By Alvin Okoreeh

           This essay explores the stories of Chinese and Japanese immigration to the greater Los Angeles area. Both stories mirror several other immigration histories in America. Both groups were able to establish footholds in the developing economy of the West amidst the miasma of racism, xenophobia and violence. A look at two events, the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II puts into narrow focus both the similarities and disparities of the Los Angeles odysseys experienced by the Chinese and Japanese. This essay will argue that at its core and despite the nuances that define the unique circumstances in each of these events, Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants and their descendants were the subjects of “native” resentment stemming from the realization that these immigrant groups were essentially “doing” America better than Americans. This realization manifested itself into racist sentiments against the Chinese and Japanese that escalated into explosions of unmitigated violence. A brief background of Chinese and Japanese immigration to Los Angeles is needed to provide the backdrop for this comparison between two historically catastrophic events.

The Chinese began to migrate to the Pacific coast during the California Gold Rush of the mid 19th century.[1] The prime objective for most Chinese immigrants was to earn money and eventually return to China to bask in the spoils of their toiling. Chinese immigrants bought claims for gold mining and provided labor. Anti-Chinese sentiment mounted as working class “natives” witnessed the Chinese immigrants’ proficiency at gold mining, feared competition for work, and began to adhere to a white supremacist evolutionist theory. By virtue of irrigation skills cultivated in China, Chinese immigrants were able to yield returns on gold claims that others believed were exhausted and were thus able to control the gold mining market.[2] As Zhu states, “by the mid-1850s the Chinese had dominated California River mining.”[3] To escape the Anti-Chinese response from “natives,” the Chinese began to move south to Los Angeles and would eventually create communities of their own that would be run by rival “factions” known as the huigan and tongs.

Similarly, Japanese immigrants migrated to the West for an opportunity to achieve prosperity. Also equipped with knowledge and skills attained in their homeland, Japanese immigrants established their primacy as fishermen at Terminal Island, a harbor city in San Pedro, California. A mastery of fishing enabled Japanese immigrants to corner the abalone and albacore markets and create a lucrative tuna canning industry.[4] Additionally, the Japanese exhibited expertise in farming and as horticulturalists enabling them to become successful in agriculture and as florists. According to Richard Reeves, “more than 40 percent of California’s produce was from American Japanese farms that often stood on land white farmers ignored as too poor for cultivation.”[5] Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Japanese immigrants sought to create communities upon arrival in the United States and generally settled, making California their new home. However, much like their Chinese counterparts, news rags denounced Japanese immigrants and their offspring as enemies of the state particularly following the events at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. News articles vilified Japanese immigrants as representing a ”Fifth Column” prepared to lead an insurrection against the United States on behalf of Imperial Japan. Chaos, hysteria and the tides of racism were in full throat. The press would play a pivotal role in agitating racial tension.

The press was instrumental in exacerbating the negative connotations associated with Asian immigrants and were a crucial component in precipitating the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and Japanese internment during World War II. As it relates to the Chinese, Zesch articulates, “journalists denigrated Asian workers for impeding the flow of European immigrants who “would take up permanent residence…which would settle the country instead of exploiting it and then departing from it.”[6] In particular, Chinese immigrants were implicated as villains in what was ostensibly categorized as a tragedy of the commons in terms of the ecological damage caused by Chinese irrigation techniques during the Gold Rush. American news publications stoked racist embers by fabricating spectacular exposés painting the Chinese community as bastions of depravity without any direct knowledge of the Chinese culture.[7]

Reeves contemplates that newspapers had a similarly caustic effect on native perception of Japanese immigrants. Leading up to Japanese internment and following Pearl Harbor, “cadres of nervous military men and panicking politicians react(ed) to rumors and sensational news reports.”[8] An editorial in the Los Angeles Examiner directed to politicians and military men suggested that the scores of Japanese fisherman and florists on the West Coast were secretly in allegiance with Japan and used their businesses as a veneer to distract unaware Americans while plotting the takeover of the Pacific.[9] The media’s portrayals of the role of Japanese immigrants in the events of Pearl Harbor gave credence to the creation of the Japanese internment policy much like the combined reports of Chinatown degeneracy and news reports of an American being slain in the crossfire of rival Chinese organizations rationalized rioting and the slaughter of eighteen Chinese immigrants in 1871. Along with newspaper publications, both official and non-official organizations were significant factors in these events.

Feuding between huigan (legitimate “companies” designed to aid and provide protection to Chinese immigrants) and tong gangs (underworld syndicates that ran the Chinese sex trade, opium dens, and gambling halls) on Calle De Los Negros in Los Angeles gave the public at large a reference point to gauge and validate popular opinion about Chinese immigrants.[10] With scant knowledge of the differences and motives of these two groups, the huigan and tong were practically interchangeable in the minds of Americans. On October 24, 1871, when gunfire broke out between these organizations over a prostitute named Yut Ho, Robert Thompson, an American saloon owner was gunned down. In response a mob of 500 Americans rioted and descended on the Chinese community seeking retribution for the murder of Thompson, a fellow American. The mob killed and hanged eighteen Chinese immigrants and looted Chinese businesses and homes.[11]

The enormity of the Japanese internment policy required the involvement of numerous entities to execute including, but not limited to, the army, navy, FBI, DOJ and the Anti-Asiatic Exclusion League. Two specific organizations are interesting in the case of Japanese internment. The Japanese Americans Citizen League (JACL) was a pro-American Japanese group that assisted Japanese immigrants assimilation to the United States. Reeves contends that arrest lists compiled by the FBI of various “dangerous” Japanese immigrants was built on the strength of an “informant network” with JACL.[12] The irony is that JACL spied on local Japanese for the American government while the American press and government charged (falsely in most cases) Japanese immigrants of espionage against America. (JACL’s over the top allegiance to Americanization also on some level perpetuated a quasi-Stockholm syndrome exhibited in the internment communities.[13] Reeves writes that some internees “sort of felt sorry for the soldiers.”)[14] In addition to JACL, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) was integral in facilitating the removal of in excess of one hundred thousand Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coasts into three hundred detention facilities. This point illuminates a contrast between the Chinese Massacre and internment as Japanese internment carried with it the backing of federal agencies.

The most evident contrast between the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and Japanese internment was the sheer scale of the incidents. Eighteen Chinese were killed during the massacre while one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese were jettisoned to internment camps. While these numbers suggest that the two incidents differ in that the Chinese massacre was “localized” while Japanese internment was a West Coast phenomenon originally, it can be argued that Japanese internment was also localized to some extent. The Japanese artist, Isamu Noguchi, was not subject to evacuation orders despite his Japanese heritage because he was a New Yorker. [15] There are however three factors to consider when addressing the disparity between and range of these two events 1.) Time. There had been seventy years of increases in population and racially infused momentum building against Asian immigrants from the time of the Massacre in 1871 to 1942, when Japanese internment went into effect. 2) Legislation. The passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, and Executive Order 9066 served to institutionalize anti-Asian sentiments and policies. While both the massacre and internment were knee jerk reactions, the legislation behind the internment put it on a separate operational plane than the massacre and 3.) News coverage. The Chinese Massacre garnered regional coverage while Japanese internment was a national imperative for the press as the nation was in the throws of a war with Japan and the rest of the Axis. News outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times published stories about Japanese subversion following Pearl Harbor and at the onset of the war.

While Zesch argues deftly that the issues leading up to the Chinese Massacre of 1871 were less about labor and more about hatred and racism, it is clear that much of the anti-Chinese feelings harbored by “natives” were due to Chinese immigrants’ success within the California economy including labor. Some psychological studies suggest that looting, much like what took place during the Chinese Massacre riot, is a reaction by the ineffectual and powerless that have either fallen short of or completely failed in their efforts to be relevant or even competent in society.[16] With respect to Japanese internment, due to their pecuniary interests in the land and industry, Californian farmers and working class whites “would benefit economically if the state’s Japanese were forced out of their farms and business.”[17] Headlines reading, “L.A. Area raided; Jap Planes Peril Santa Monica, El Segundo, Long Beach” not only presented an imminent danger to America’s security but also had psychological effects on its people. Essentially, the Japanese were not only threatening to invade the coasts, they were already making in roads by invading American prosperity which was supposed to be reserved for “(white) Americans.” These factors made WWII, as Representative John Rankin of Mississippi would state, “a race war.”[18]

Fear of loss of the American ideal and security in addition to racist and white supremacist ideology fueled anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiment on the west coast and produced two historical tragedies. In the cases of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and World War II Japanese American internment, this ideology was often reinforced by the press and aggravated by groups with self-interests at heart. The overt racism that instigated these heinous events was a byproduct of both Chinese and Japanese immigrants being able to achieve American prosperity while white working class natives struggled to approximate the same level of success thus becoming a catalyst in writing two of the darkest chapters in history of the City of Angels.



Reeves, Richard. Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. New York: Picador, 2016. Print.

Shah, Riddhi. “The Psychology Of A Rioter.” The Huffington Post., 11 Aug. 2011. Web. 01 May 2017.
Smith, Andrew F. American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print.
Zesch, Scott. “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre.” Southern California Quarterly 90.2 (2008): 109-58. JSTOR. Web.

Zhu, Liping. “No Need to Rush: The Chinese, Placer Mining, and the Western Environment.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 49.3, Special Gold Rush Issue (1999): 42-57. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2017


[1]  Zesch, Scott. “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre.” Southern California Quarterly 90.2 (2008): 109-58. JSTOR. Web. 110.

[2] Zhu, Liping. “No Need to Rush: The Chinese, Placer Mining, and the Western Environment.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 49.3, Special Gold Rush Issue (1999): 42-57. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.51

[3] Ibid, 52

[4] Smith, Andrew F. American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print. 54

[5] Reeves, Richard. Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. New York: Picador, 2016. Print. 20

[6] Zesch, 110

[7] Ibid, 112

[8] Reeves, 30

[9] Ibid, 36

[10] Zesch, 127

[11] Ibid, 142

[12] Reeves, 10

[13] Ibid, 65

[14] Ibid, 85

[15] Ibid, 129

[16] Shah, Riddhi. “The Psychology Of A Rioter.” The Huffington Post., 11 Aug. 2011. Web. 01 May 2017.

[17] Ibid, 31

[18] Ibid, 34