Los Angeles to memorialize 1871 massacre of Chinese residents
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Los Angeles to memorialize 1871 massacre of Chinese residents
A photo provided by the University of Southern California shows a Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, in Los Angeles, most likely between 1882 and 1917. The City of Los Angeles plans to to memorialize the 18 victims of the 1871 massacre of Chinese residents. U.S.C. Digital Library/Library Exhibits Collection via The New York Times.

by Corina Knoll

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Their lives were taken swiftly and with indifference. At least 18 Chinese people, including a teenage boy, forging their way in a Los Angeles that was as rough as it was full of promise — all shot or hanged. The slayings snuffed out a significant swath of a tiny Chinese community.

The October 1871 killings were the work of a mob of hundreds in part seeking vengeance for the death of a white man. An article published in The New York Times a few weeks later noted that “Chinese were hauled from their hiding places and forced into the street where the unfortunates were instantly seized by others outside, and ropes quickly encircled their necks.”

Commemorations of the massacre eventually shifted to the shadows. Today, the killings and the victims are not widely known or treated as essential to U.S. history.

But the city of Los Angeles is reconciling with its past and is now awaiting ideas for a memorial, one that might draw more attention than the small plaque tucked into the sidewalk near the Chinese American Museum downtown.

The timing feels both opportune and overdue. The resentment and hostility that most likely simmered in plain sight more than 150 years ago echoes within the violence currently playing out against victims of Asian descent.

I wanted to understand what value a memorial might offer so long after the fact and how it could influence the narrative. I spoke to Annie Chu, a veteran architect and interior designer who has worked with numerous museums and was on the memorial steering committee. She herself learned of the massacre only recently despite living in Los Angeles since 1990. Its invisibility was frustrating, but she was encouraged by the anecdotes of those who had offered shelter at the time — the worst of humanity calling forth the best.

Chu, 63, said the committee studied other memorials and what made them work, such as a specific location or details like victims’ names or something more abstract.

“They’re usually providing some kind of spatial experience, whether it envelops you or brings you into the space in a different way,” she said. “Your body is involved, your senses are involved. That’s why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was so effective, because of the descending into the earth where, by the time you get way down, you’re buried in there and that journey gives you time to almost decompress.”

Chu was born in Hong Kong but, when the territory was handed over to China, was placed in the care of an aunt in Watsonville, California. She intended to become a doctor until a summer program took her to France, where she visited the Rouen Cathedral. The majestic structure awed; it was as if she could feel the weight of the materials around her.

When she envisions the memorial to the Chinese massacre, she hopes it will offer both an intimate and universal experience.

“To have first a sense of invitation, of engagement, not something to just look at, like a statue, but some place to pause away from the movement of the sidewalk or the speed of the city,” she said.

The reach of a memorial can be wider than intentional visitors, she said. There are also the local passersby, the tourists who happen upon it, the children on school field trips, the scrollers who find the hashtag on social media, the artists who use it as inspiration for literature or music or choreography — all of which helps spread thoughtfulness about a long-hidden tragedy.

“The fundamental role of a memorial is to kind of act as a translator,” Chu said. “It’s a representation of how we want to remember the history, bringing the narrative to our time. It’s something that inspires reflection and, hopefully, change.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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