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Pasadena Heritage Wants City to Issue Apology For 1885 Riot That Forced Out Chinese Residents

Published on Friday, April 8, 2022 | 6:33 am

Pasadena Heritage has asked the city to apologize for a riot that forced Chinese residents to flee town after a racist attack in 1885.

On Tuesday the Human Relations Commission unanimously approved the new language for the Mills Place Plaque.

The plaque provides information on a violent incident 137 years ago that destroyed portions of the city’s Chinese district.

“Dedicated to the memory of Yuen Kee laundry and the early Chinese settlers of Pasadena who helped build railroads, labored on the citrus and grape farms and established successful businesses. On November 6, 1885, a mob threw stones into the laundry, breaking a kerosene lamp that burned the building down. The next day, the city barred all Chinese immigrants from living in the central portion of the city,” the new language states.

On Wednesday, Andrew Salimian, preservation director with Pasadena Heritage said he was pleased with the vote.

“It’s crucially important that local Chinese American organizations can review this text before it is installed,” Salimian said. “We’ve also asked the city to consider a formal apology. Those are next steps, but I am glad we settled on some clear draft text for now.”

Pasadena Heritage has already apologized the lack of references to the riot on the original plaque.

While they voted on the new language, the commission also agreed to consult Asian American organizations, including Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and Chinese American Museum.

Problems began in 1883 soon after Yuen Kee moved his laundry, which was the first Chinese-owned business in Pasadena, to Mills Street, now called Mills Place in present-day Old Pasadena. There Kee rented a 544 square-foot building from Jacob Hisey, a trustee of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

Soon other Chinese entrepreneurs started businesses on Mills Street.

According to a 2015 Pasadena Weekly article by Matt Hormann, the fire was caused by a white mob that, according to the story, “turned Pasadena’s Chinatown into an inferno, obliterating it from the landscape, and, for many years, from the history books as well.”

Hormann wrote that “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.”

The names of the perpetrators of the violence have never been released.

The incident led to the formation of the city’s Fire Department and decades of racial separation, according to the article.

According to Hormann’s article, in 1884, the Pasadena & Valley Union, the city’s only newspaper at the time, began publishing racist articles that called the Chinese “an objectionable class” whose immigration “ought to be restricted.”

Later that year, the paper claimed there was “sufficient cause” for expelling the Chinese from Pasadena and claimed it could be done legally.

It wasn’t long until nearly 100 men had signed a petition pledging not to lease property to Chinese people. The newspaper continued to fuel the racist flames by claiming the agreement must be effective in driving them out if all property owners would unite in it.

The petition was signed by future mayors M.H. Weight and T.P. Lukens, the city postmaster, the local justice of the peace, the president of the Colorado Street Railroad Co., and the man who laid the cornerstone for Castle Green.

A fire began the same day the names were revealed. A group of white men had gathered near the laundry and began throwing rocks at it. A lamp was knocked over and the fire began. In full mob mentality, the men began looting the laundry after the Chinese residents fled for their lives.

The day after the fire, Chinese business owners returned to find an effigy of a Chinese man lynched from a telegraph pole across the street. At the same time, city officials were drafting an ordinance to ban Chinese people from parts of Pasadena.

“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,” the ordinance read.

Chinese were warned to leave the city within 24 hours or they would “call out the crowd, and they would run the Chinese out by force.”

Fearing for their lives, Pasadena’s Chinese residents left town.

“I think the text was written in part by a local resident, the HRC and us.” Saliman said. “It seems to tell the story of what happened in a factual, matter-of-fact way, which is important. I don’t know how the QR code will be implemented, but I hope it can link to a site that tells a more comprehensive history of the early Chinese Pasadenans.”

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