The LA Times called it “a sensation which will be read of this morning from end to end of the United States.” Pasadena’s newspaper referred to it as a “Black Friday.” One-hundred and thirty years ago this month, a white mob turned Pasadena’s Chinatown into an inferno, obliterating it from the landscape, and, for many years, from the history books as well.
Over the course of 24 hours, enraged racists drove Pasadena’s 60 to 100 Chinese citizens from the city in an ordeal that began with a dropped cigar and culminated in threats of a mass lynching.
Roughly 100 men — nearly one-quarter of the population of Pasadena — participated in the riot, yet no one was ever arrested or charged in the case. To this day, the rioters’ names remain unknown.
Though historians have long thought it to be a random act of violence perpetrated by a gang of lawless hoodlums, new evidence suggests a coordinated effort between Pasadena’s elite and its underclass. City officials may have even joined in the mayhem.
It was a pivotal incident in the city’s early history, leading to the creation of its first fire department and ushering in an era of racial separation that endured for decades.
Though the rioters cannot be named with certainty, those who inspired them — through inflammatory newspaper articles and anti-Chinese petitions — can. They were the city’s railroad and citrus barons, bank presidents and real estate moguls. The day after the riot, they would draft the city’s first racially restrictive zoning ordinance. The last one wouldn’t be challenged until the 1950s.
Historians — and even journalists of the time — differ on minor details of what happened on the night of Nov. 6, 1885, but the overall facts are clear. The following account is drawn from city histories, photographs, firsthand recollections, fire insurance maps, and newspapers. It is a story of courage and cowardice, of resilience and renewal.
“Beautiful scenery, tasteful homes, fine drives, choice fruits and flowers, good society, and many other attractions for the tourist and emigrant.” Such was the way Lyman Allen, a local doctor, described Pasadena in 1885.
Founded by eager Midwesterners, Pasadena prided itself on its modernity. It boasted prominent citizens such as Jabez Banbury, the decorated Civil War colonel who fought for the Union Army, and Abbot Kinney, the forestry pioneer who would later carve Venice out of a coastal swamp.
With banks, telephone service, ice cream shops, a public library, a Wells Fargo express office, a roller skating rink, gaslit hotels, a dramatic club, and a railroad that made five daily trips to Los Angeles, Pasadena was one of the most modern towns in the San Gabriel Valley. “Materially, socially and morally,” read a tourist guidebook of the time, “its standard leads all southern cities.”
Like many other towns, including San Gabriel, El Monte, Arcadia and Monrovia, it also had a small Chinese population that numbered between 60 and 100 residents. They began working in Pasadena in the 1870s — as ranch hands, orange pickers, domestic servants, houseboys and cooks. Between 1883 and 1885, they also helped build the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Valley Railroad, alongside Irish and Mexican workers.
In 1875, Yuen Kee, a Chinese businessman, established a laundry on South Orange Grove Boulevard. “And so this and there was the first Chinese business started in Pasadena,” wrote historian Hiram Reid in 1895.
In 1883, Yuen moved his laundry to Mills Place (then called Mills Street), in present-day Old Pasadena, where he rented a 544-square-foot building from Jacob Hisey, a trustee of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. “This establishes a Chinese quarter of the town,” wrote the Pasadena Chronicle on Aug. 16, 1883. “And we are consequently cosmopolitan, as we understand it in California.”
Others followed, including Lin Kee, a Chinese entrepreneur described in newspapers as “a bright active fellow, shrewd in business and generally popular,” who spoke English fluently and also worked as a local court interpreter.
By 1885, there were at least three Chinese businesses along Mills Place: Lin Kee’s laundry, store and employment office; Yuen Kee’s laundry and employment office; and Quong Wung Chung’s “Chinee & Dry Goods” store, as it was advertised in local papers. Other Chinese settlers lived in a handful of wooden buildings across the street, which they rented from citrus grower Alexander F. Mills. According to newspaper accounts, Quong Wung Chung’s store also doubled as a gambling den.
If Pasadena welcomed its “cosmopolitan” Chinatown at first, it soon succumbed to the anti-Chinese fervor of the time. In 1884, the Pasadena & Valley Union, the city’s only newspaper, began publishing anti-Chinese articles. Its editor called the Chinese “an objectionable class” whose immigration “ought to be restricted” and warned against “another flood of coolies.”
With the acquisition of a new editor, Charles A. Gardner, in January 1885, the paper became a mouthpiece for some of the community’s most hateful voices.
Gardner called the Chinese “the most immoral and exclusive race of people on this earth” and published an anti-immigration tirade by Stephen T. Gage, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which asserted that “the Asiatic civilization … will not amalgamate with ours, nor can people with our civilization live under it. We have passed the point which the framers of the Constitution had in view when they invited the oppressed to seek an asylum on our shores.”
By early October of that year, the paper claimed there was “sufficient cause” for expelling the Chinese from Pasadena.
“We believe it can be done lawfully and without interfering with the property or business rights of anyone concerned,” they wrote. “Let the Chinese be assigned a place remote from the center of town. The sanitary, business and moral interests of the place demand it. Further delay in making the change suggested ought not to be thought of. Prompt action may save serious consequences.”
Some citizens took the entreaty seriously. In the week leading up to Nov. 6, 1885, a petition was passed around town that enjoined the signers not to rent to Chinese, or to allow Chinese businesses near their property. It laid the groundwork for the violence that was to follow.
‘A Great Nuisance’
On the morning of Nov. 6, 1885, subscribers to the Pasadena & Valley Union read a terse statement buried among the day’s headlines: “An anti-Chinese agreement has been circulated here and generally signed during the week. It pledges the signers not to lease property to Chinamen, and must be effective in driving them out if all property owners would unite in it.”
The petition had been drawn up on Nov. 1 and in just six days 96 men had signed it. Two weeks later, the names of the signers would be published. They included two future mayors (M.H. Weight and T.P. Lukens), the city postmaster, the justice of the peace, the president of the Colorado Street Railroad Company, and the man who laid the cornerstone for the Castle Green.
At 1:30 p.m., the smell of wood smoke began to permeate the air of Pasadena. Though not unusual in the colder months, when wood stoves warmed homes and hotels, the smell was accompanied by eerie plumes of gray smoke that rose from the city center. Soon, a roaring blaze was visible behind the Ward Block, which stood at the southwest corner of Fair Oaks and Colorado, northeast of Chinatown.
A year before, the Union had warned of the potential disaster of an out-of-control blaze in a city of wood buildings. “As matters now stand in Pasadena,” wrote the paper, “we have no adequate protection from any fire that might break out in the rapidly solidifying center of business at any time. Is it not about time some measure can be taken to guard against such a calamity? … Sometime a fire will come and proper preparations should be made to meet it now.”
With no formal fire department, volunteers were required to put out blazes. The bell of Pasadena’s schoolhouse served as a rudimentary siren, signaling all hands to fill their water buckets.
When the school bell pealed on the afternoon of Nov. 6, a volunteer brigade rushed toward the towering columns of smoke. When they reached the Ward Block, they saw that the barn of J.H. Fleming, a local wagon trimmer, had caught fire. Nearly a ton of hay was housed in the barn, and it went up like a match on gasoline. One of Fleming’s cows barely escaped the barn, suffering severe injuries, and a house belonging to a family named Wagner or “Waggoner” next door also burned.
Though the fire was soon extinguished, it had set Pasadena on edge. And a rumor began to spread that the Chinese had started it.
As the city quieted down, and people began enjoying the pleasures of a Friday night, a group of white men gathered near Yuen Kee’s laundry, at the corner of Fair Oaks and Green Street. According to historian Henry Markham Page, they were mostly transient laborers who were “busy blaming the Chinese for their inability to get a job.”
By 8 p.m. the group had grown, and they began “loafing, smoking, and talking ‘Chinaman’ along the street in the front of the wash-house,” in the words of historian Hiram Reid. Inside the laundry, nine or ten Chinese employees worked by the light of a kerosene lamp.
The white men began to taunt the Chinese men, and all of a sudden, one of them picked a stone off the ground, took careful aim, and lobbed it through the laundry’s glass window. The stone struck one of the workers. Another followed, knocking over the lamp and starting a fire. The Chinese people inside threw a blanket over it, but the flames quickly spread.
Later, there would be at least three different accounts of who threw the stones. The Chinese workers claimed it was a local thug named Charley Johnson — a baker with a longstanding grudge against them. Historian J.W. Wood attributed it to “two urchins … meandering down Fair Oaks Avenue upon a November night.” The LA Times said it was “a lawless white youth.” To this day, the stone thrower’s name remains unknown.
The Chinese fled out of Yuen Kee’s laundry onto Mills Place, where they were confronted by the mob, members of which began throwing sticks, stones, and other projectiles at them. They then ran to an adjacent building, barricading themselves inside.
As the fire burned, it leapt to a wood-frame restaurant north of the laundry, which soon collapsed in a flurry of embers. It then spread to William Buttner’s meat market, just south of the laundry, which was torn down to prevent further damage.
As orange tongues of flame rose into the night sky, the mob swelled to 100 men. Many were intoxicated, having just patronized a local saloon, and according to two eyewitnesses, they began shouting, “Lynch the Chinks!” and “Hang the yellow devils!”
Before Yuen Kee’s laundry was consumed by fire, they rushed inside, looting what hadn’t already been incinerated. Then they made for the building where the Chinese laundry workers had fled.
By this time, Pasadena Deputy Sheriff Thomas Banbury, a relative of the Civil War colonel, had received word of the riot. Hastily, he loaded his pistol, grabbed city marshal I.N. Mundell and two other men — B.F. Ball and George Greeley — and headed toward Mills Place.
When Banbury arrived, his eyes fell upon a chaotic scene. The white mob had surrounded the building where Chinese workers hid and were trying to pull the building apart piece by piece.
Wasting no time, Banbury leapt on a barrel and addressed the crowd with a forceful plea. “What he said was backed by the unlimbering of a fine piece of pocket artillery with which [he] promised to perforate anybody performing unlawful acts,” recalled Arthur Clarke in 1923.
Banbury promised to make the Chinese leave the next day if the crowd would disperse. He then formed a small council to confer with them, entered the building where they had taken refuge, and after 20 minutes’ discussion, they agreed.
Banbury made no arrests that night, but in the following days he would be the only Pasadenan to lease property to the Chinese, promising to “defend his tenants with force of arms, if need be,” according to the LA Times. The next day, the Chinese moved their belongings to his South Raymond Avenue property, which became the site of Pasadena’s second Chinatown.
After the riot had been quelled, Pasadena went swiftly into damage control. Anticipating a media sensation, several citizens preemptively contacted the Los Angeles Times. “The Chinese have been a great nuisance here on account of their noise and uncleanliness,” they told the paper. “There had been much feeling, and tonight’s fire was the last straw.”
Some Chinese spent the night shivering in the burnt-out buildings. Others were taken in by concerned white citizens. About 20 left for Los Angeles and never returned.
At midnight, another call was made to the Times: “All quiet since the Chinese agreed to leave, and no celestials visible. Seven extra watchmen are patrolling the town, and we are sleeping on our arms. We anticipate no further trouble, however.”
The American Man’s Ultimatum
The day after the fire, the Chinese returned to survey the wreckage. Here, they witnessed a grim sight: during the night, a crude, scarecrow-like effigy of a Chinese man had been lynched from a telegraph pole across the street.
The overall loss of property totaled roughly $2,000, though the figure may have been much higher. Adjusted for inflation, it would top $45,000 in today’s dollars.
Unbeknownst to the Chinese residents, the business tycoons of Pasadena were at that very moment drafting the city’s first racial zoning ordinance. In the notary public office of T.P. Lukens — a real estate baron who would be elected Pasadena mayor twice — they drafted a hurried resolution. “Resolved,” it read, “that it is the sentiment of this community that no Chinese quarters be allowed within the following limits of Pasadena: Orange Grove and Lake avenues, California St. and Mountain Avenue.” When delivered to the Chinese, it included a grim proviso: if they failed to leave within 24 hours, the bell of Pasadena’s schoolhouse would “call out the crowd, and they would run the Chinese out by force.” By midafternoon, Pasadena’s Chinese residents had left.
Within days, D.C. Ehrenfeld, one of the signatories, had leased part of his property for a “white laundry” which employed Caucasians only. “He will do all kinds of laundrying, with white labor, at reasonable rates,” wrote the Union on Nov. 13. “Give him a call and encourage the enterprise with your patronage.” William Peirce, another signer, would soon run ads for his Marengo Avenue hotel that read: “Fine sunny rooms, cheerful parlors and dining room … No Chinese employed.”
A total of 35 men signed the ordinance, which was published in the Pasadena & Valley Union a week later. They included a city trustee and a bank president. According to an eyewitness, some of these men may have also participated in the riot.
On Nov. 11, 1885, Ezra S. Carr, former state education superintendent and a friend of John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a furious letter to the LA Times, singling out the riot’s instigators by profession. “The acts of arson and pillage on Friday evening, November 6, [were] perpetrated by a gang of miscreants whose names are known, and whose courage was manufactured in a neighboring whisky saloon, aided by darkness and the silent approval of respectable citizens,” he wrote. Among them, he counted “one clergyman, one school principal, one school trustee, one justice of the peace, one road overseer and president of a water company, [and] an indefinite number of real estate and other business men.”
Days later, Carr witnessed the same men convening outside the city Post Office. “No formal resolutions were passed by the meeting against arson, robbery, or whisky saloons,” Carr noted. “The unvoiced opinion seemed to be — ‘the Chinese must go, but whisky halls and gambling sharps must be protected.”
Other Pasadenans interviewed by the LA Times on Nov. 7 reported “a strong feeling of regret at the violent occurrences of Friday night” and a feeling that “the good name of Pasadena has suffered in the eyes of the world in consequence of what was done.”
By Nov. 11, news of the riot had appeared in newspapers from San Francisco to Bangor, Maine. That same day, a journalist from the Sacramento Record Union interviewed California Gov. George Stoneman, a former Union general turned anti-Reconstruction Democrat who owned property in San Marino and, according to one newspaper account, staunchly refused to hire Chinese, “even in the lowest menial work about him.”
He asserted that, if anything, Pasadena hadn’t gone far enough. “[Stoneman] said the citizens of Pasadena, instead of ridding themselves of the heathen, had actually accomplished nothing,” the journalist wrote. “On the contrary, [they] had placed themselves in a worse condition relative to the Chinamen than they were before John’s expulsion from within the city limits.”
Despite the adversity they faced, Pasadena’s Chinese rebuilt on the outskirts of the city. Along South Arroyo Parkway and South Raymond and South Fair Oaks avenues Lin Kee, Yuen Kee and others opened new laundries. In 1888, Lin Kee became the first Chinese man to get married in the city of Pasadena.
Two years later, the city’s first fire department was created, and in 1889, the first fire station was built directly across the street from where Yuen Kee’s laundry stood. (The building still stands today between Green and Dayton streets as Firehouse Recording Studios.)
Other changes followed. By the 1930s, entire sections of the city were off-limits to all but white residents. De facto segregation continued in the city until the 1970s.
Pasadena’s original Chinatown remained invisible on the landscape for more than 100 years, but in the mid-1990s, two identical plaques were installed along Mills Place as part of a larger city plan to identify historic alleyways. Their text reads: “Mills Place: named for Alexander Fraser Mills, a nurseryman who planted a citrus grove on 7 ½ acres at the northwest corner of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue in 1878. … In 1885, a fire at this site destroyed a laundry owned by Chinese settlers.”
Tell and Retell
Today, in the spots where Yuen Kee, Lin Kee, and Quong Wung Hung hung out their signs 130 years ago, many new Asian businesses have taken their place. As a result, some Asian-American historians think the time is right for a revision of the plaques — one that tells the true story of the riot and recognizes contributions of the Chinese community to Pasadena.
“One of our ethical obligations to accurately portray history should be to revisit many of these plaques to try not to rewrite, but to correct the history,” says Eugene Moy, former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “It doesn’t have to say, ‘Well, the city should be ashamed,’ but I think a revision of the plaques would be helpful, because Chinatown was a significant economic force in the community and was unfortunately driven out.”
Susie H. Ling, associate professor of history and Asian-American studies at Pasadena City College, shares this view. “The contributions of our Chinese pioneers should be acknowledged in a multitude of ways in the communities they helped build,” Ling says. “How wonderful it would be if we celebrated the Chinese who built Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, the San Gabriel Winery in Alhambra and the many orchards of early Pasadena. A corrected plaque at Mills Place should only be one of many community markers.”
The Mills Place plaques and others around Old Pasadena were installed in the 1990s “to provide a sense of place and reinforce the alley names as places,” according to Robert Montano, business concierge for Pasadena’s Economic Development Division.
Montano doesn’t think revised plaques would turn off visitors, and says he’d support efforts to alter them if the funds could be raised. “But that is just one opinion offered without any consideration of the practical matter of getting it done,” he adds, “and attempting to draw the line on where we should stop in the telling of the historic record. Pasadena has a long history, some of it dark, that affected many, many more people than just the Chinese community.”
Sue Mossman, director of Pasadena Heritage, helped write the plaques along with the Pasadena Museum of History and the city’s cultural heritage staff. Mossman says it was lack of space rather than oversight that prevented a more comprehensive telling of Pasadena’s Chinese expulsion. “The story of the Chinese laundry fire and how the Chinese residents were treated at the time is an incredibly sad chapter in the history of this community and one that has not been widely publicized,” she says. “Obviously only a brief mention of the history of each alley could be included on the plaques as they were created.”
Bill McCurdy, who funded the Mills Place plaques, says he was unaware of the history of the riot.
Jean Pfaelzer, a historian who mentions Pasadena’s Chinese expulsion in her book, “Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans,” thinks revised plaques may not be sufficient. “A plaque can disappear,” she says. “It becomes a brick. The plaque needs to become part of new ways of making textbooks, and new annual celebrations and holidays. Lunar New Years in Pasadena should be marked as an important holiday. And at that time, like Passover, the story of the riot should be told and retold.” n