The Chinatown War – Response #5

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In his attempt to examine a relatively “unknown” moment and period of time in American history, Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 explored the life and struggles of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles and their subsequent murder by the native citizens who resented them in 1871. Through his detailed descriptions of Chinese life in Los Angeles as well as the events leading up to the massacre, Zesch made a compelling case for himself by providing a valuable window into the lives of Chinese workers and their society in California. By surveying the settlement of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in the first half of the book, Zesch sets the stage for the gradual build-up of anti-Chinese sentiment and the extreme violence that resulted in the death of eighteen Chinese on October 24, 1871. Although only one chapter dealt exclusively with the mass killing of Chinese immigrants while the rest of the book followed the history of the Chinese who lived in Los Angeles, I thought Zesch did a fantastic job of detailing the conditions in China that ultimately compelled Chinese men to leave their hometown and journey to the United States in order to earn money and return to their country soon after. However, many ended up choosing to stay in California, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles, and even “started their own businesses, washing clothes or peddling vegetables or fish… [While] those with no capital took positions as housekeepers, cooks, waiters, and farmhands” (pg. 6).

Using a range of historical sources from newspaper archives to court records, Zesch also persuasively described how adept the Chinese were at using the American legal system to their advantage. For example, Zesch stated that “the Chinese of Los Angeles learned as early as 1864 that they could use the local courts to resist maltreatment and right the injustices committed against them… the American legal system could be manipulated to thwart one’s enemies and facilitate illicit transactions” (pg. 51). As David B. pointed out in his post, I also thought Zesch did an excellent job of making use of the sources available to him, especially considering the lack of specificity in many of the historical sources and inability of Americans to properly record Chinese names. I would also have to agree with both Elena and David B. again that The Chinatown War certainly brought to mind similarities with Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre for its depiction of violence toward a particular group of people and how innocents were slaughtered indiscriminately due to racism. In addition, both books share a common theme in asking how history has either been created, changed, or remembered differently over time.

As for what I liked most about this book, I thought Zesch did a commendable job highlighting the increasing tensions and anti-Chinese sentiments ultimately resulted in murder throughout the book. By starting the book with the reasons and conditions on why many Chinese men left their villages for America, readers are left feeling sympathetic for these individuals as they struggled to acquire enough money to return to China and live a comfortable life there. Despite Zesch’s unwillingness to fully explore or explain why the native citizens in Los Angeles slaughtered the Chinese-Americans, I thought Zesch’s discussion on the contemporary significance of the massacre in his last four pages to be a powerful one. He leaves readers with the claim that the local inhabitants of Los Angeles “did what they did not because they felt threatened or because their families were out of work but because they wanted to. It seemed fun. They thought they could get away with it because their victims were people who didn’t matter” (pg. 219).

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