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Site of the Chinatown Fire


November 6, 1885: As Chinese workers were ironing clothes inside a washhouse, some white men and boys began to throw rocks at them. One of the rocks went through a window and knocked over a kerosene lamp. A fire spread rapidly throughout the laundry. Some of the Chinese inside, afraid they were going to be trapped by the men on the street, fled out a back door.


The men who had thrown the rocks ran in and looted the building, then chased the remaining Chinese to another building. By now the small group of men who started the incident had grown to dozens, and they started to break into the building where they had chased the Chinese. They were thwarted when Deputy Sheriff Thomas Banbury arrived with some local businessmen, and the mob dispersed without further harm that night.


The next day, however, another crowd hanged a dummy dressed in Chinese clothes in effigy next to the smoldering remains of the laundry. Allegedly to prevent further violence, all Chinese were ordered out of downtown Pasadena within 24 hours, and more than 100 Chinese soon moved to new location just outside of the city limits. Later it was found that the block where the original laundry and other nearby Chinese businesses were located was coveted by local real estate speculators.


After the expulsion the Los Angeles Times reported that "the respectable portion" of Pasadena's community "says the Chinese may stay indefinitely...[because]...their labor is needed" but only "if they remain outside of the civic center."


I am indebted to Michael James and his book The Conspiracy of the Good for some of the details about this event.

Sources: James. McDannold, Pfaelzer, Sandmeyer, Saxton

About this site: The site of the original Chinese laundry was documented by newspaper reports and city records. It was located where the building in the left foreground of this photo now stands. A historical plaque on the wall of the building simply says "A fire at this site destroyed a laundry establishment owned by Chinese settlers."


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