Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L.A.'s Chinese Pioneers: A Look at Their Lives Through Photographs

A total of two Chinese men were first documented as residing in Los Angeles in the 1850 census.  Chinese came overseas from villages in the southern province, Guangdong -- today a global manufacturing region.  Their drive was in part fueled by the Gold Rush. In 1870, the local Chinese population numbered at 179, an increase since the 1860 census, which had a count of 14 men and 2 women.

The earliest Chinese quarter was along Calle de los Negros, not far from today's Union Station.  As their population increased, the establishments of general stores, laundries and fraternal societies defined the area of Old Chinatown.  Dilapidated, seedy abode, prostituted female brethren and hard-working willingness to perform the lowliest jobs were characteristics that colored the public perception.

The late historian Alexander Saxton's study of Chinese labor in the U.S., aptly-titled The Indispensable Enemy, summed up the American disdain.  Massacres of Chinese camps occurred throughout the country, including the one in L.A.'s Old Chinatown that took eighteen men and boys in 1871. 

Curious men, outsiders of the Chinatowns of L.A. and San Francisco, took street photos, often surreptitiously with a hidden camera on the body (Arnold Genthe of San Francisco's pre-earthquake Chinatown), or photographed from behind the subject, or openly (Frank Washburn) but the resulting image often included the hand shielding the face.  Louis Stellman followed Genthe's with his own photographic study of San Francisco Chinatown (ca. 1917).  The Los Angeles La Fiesta parade provided opportunity to photograph the Chinese (C.C. Pierce, Frank Washburn).  Below is an example of Washburn's efforts (ca. 1902-1905 when he was out in the field as an inspector for the gas and electric company):

P-007-W2038 (Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research)

19th century studio portraits taken of Los Angeles Chinese pioneers are relatively rare.  Possibly earlier photographs (carte de visites or tintypes might exist in private American family albums, or perhaps most photos were carried back to their Chinese village homes and given to wives and parents.)  Today, according to Oakland newspaper journalist and author William Wong, "Wuyi University is one of the main places that studies the Overseas Chinese experience (meaning, the migration of Chinese from the 8 counties of Guangdong Province west of the Pearl River Delta)."  The academic resource could be tapped by historians of Los Angeles history.

The following studio portraits are dated mid-1890s to 1920; they show the upwardly-mobile prosperity of the generations that followed the two lone men of 1850.  The photographs were deeded to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County as a portion of a larger family photograph collection of the Upham's, originally of Massachusetts.  George Washington Upham and his wife Eliza raised their daughter Golden, who was born in 1898 on dairy farm land later converted to manufacturing by the Firestone Tire Company.  The Uphams were members of the First Baptist Church.

Could the Uphams have befriended the Chinese through their church activities?  "The First Baptist Church of Los Angeles became the primary agent of American Protestant activity in the 1880s" according to Gregory H. Singleton's Religion in the City of the Angels.  And Eliza Upham sponsored a student from Canton (about 1907) as indicated from the back of a photo in the collection.

Below is a cabinet card by the North Spring St. Studio, Los Angeles.  The furniture and the backdrop have Oriental designs, which raises a question whether Ko Chow had the photo taken in China or San Francisco, and subsequently had it mounted on card stock in L.A.

P-028-5-377 J (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)

P-028-5-377 K (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)
The above portrait is about 1894-1896, of a young man named Quon Fong.  J.B. Blanchard operated the studio between those years.

P-028-5-377 M (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)
The cabinet card above was noted on the backside as Mrs. Soo Hoo Mon Sing, Christmas, 1908.  The cabinet card appears to be top-of-the-line, with the unusual satin, finely-ribbed card stock.  She may have been born in Canton, about 1861 and lived to about 1924 in L.A.  She bore ten children.  She may have claimed U.S. citizenship (when the vital records were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906) because the 1930 census record for her daughter Carrie listed the mother as California-born.  The photographer, Michael A. Wesner, operated a studio at 120 North Spring between 1893 and 1909.

P-028-5-377 H (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Above was one of Mrs. Sing's daughters, Laura, about 10 years old, circa 1908.  Older sister (not pictured) Carrie (b. 1895) married into the Woo family; the census record listed her husband as the proprietor of a grocery retail store; they owned a house.

P-028-5-377 C (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Taken in 1920, Mrs. Sing's grandson above, Winslow Woo, appears fashionably dressed in a Western-style baby outfit.  He was Carrie's second-born son.