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Los Angeles Reckons with a Dark History by Asking the Public How to Memorialize the 1871 Chinese Massacre | Features

Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, Los Angeles, date unknown (likely between 1882–1917). USC Digital Library/Library Exhibits Collection.

Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, Los Angeles, date unknown (likely between 1882–1917). USC Digital Library/Library Exhibits Collection.

Architects and artists are frequently asked to contribute their ideas for proposed memorials and other works of public art. The City of Los Angeles recently issued a Request for Ideas (RFI) that many designers may find compelling at a time when America’s history of race relations and violence are top of mind for many Americans. 

Michael Pinto, Principal at NAC Architecture in Los Angeles, discussed the new L.A. RFI with two figures deeply involved in laying the groundwork for a new memorial to the 1871 Massacre of 18 Chinese in Los Angeles that was the largest mass killing in the city’s history. Pinto, an advisor to the memorial process, spoke with Christopher Hawthorne, Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles (and former L.A. Times architecture critic), and Michael Woo, an urban planner who is a former city council member and dean emeritus of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design.

Michael Pinto: Let’s start with the idea of a new memorial in Los Angeles. You have introduced the subject here as somewhat of an unknown issue: the 1871 Chinese Massacre. Can we start with a bit of context about what happened and what we’re memorializing?

Michael Woo: This event is important on several levels. On one level, it’s a story about Los Angeles in its early days, a town of about 5,800 residents in 1871. On the night of October 24, 1871, a mob of about 500 Angelenos killed at least 18 Chinese, about 10 percent of L.A.’s Chinese population, within the span of a few hours. It was the largest massacre of Chinese in California history and the largest mass killing of any kind in Los Angeles history. And yet it is generally not well known, not discussed in schools, and not written about very much in history books. The current effort to create a permanent memorial to the 1871 Massacre means a lot not only to Chinese Americans but potentially to a wider range of potential visitors and participants who are open to seeing a connection between the 1871 Massacre and contemporary concerns about race relations and violence.

Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs/Folder Studio

Michael, in other conversations, you have used a term that caught my attention. You’ve described the ‘strands’ of this story when you spoke about the way that the history is fragmented across the city. Over time the city has woven itself into the story. How do you think about this multifaceted, dispersed narrative which contains both strands of violence and also heroism?

Michael Woo: The massacre can be thought of as something like a fabric that’s made of many threads. It’s a story with several sub-stories that are part of it. For someone like me, who really didn’t know very much about the particulars of the massacre until a couple of years ago, one of the things that makes it fascinating but also complicated, is how to keep all these strands visible and organized. That is how to think about something that involves quite a few individuals, both as victims and as perpetrators. There’s not only the story and the history part, but there’s also the physical part — the fact that the massacre unfolded over several different sites dispersed over several blocks across the civic center in what is today downtown Los Angeles.

The massacre can be thought of as something like a fabric that’s made of many threads. It’s a story with several sub-stories that are part of it” — Michael Woo

Part of my approach to this is actually going back to my roots as an urban planner and thinking about Los Angeles, especially downtown Los Angeles and the Civic Center, and how people perceive this physical area as a dispersed area that lacks physical connections. Creating a memorial here actually could be a way to create connections that did not previously exist. Maybe it means bridging over the submerged freeway. Maybe it means looking at another barrier or obstacle like present-day Alameda Street. Maybe it’s thinking about how L.A.’s initial Chinatown was near El Pueblo, then obliterated by city authorities following the massacre, and moved across Alameda and thrived for several decades until it was displaced to make room for the new Union Station, and then had to move again to its current location to the north of L.A.’s Civic Center.

A new memorial to the 1871 Massacre could represent an opportunity to address the physical discontinuity and disjointed characteristics of the area. In addition to the physical form of a memorial, perhaps using technology or signage could actually help to stitch together or reconnect the disjointed aspects of this part of Los Angeles that many people today can’t really see or comprehend.

Paper dragon carried by Los Angeles Chinatown citizens in a parade, 1901. C.C. Pierce Collection/The Huntington.

Christopher, you’ve been working with the Civic Memory Working Group and the Department of Cultural Affairs to address some of our more difficult histories. It seems like there are many strands of many stories out there. How does the work that you’re doing with that group really set the stage for these kinds of conversations?

Christopher Hawthorne: The Civic Memory Working Group, which Mayor Garcetti convened beginning in the fall of 2019, was the first comprehensive attempt by the city to analyze, in a critical and self-conscious way, the complicated relationship that Los Angeles has had with its own history.

Los Angeles has long thought of itself as a city of the future, maybe the city of the future. In terms of its civic identity, it has largely defined itself in connection to the future, to what it might become. As a result, it has often felt that it could grow its way out of any problem, whether economic or social. And that’s not all bad. It’s been one of the reasons that creative people, in particular, continue to flock to Los Angeles. This is a place that is continually reassessing and reinventing itself, and a place that continues to prize innovation.

But the flip side of that tendency has been, I think, a broad-based neglect of our history and a tendency to whitewash the more difficult moments in our past, and to rely on a great deal of mythmaking and boosterism in terms of the stories we tell ourselves about how Los Angeles developed and what it represents. 

So, we set out with the Civic Memory Working Group to try to forge a more productive and more honest relationship with the fraught, difficult, and painful aspects of the city’s history, and the aspects of the city’s history that have been buried or that we have been reluctant to talk about. That Working Group, which included more than three dozen historians, artists, architects, designers, city officials, Indigenous elders, and others, produced a report and recommendations in the spring of 2021. The report included a call for the city to commemorate and grapple with the violence of the 1871 Chinese Massacre much more prominently in public space than it had. There is a small plaque embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Chinese American Museum. That was part of a series of plaques that were put in place about two decades ago. Other than that, the city had never marked nor acknowledged nor apologized for this really gruesome act of violence.

… we set out with the Civic Memory Working Group to try to forge a more productive and more honest relationship with the fraught, difficult, and painful aspects of the city’s history, and the aspects of the city’s history that have been buried or that we have been reluctant to talk about” — Christopher Hawthorne

The effort to develop a memorial, which led to the Request for Ideas released last month, comes from that specific recommendation. It also comes from the broader ethos of the Civic Memory report, which argued that the city has too often acted as a gatekeeper in deciding which stories we tell and which histories we seek to understand. The report suggested that we might act more as a facilitator of community interest, community memory, and community aspiration. We have structured the Request for Ideas for the 1871 Memorial very much in that spirit, looking first to the community and convening a Steering Committee of more than seventy Chinese American leaders and other key stakeholders in and around Chinatown to ask them how they would like to see this process unfold, how they would like to see the design selection process shaped.

A view of Calle de los Negros in the Old Chinatown section of Los Angeles, 1882. Ellis & Son/ The Huntington.

We’re speaking the day after 9/11. When I think of many of the memorials that we’re familiar with, these projects tend to happen very quickly after the event. It takes a strong kind of civic response to get a memorial in place. We’re dealing with something else here. We have a different perspective. We have the time and ability to look at this and put it in an historical context. What does 150 years mean for the project? How does it connect to both the event of the day and the issues of today?

Michael Woo: Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, the 1871 Massacre is an incident that is not well known to the general public. I have found that many people react to first hearing about the massacre, either with disbelief or almost a feeling of shame, that they didn’t know about something like this. In the case of 9/11, many people alive today saw the 9/11 attacks on television or were aware of the aftermath immediately after it happened. But the fact that the 1871 Massacre happened 150 years ago requires a leap of imagination for people of 2022 to imagine Los Angeles not as a cosmopolitan world city but as a lawless Wild West town that most Americans had never heard of.

Christopher Hawthorne: In thinking about this question, I want to go back to something that Michael mentioned earlier, which is the connection that we hope this memorial will have to contemporary concerns about anti-Asian violence.

There’s a particular lesson, for me, that came out of the Civic Memory process. I think it was the great Stanford historian Richard White who pointed out in one of our discussions that memorials often reflect the times that they are built more directly than they represent the historical event that they are meant to summarize, or memorialize, or remember; and often they do this either unwittingly, or implicitly, or in ways that are not at the surface. For example, many Confederate monuments and memorials were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when a certain strain of white supremacy was ascendant. There were ways in which some of the remnants of post-war Reconstruction and other efforts to integrate or reintegrate African Americans into society and civic culture were being aggressively opposed by white supremacist movements. Many Confederate monuments, in the guise of remembering the Confederate cause, were also very much making an argument against that kind of reform or that kind of integration.

We want this memorial to grapple with both the historic events of 1871 and the resonances of that event in and for contemporary society” — Christopher Hawthorne

We want this memorial to grapple with both the historic events of 1871 and the resonances of that event in and for contemporary society. And we hope it will do so self-consciously, wittingly. We’ve been very clear about our interest not to hide the fact that this memorial, like virtually all others, will have something powerful to say not just about the past but about the moment in which it is designed and erected.

A view of Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, date unknown. (likely 1920s–1930s). USC Libraries/Dick Whittington Collection.

Michael, you’ve referred to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial realized in 1982 as a turning point in memorials and memorial design. How would you situate your aspirations for the project in relation to an evolution of thinking about memorial design? Do you see this occasion or the character of this site as lending themselves to different approaches to place-making in the city?

Michael Woo: Looking back at the process involving the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned. One observation is that the uneasy birth of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the early 1980s launched a new generation of memorials that are addressing painful aspects of our history. They’re doing it in a way that moves beyond the stereotype of a statue on a pedestal and opening up new ways of thinking about physical landmarks and how they comment upon or evoke thoughts about aspects of our history that are painful, controversial, or unresolved.

Since the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, striking memorials have proliferated in civic spaces, college campuses, and public parks. Many of the new memorials reflect the evolution of thinking about slavery and its aftermath, specifically the legacy of lynching. Memorials have been inspired by the internment of Japanese Americans and the immigration history of Irish Americans.  The 9/11 terrorist attacks have produced about 700 memorials not only in the Northeast where the attacks took place but also around the country.  The history of Chinese immigrants, and especially the history of anti-Chinese sentiments, is mostly unrecognized except for a memorial to the forced expulsion of Chinese from Tacoma, Washington, and a memorial to Chinese railroad construction workers in Toronto.

Primary site map. Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs/Folder Studio

Christopher, in your role as a Chief Design Officer for the City, you’ve been able to instigate a series of participatory processes, competitions, and charrettes, and they’ve all been a little bit different. This one feels special, ambitious. It has a chance to connect emotionally to Angelenos quite broadly. Can you put this in context relative to what your charge is? What do you think this means for instigating conversations about design in Los Angeles?

Christopher Hawthorne: I agree that this is an unusual opportunity for Los Angeles to mark a difficult moment in its history quite prominently in the public realm. There are not too many opportunities for cities to do that. I think those opportunities have to be considered very carefully and very thoughtfully, and we’ve really tried to do that, starting with getting significant input from the community about how the process itself should unfold. It’s not only what the memorial should look like or where it should go, but how the process should be designed. That was the first question we sought to get input on from this community steering committee.

Secondary site maps. Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs/Folder Studio

What we heard was very specific and nuanced advice about the structure of what we’re now calling a Request for Ideas. It exists somewhere between an open competition on one end of the spectrum and a typical Request for Qualifications or Request for Proposals that the Department of Cultural Affairs is used to doing on the other. This is something of a hybrid approach that combines elements of both. That has made it a more deliberate process and one that’s been much more open to influence from the broader community. I think the process is really stronger for all of that.

We’ve also tried to think about issues of labor, equity, and access. There’s no fee to submit a response to the RFI and we’ve significantly limited the scope of deliverables for the first round, in an attempt to level the playing field for smaller firms and individual artists and designers. The scoring rubric puts a premium on the strength of conceptual ideas rather than how polished your renderings are. And then we’ve set aside stipends of $15,000 for each of the shortlisted teams so that the work of fleshing out a full proposal will be compensated.

Designers can be very fearful of a public process where you have the level of input that you just described. The fear is that a public process can dilute design, but it feels like the expectation for strong design, provocative thinking, for provocative ideas has not relented. This is a unique process; you could have employed any number of procurement strategies. Is it the competition aspect that allows it to remain strong, while also being inclusive?

Christopher Hawthorne: I’m glad you raised this question because it’s an issue that I’ve given a lot of thought to during my time in City Hall.

I think it is possible for community input, if it’s structured poorly, to water down or limit the ambition of a design. But if it’s organized more thoughtfully and effectively, it can really give a strong foundation to a project and allow its ambition to have a greater chance of success. In this case that meant going to the community first, getting input about where and how the design should be developed and what it might mean, how it should grapple both with history and with contemporary issues in ways that we’ve discussed, and then using that as the basis for a design brief which we feel is all the more ambitious for having that foundation.

Just as important, when proposals come in, we will leave it to an evaluation panel of experts in design and public art to select our shortlist. And then, those shortlisted teams will go back to the community to make a series of public presentations early next year — again, with funding to do so — before going back to the panel for final selection. The point is to go to the community when it makes sense and to design experts when it makes sense, being very clear about keeping those parts of the process separate and giving each its own kind of autonomy and role.

Michael Woo: I would add that Christopher and the Mayor’s Office deserve a lot of credit for instituting a process that is open and flexible in dealing with a situation that has many audiences and many sensitivities. Yet, I think the process has really demonstrated that it is possible to keep everybody together and move forward in a way that we hope will produce a memorable outcome.

Portrait of “The Old Chinatown Blacksmith” in Chinatown, c. 1899. USC Digital Library/California Historical Society Collection.

Do you think that this process that we’re going through here gives hope or a glimpse into what could happen more broadly in Los Angeles and instigate bigger conversations about design?

Christopher Hawthorne: I hope so, and I want to be candid in answering this question. The temptation for limiting community input and limiting the process in other ways is often driven by an interest in keeping the time frame of a project limited, sometimes within the calendar of a particular elected official’s time in office. We knew that this memorial was going to bridge two mayoral administrations. We knew that it was certainly not going to be possible, even if we wanted, to complete it before the end of Mayor Garcetti’s time in office.

We knew we could resist the temptation to try to limit input in an effort to get a project wrapped up on an accelerated timetable. But that’s also been an opportunity, because we wanted to really take time to ground the process in thoughtful engagement at the beginning.

I’m always hesitant to make predictions. Rather than this effort setting a new standard, I think it reflects the evolving expectations of the public — that important community voices need to be heard early on and can contribute to a stronger product.

Panoramic view of the Los Angeles Plaza, looking west, c. 1905. USC Digital Library/California Historical Society Collection

This is really encouraging. I spend a lot of time advocating for design in community. Sometimes it’s hard for organizations to open the process, but when they do, agile designers can react to the unexpected and make it that much richer. You’re embracing a very public model of evolving the city.

Christopher Hawthorne: Yes. You both mentioned Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial as marking a turning point in memorial design, as indeed it did when it opened. I think we’re at another inflection point or turning point now. We’ve been lucky enough both in the Civic Memory work and in the 1871 Memorial process to study and learn from some new models that are inspiring not just for their approach to community engagement but in rethinking how a memorial relates to its context and who it speaks to and speaks for.

One example is the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that was completed recently on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. At the first meeting of the Civic Memory Working Group in City Hall in November of 2019, we heard a presentation from Mabel Wilson, who is a professor at Columbia University and a member of the design team for that memorial. She explained in great detail the process that was involved in setting the goals for that project. You can imagine how fraught and difficult it is to think through what a memorial to enslaved laborers might mean on that campus, right around the corner from Jefferson’s lawn. That has very much been a model for us.

Another is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened shortly before we convened the first Civic Memory meeting. It also has a very complex mission. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is described on its website as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

That’s a very broad and complex set of goals that explicitly includes addressing present-day racism and violence. We learned from the way that the Equal Justice Initiative, which spearheaded the development of that memorial, approached the process of introducing it to the public and shepherding it through a conceptual and then a design process with MASS Design Group.

Those two memorials had been completed, or were soon to be completed, at the time that we were beginning these conversations. I think they are marking another turning point or inflection point not so much in what memorials look like but in how they’re produced and the relationship they have to notions of community, audience, reckoning, and both historical and present-day concerns. I think the turning point now has much less to do with form or design per se, and much more to do with these questions of process that we’ve been discussing.

A view of Calle de los Negros in the Old Chinatown section of Los Angeles, 1880s. I. W. Taber/The Huntington.

Michael, in some of the working group meetings you also referred to a diverse array of memorial strategies from around the country and around the world. Can you talk a little bit about how that kind of research fueled this process and gave you insight about developing this project in a public forum?

Michael Woo: Part of the challenge with this kind of project is, you have to educate people about what the possibilities are and to think beyond what we think of as memorials or landmarks in present-day Los Angeles. We need to try to broaden people’s horizons about what can be possible, based not just on what is in the L.A. Area, but also to look at some of these examples of memorializing a painful memory or a painful experience in the past, and making it relevant. There aren’t a lot of good examples of this locally, but it’s encouraging to see what’s been done in other places — either in the examples Christopher has mentioned, or the ones that I mentioned, or there are others that could be pointed out. I think that this project gives us a chance to define a departure for L.A., that is a new way to think about the past and to make the past relevant to the future.

You both have alluded to the array of sites that were part of the story, and I’ve heard the word ‘networked’ used when referring to a memorial that has the potential to tell a story that is geographically dispersed. As you’re thinking about a forward-thinking project and connecting to contemporary innovation in Los Angeles, the idea of a networked memorial feels provocative. What does that mean for the potential of this project?

Christopher Hawthorne: This is a fascinating question. Los Angeles is a distributed city. It’s a multi-polar city. It’s a multi-nodal city. As a result, of course, it’s often derided as a center-less city, a city without a heart or a downtown of the kind that we sometimes expect in big American cities. I find this aspect of Los Angeles’s urban form a real strength, particularly in terms of how we move through, experience, or read Los Angeles, moving freely across this connected network of nodes rather than from the suburbs to the center and back again.

I think the memorial, without necessarily having to express it explicitly, has a chance to reflect some of that same character or energy. What we heard from the Steering Committee was that it wanted one primary location for the memorial as a site of remembrance and reflection as well as a series of secondary sites that could be linked or networked as a walking tour or audio tour. The idea with the secondary sites is to mark the way that the massacre played out across a wide geography — not just in terms of violence but also as a few sites of sanctuary where Angelenos opened their doors to Chinese fleeing the danger. This is probably what I’m most interested and curious to see in terms of the responses to the RFI: how this idea of a linear, distributed, or networked series of sites might give rise to a fresh conception of what a contemporary memorial can be.

Michael Woo: Several people have suggested to me over the time that we’ve been working on this project that they wish they could see something like the L.A. version of the Freedom Trail in Boston or a linked pathway to see different kinds of historical sites. I know there are some other examples of things like that, too. California State Parks has an audio tour of Old Monterey, where you can walk around the different historical houses and hear something about local history.

In a strange way, partially because Los Angeles has the reputation of being disconnected and fragmented, this project gives us a chance to present a level of organization or connectedness that might not otherwise be apparent. On a practical level, I think that this means that the memorial needs to work for the visitor who’s dropping in from Kansas City, who’s only going to be in town for four hours, and is looking for things to do, and has heard that there’s some kind of Chinese memorial somewhere near Chinatown, and who wants to go there for twenty minutes.

But it also needs to be viable for school children or local residents who are not in a rush but may be willing to walk from site to site, starting with a primary site and then seeing some, if not all, of the other networked sites.

In a third example, there may be times when the community wants to hold some kind of public gathering where a crowd larger than a school field trip might want to convene for something. There may not be space for really large gatherings, but I think that this question makes you wonder about how the memorial that emerges from this might also help to address an observation that some have made about how Angelenos use public space specifically for public assembly. I don’t know how practical it is, but it will be interesting to see in the responses, how the designers help us think about how this memorial might address these different aspects of what people have observed about how Los Angeles works as a city on a physical level.

Drawing depicting Calle de Los Negros in the Old Chinatown section of Los Angeles, c. 1876. USC Digital Library/California Historical Society Collection.

As a final question, I am interested to put this into a personal context. This is an important project for the city, Christopher. You talked about how it’s really catalyzing a participatory civic exercise and the importance of confronting a difficult and troubling past. Michael, you talked about the healing that can emerge through this process. None of this really speaks to the fact that, for both of you, this has required a level of personal dedication. You’ve put your time into this. What does this mean to you? What are your hopes for where we arrive at the end?

Christopher Hawthorne: I think the first thing to mention is just the dedication that this project has required from a whole range of collaborators, from colleagues in the Mayor’s Office to those in the Department of Cultural Affairs, El Pueblo, the Chinese American Museum, and Councilmember De Leon’s office. And, of course, the community members who made up the Steering Committee.

My hope is that the architects, artists, and designers who are thinking about responding to the RFI can tell, by reading it, that it’s meant to reflect a different kind of process. Even the design of the document itself is meant to reflect that. We worked with an AAPI-led design firm in Los Angeles, Folder Studio, to design the RFI. We wanted to rethink what a procurement document produced by the city looks like and feels like and the kind of history that it includes.

Michael Woo: I agree with Christopher’s comments. All I would add is that our Steering Committee’s experience over the last year and a half has shown that broad, substantive community participation does not necessarily lead to loss of momentum or dilution of purpose. If anything, the wide participation in this process actually helped to build momentum. That’s very encouraging.

The last comment I would make is that I tend to think of this as being an item on a broader checklist, a checklist of unfinished business. I think it would be extremely satisfying for many of us if we can get this done, and take this item off a checklist of unfinished business.

Well, that is a good way to end — with a hope for finishing the unfinished. Thank you so much, Michael and Christopher.

The RFI document may be found at this link:  


These are the main facts about the RFI:

  • The deadline for submissions is October 12, 2022, at 5 pm.

  • There is no fee charged for submitting a response to the RFI.

  • The initial submission consists of a one-page conceptual statement, one page of drawings or renderings, and a simple entry form detailing the applicant’s background and experience.

  • There is no preference or expectation about the race or nationality of the designer to be selected. Race, nationality, geography, profession, discipline, status, and age of an applicant will not be considered in the evaluation of submissions.

  • An applicant may respond to the RFI as an individual or may form a team with partners or collaborators who would bring different strengths or expertise to a collective effort.

  • To help prospective applicants prepare for their submissions, an optional Q&A session on October 3 is being offered.

Questions about the RFI process should be directed via email to Christopher Hawthorne, Chief Design Officer, City of Los Angeles. His email address is: Christopher.Hawthorne@lacity.org

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