 19th-Century United States, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 8,

no. 1. https://armstronghistoryjournal.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/chinaman-and-the

constitution-the-development-of-federal-power-over-immigration-in-19th-century-united

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