• A black and white historical photo of a burned building

      Burned laundry (Photo courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History)

      Racial Boycotts and Anti-Asian Violence Defined Early Pasadena.

      By Matt Hormann

      “Resolved, 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.”
      ~ Pasadena law drafted Nov. 7th, 1885

      “No leprous or diseased individuals around OUR laundry. None but white labor employed.”
      ~ Ad for Pasadena Steam Laundry, Pasadena Daily Evening Star, 1892

      In the mid-1940s, a Chinese-American family — the Lowes — received a peculiar letter from their Pasadena neighbors. “We, the undersigned property owners on the West side of Wilson Avenue, between San Pasqual and Cordova Streets, purchased our property knowing that it was restricted to occupancy by the Caucasian Race,” it read. “We ask if you will not, as good citizens, permit a reliable agent to re-sell the property to a Caucasian buyer with the provision that it be sold at no loss to you.”

      It was the third time the family, who owned a successful retail shop on Colorado Boulevard, had faced discrimination.

      The move was by no means incongruous, however. Though race-restrictive housing affected all non-white homebuyers in Pasadena, residents of Chinese descent had the unique distinction of being the only ethnic group to be driven from the city by violence: in 1885, a white mob burned down a Chinese laundry in present-day Old Town and chased out Chinese residents with threats of mass lynching. The following day, the city fathers — including one future Pasadena mayor — drafted an ordinance banishing the Chinese from the city center. 

      The expulsion had consequences that lasted for decades.

      “Never Bothered Anyone”

      paper cutouts

      Chinese owned businesses

      In the Victorian era, when Pasadena’s dirt roads welcomed midwesterners fleeing cold winters, intrepid young Chinese men also put down roots. Braving an ocean voyage by steamship, and often arriving heavily indebted to the parties facilitating their journey (boat passage was paid in exchange for 3 years of labor), the Chinese staked out an existence in “Gold Mountain” as ranch hands, domestic servants, railroad builders, construction workers, and ditch-diggers.

      “Once they arrived, the worker was at the mercy of all,” notes PCC history professor Susie H. Ling. “They had no recourse (no families, no police, no way to go home, no money, no rights, no other job opportunities). […] [They] were full of hope and dreams of making it super rich in “Gum Saan.’”

      One such enterprising young man was Yuen Kee, Pasadena’s first Chinese resident, who settled in the city in 1874.

      In 1875, Yuen hung out his shingle on S. Orange Grove Blvd., just south of Colorado. His laundry occupied the first storefront in Pasadena, built by Moritz Rosenbaum, a liquor vendor, and likely Pasadena’s first Jewish resident.

      Others followed: by 1880, the city had 19 Chinese residents, all male and mostly young. In a 1964 history of Pasadena, Henry Markham Page noted that they did jobs unattractive to white labor — working as ranch hands, cooks, ditch-diggers, laundrymen, and domestic servants. “They never bothered anyone,” he wrote. “They worked hard and could be seen on the streets of Pasadena dressed in their long coats, their hair tied in queues, shuffling to and from their jobs.” Chinese farmers also leased land in the Arroyo to grow vegetables for the “market garden” business.

      A map showing a location

      Present day MiIls Place

      In 1883, two Chinese businesses ran ads in Pasadena’s newspaper — Yuen Kee’s laundry and employment office, and Wah Lee’s laundry and ironing service. That year, Yuen Kee moved his laundry from Orange Grove to the corner of Fair Oaks and Green Street. “This establishes a Chinese quarter of the town,” wrote the Pasadena Chronicle. “And we are consequently cosmopolitan, as we understand it in California.”

      Mills Street (today Mills Place), a small dirt road that began as a citrus magnate’s private driveway, became the hub of Pasadena’s Chinatown.

      Here, one could employ the laundry services of Lin Kee, “a bright active fellow, shrewd in business and generally popular,” who spoke English fluently and worked as a local court interpreter; or visit Quong Wung Chung’s “Chinee & Dry Goods” store — which faced Colorado Blvd.

      Chinese immigrants were vital to Pasadena’s labor force. They did most of the city’s laundry, and from 1883 to 1886, according to Water and Power Associates, “more than 250 workers — many of them Chinese” helped build the opulent Raymond Hotel. Chinese workers also planted the iconic deodar trees that line Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane.

      By 1885, at least three Chinese businesses operated in present-day Old Town. Approximately 60-100 Chinese residents lived along Mills Street in wood bunkhouses.

      Unlike sprawling modern Chinatowns, small settlements were not unusual. “Sometimes it was just two laundries and a couple of bunkhouses, and that’s your Chinatown,” explained Eugene Moy, former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, in a 2014 interview. “People went down there to do business, to shop, and also, of course, to smoke, drink, and gamble — all the usual vices — which were really endemic across the West, and not limited to Chinese.”

      Pasadena had at least one Chinese gambling den, and in a city that prided itself on aversion to vice, not everyone appreciated its presence.

      “A Detriment to Pasadena’s Welfare”

      On October 18, 1883, the Pasadena Chronicle abruptly announced that, “Mr. Webster is inaugurating an agreeable change for his patron – ‘no Chinese need apply.’” Webster, the man who lay the cornerstone of the Castle Green, was soon joined by others.

      After editor William H. Magee sold his share of the Chronicle to J.E. Clarke, a businessman from Maine, the paper merged with the San Gabriel Valley Union to become the Pasadena & Valley Union. It later merged again, ultimately becoming the Pasadena Star-News.

      With a new name and editors, the Union churned out a litany of racist broadsides and anti-immigrant invective.

      They referred to Pasadena’s Chinese as a “jabbering Mongolian army,” called Chinatown a “detriment [to] Pasadena’s welfare,” and lampooned Chinese speech patterns in local reporting. When a young man “of hoodlum proclivities” assaulted Chinese workers in 1884, the paper cheered the attacker for “[causing] the moon-eyed army to retreat in confusion.”

      The publication also had close ties with Pasadena resident Abbot Kinney — future founder of Venice, CA —  a believer in eugenics and discredited race science, who raised funds for Pasadena’s first public library. Kinney declared that the brain of a white American was superior to that of a “black American,” that Jews were “more wanton and lustful” than other races, and that African-Americans were better off under slavery. Kinney would not allow Chinese “on his farm or around his house,” according to an 1886 account, and “steadily refused” to employ them “even sometimes at great pecuniary loss.”

      In an article for the Union in March 1884, Kinney called the Chinese “an ignorant and venal population” and said, “Let us have no more of a servile race. The Indians and negroes are game enough for those who wish to cheat, defraud and misuse human beings. Those two races debase enough whites; let us not introduce a third race to increase the temptation.”

      The paper reached its nadir with a grotesque reaction to the lynching of a Chinese cook in Azusa in July, 1884. Accused of killing a white girl, the cook fled up a canyon and attempted suicide by slitting his throat. Before he could complete the act, however, a posse of local ranchers found him and hung him from a sycamore tree. His bullet-riddled body was discovered later by the local sheriff.

      “All were satisfied that the heathen had met his just desserts,” wrote the Pasadena & Valley Union. “If lynching was ever justifiable it certainly was upon this occasion.”

      By October 1885, the paper proclaimed there was “sufficient cause” for expelling the Chinese from Pasadena.

      “We hear of Chinese rows in Pasadena,” they wrote on October 2, 1885—“shooting, throwing stones and other acts of lawlessness are charged to the Mongolians. We have no reason to doubt these current reports. Night is made hideous in certain quarters by the heathens. […] A change is demanded. We believe it can be done lawfully and without interfering with the property or business rights of anyone concerned. 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.”

      “The Chinese have been a great nuisance here”

      a cut out from a newspaper

      Anti-Chinese Agreement

      On November 6, 1885 the paper announced: “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 was signed by 96 men, including two future mayors, the city postmaster, the justice of the peace, and the president of the Colorado Street Railroad Company.

      That night, a group of men gathered near Yuen Kee’s laundry and began “loafing, smoking, and talking ‘Chinaman,’” according to one historian. A witness described them as transient laborers “busy blaming the Chinese for their inability to get a job.” Some were intoxicated, having patronized a local saloon.

      Around 8:30, someone threw a stone into the laundry, shattering a window and striking a worker. A second stone followed, upending a kerosene lamp and igniting a fire. “The Chinamen ran shouting into the street,” wrote historian J.W. Wood in a 1917 history of Pasadena.

      Animated by the fire, the mob rushed the laundry and looted property. They threw stones and sticks at the Chinese and uttered “vile imprecations,” according to an eyewitness. Others headed up Mills Street chanting “lynch the Chinks!” and “hang the yellow devils.” Some in the crowd demanded that “every Chinamen in town […] leave that night or be hung” and “marched to the Chinese quarters, in favor of ‘cleaning out’ the Celestials at once,” according to the L.A. Times.

      “The Chinamen were nearly frightened to death, and there was some reason for their fears,” wrote Wood.

      Pasadena’s deputy sheriff — Thomas Banbury — quickly got word of the riot, loaded a pistol, and deputized two other men: Benjamin F. Ball, and George Greeley.

      By the time the men arrived at Mills Street, three buildings were on fire and rioters were tearing apart a wood structure where the Chinese had taken refuge.

      Banbury mounted a barrel and drew his pistol on the crowd. “[He] promised to perforate anybody performing unlawful acts,” recalled Pasadena resident Arthur F. Clarke in 1923. “They were not performed.”

      The sheriff formed a council to confer with the Chinese and after 20 minutes, struck a peace deal: he would call off the mob if the Chinese left the next day.

      The mob departed, “very happy at the prospect of being rid of the Chinese,” reported the L.A. Times.

      Fearing for Pasadena’s reputation, several citizens made a preemptive call to the Times on the city’s only telephone, at 9:30 pm.

      “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.”

      At midnight, they phoned again: “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.”

      At some point during the night, someone fashioned a crude effigy of a Chinese man lynched from a telegraph or telephone pole, captured in a single photograph the next day — along with spectators — by a local cameraman.

      That morning, November 7th, 35 men met in the notary public office of T.P. Lukens, a fruit-grower and real estate agent who would be elected Pasadena mayor twice. Here, they drafted an ordinance:

      “Resolved, 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 Chinese were then informed that if they did not depart by an appointed time, the schoolhouse bell would “call out the crowd, and they would run the Chinese out by force.”

      Stolen Chinese property — with an estimated value of more than $61,000 in today’s dollars — was never recovered. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the riot.

      “No Chinese Employed”

      An old photo of a warehouse with a sign proclaiming no Chinese employed

      Citrus packing house with “No Chinese Employed” sign (Photo – E.S. Frost courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History)

      Within days, D.C. Ehrenfeld, a signatory to the exclusionary ordinance, 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 Pasadena & Valley Union. “Give him a call and encourage the enterprise with your patronage.”

      William Peirce, another signer, soon ran ads for his Marengo Avenue hotel that read: “Fine sunny rooms, cheerful parlors and dining room […] No Chinese employed.”

      By the following year, Pasadena’s first orange packing house, run by F.H. Heydenreich — who later became president of the Pasadena Realty Board — displayed the same sign.

      L.A. minister Richard M. Beach was outraged. On Nov. 21, 1885, he penned a blistering letter to the L.A. Times. “What are we coming to?” he implored. “Must we concede that, with all our boasted intelligence, refinement and Christianity, we are a nation of mobocrats? […] The Pasadenians certainly ought to be on their knees at the mourners’ bench, every last one of them, bringing forth fruits meet for repentance.”

      Tempers and paranoia remained inflamed in Pasadena however. In December 1885 an 8-year-old boy accused a Chinese man of performing a “nameless outrage” on him. “The people of Pasadena are filled with indignation at the affair,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald, “and if the Chinaman can be identified he will be lynched without benefit of clergy.”

      The location of Yuen Kee’s laundry remained derelict for years. An 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows a vacant lot on the spot. The wood bunkhouses along Mills Place were replaced by two mattress stores, two carpenters, and several small dwellings.

      In 1887, the city passed a resolution for the first fire department, and in 1889, the first fire station was built directly across the street from where Chinatown once stood.

      Yuen Kee was still operating a laundry in 1901, according the L.A. Times, and was listed in city directories as late as 1918.

      Pasadena’s Chinese, however, continued to face discrimination.

      paper cut outs

      White Laundry, Dec. 4, 1885 (No Chinese Employed)

      In 1893, the Simons Brick Company of Pasadena dismissed its 40 Chinese workers, and on September 22, a mob gathered at Fair Oaks and Colorado, for “a discussion of the Chinese evil.” Leading them was an unemployed blacksmith who had been on a two-week bender and was promptly arrested for public intoxication. Some talked of “cleaning out Chinatown,” the Los Angeles Herald reported, but “cooler heads prevailed.”

      Mysterious fires continued to plague the district. In 1898, a Chinese laundry burned down and a Chinese laundryman died after jumping from a second story window. Louie Sing, a local, watched his home burn one night in May 1901, estimating his property loss at $300. ($11,000 in today’s currency.). And in 1902, a Chinese bunkhouse belonging to domestic servants burned “from causes that are not known,” according to the L.A. Herald.

      The worst came in 1918, when the Chinese-American Cooperative Vegetable Company burned, destroying a storefront and three Chinese dwellings, and killing fourteen horses. “Most of [the occupants] lost their worldly belongings and savings in the blaze, which gave them only time to escape with their lives,” said the L.A. Times. The fire led to a “citywide vegetable famine.”

      Meanwhile, 1885 expulsion receded into memory and local folklore, its edges dulled by retelling. A 1933 color pictorial map of Pasadena makes light of the incident, showing a cartoonish Chinese man being chased by black-clad men wielding guns and knives, with the text: “Hi Lee-Hi Low Chinese Laundry Man Mobbed in 1885” [sic]

      “Restricted to occupancy by the Caucasian Race”

      In July 1939, a group of self-described Pasadena “business and professional men” formed the Pasadena Improvement Association. The group included “nine bankers, six real estate men, three attorneys, one Pasadena City Director, and others” and was endorsed by the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, Merchants’ Association, and Realty Board. Their stated goal was to convince and assist property owners to “limit use and occupancy of property to members of the white or Caucasian Race only.” Secretary-Treasurer Albert I. Stewart was more explicit: he told the Pasadena NAACP, “[I am] from the South, from Tennessee. Where ‘nigras’ know their place.”

      By 1941 sixty percent of residential property in Pasadena was restricted to whites only.

      “It was the age of eugenics,” says Kristine Lowe, 49, a fourth-generation Pasadenan of Chinese descent. “It was the age of Nazi Germany being able to separate other humans as well just by ranking them according to ethnicity. You legally could not send a Chinese child to a white school.”

      With deep roots in the area (Lowe’s great-grandfather was Arcadia-founder Lucky Baldwin’s herb doctor), Lowe remembers hearing stories as a child of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and of the 1885 burning of Yuen Kee’s laundry —  “all the times that we were pushed out,” she says.

      Upon moving to Pasadena in 1939, a neighbor told her great-grandmother, “‘You can’t live here, Pocahontas. They’ll tell you at City Hall.’”

      When her great-grandparents bought a lot at 392 S. Wilson Street, “neighbors circulated a petition to say we shouldn’t live there because as Asians, we would lower the property values,” recalled her grandfrather, Eugene Lowe, in a 2015 interview.

      “We recognize that the sale […] was legal but believe that the sale, under the above conditions, was a mistake,” it read.

      Kristine, who serves on the Sierra Madre City Council, credits her Chinese-American family with breaking Pasadena’s color barrier. “The way my family approached [racism] was more like an empowering message than it was a victimization message,” she says.

      Albert Lowe Jr., her uncle, was elected to the Pasadena School Board in 1969. He helped desegregate Pasadena public schools following a court order in 1970. Local citizens tried to impeach him.

      “We had a lot of animosity after that,” she says. “There were rocks being thrown at my uncle’s house and death threats and things like that. He was on a leadership position on the school board and he was able to say, you know what, you’re going to have to desegregate.”

      In 1973, Kristine’s father, Roger, became the first Chinese-American firefighter in the San Gabriel Valley. Kristine later became the first female office of the Sierra Madre Fire Department.

      Now an educator with Glendale Unified, she thinks it’s important to teach accurate history to combat prejudice. “We’ve seen diminished anti-Asian hate but it’s still there, it’s still prevalent,” she says. “Look what happened after the Covid-19 pandemic: it’s ‘someone to blame,’ it’s ‘someone’s different from us so they must be bad’ — instead of [appreciating] other people’s differences.”

      Recently, Lowe attended the unveiling of new historical plaques on Mills Place and Fair Oaks in Old Town celebrating the contributions of Chinese settlers and highlighting the tragedy the Yuen Kee laundry fire.

      While there, she was overcome by emotion. “I was remembering my grandfather,” she says. “He was such a leader with his family in Pasadena. It reminded me how we all just want to give back and make this community better for everyone.”

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        • Matt Hormann

          Matt Hormann is a lifelong Pasadena resident and a graduate of the L.A. County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and Cal State University Northridge, where he received his B.A. in English. He’s a history nerd with a knack for investigative journalism and social justice.

          Colorado Boulevard is your place for enlightening events, informative news and social living for the greater Pasadena area. We strive to inform, educate, and work together to make a better world for all of us, locally and globally.

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      1. Robert Hilleary says:

        The behavior and attitudes of these early residents and founders of Pasadena are so reprehensible, so repugnant, inhumane, barbaric, mean-spirited, and nasty, that it leaves me with a sense of abject shame and disgust living here and knowing this legacy. And these people prided themselves on their Christian values? They were drunken heathens committing atrocities upon an ethnic minority that lived here to perform the low pay undesirable jobs that were critical to the local economy. These industrious immigrants from China who didn’t degrade themselves with public drunkenness, were subjected to violent removal, their homes and businesses looted and burned, and all over what? A backroom gambling parlor? Good God in Heaven. Well, we’ve certainly come a long way from then. I applaud the telling of this story in excruciating detail as it is, because we are a strong and resilient culture when we can face this sordid history, own it, and be appropriately contrite for the terrible treatment of this clan of Chinese immigrants who bothered nobody and were integral to the prosperous local economy.

      2. Patty Strickland Jacobson says:

        I couldn’t even get through the whole article…too distressing. Such ignorance, racism, brutality…

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