The atmosphere was jovial as more than 1,000 people gathered in downtown Santa Ana on May 25, 1906, to watch their civic dream come true: the burning of the city's Chinatown.
Politicians and residents alike had long pushed for the torching, and now was the time to do it. The once-thriving area–bounded by present-day Main, Third and Bush streets–was almost vacant, atrophied over the years by anti-Chinese laws that made a peaceful life there impossible. Health officials had just condemned Chinatown's few remaining buildings, rounding up out the last residents as onlookers jeered. A representative of China's minister to the United States was rushing in from Los Angeles, seeking to stop the planned kindling. But Santa Ana would be denied no more.
Families gathered to witness the destruction, along with law enforcement and businessmen–the whole town, it seemed. “It was like a big picnic, or a Fourth of July,” an eyewitness recalled decades later. A fire marshal was on the scene to douse coal oil on Chinatown's structures and set the blaze. But light drizzle throughout the day put a damper on everyone's plans; the fire marshal couldn't strike a spark.
That delay thinned the original crowd to a couple of hundred curious onlookers as the evening arrived. But when the first flames curled up to the sky around 8 p.m., visible for blocks around, a stampede returned “in time to see the fun,” according to the Santa Ana Evening Blade.
Meanwhile, the man who made the fun possible lay in a cot about 50 yards away, alone in a tent surrounded by barbed wire and under the watch of a guard. A sign nearby warned, “LEPROSY: KEEP OUT.” A doctor had diagnosed Wong Woh Ye with the dreaded disease just a day earlier–the perfect excuse for the Santa Ana City Council to push out Ye and the last of Chinatown's residents. They were put in a quarantine zone, within eyesight of their former neighborhood as it turned to ashes, close enough to hear the crowd's approving roar.
This inferno is oft-told in the annals of Orange County history, almost always presented as a necessary destruction. “An eyesore to us all,” declared Nellie Tedford, a founding member of the Orange County Historical Society and an eyewitness to the blaze, in the 1931 collection Orange County History Series: Volume One.
“The sight and smell of the premises was objectionable to the entire community,” wrote Charles D. Swanner, who witnessed the burning as a 12-year-old, in his 1953 memoir, Santa Ana: A Narrative of Yesterday. OC's most fabled historian, Jim Sleeper, described the area “as a pretty ratty-looking place and got worse.”
It's as if repeating that Santa Ana's Chinatown deserved to disappear, historians and residents could justify in their minds the nasty means to the enclave's hellish end. But such a stance misses an obvious, long-ignored point: In order to rid Santa Ana of Chinese once and for all, doctors and politicians were willing to let a man die.
* * * * *
Santa Ana's Chinatown began in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law that prohibited the country's immigrants from legally entering the United States or ever becoming citizens. Although Chinese had peacefully lived in Orange County since the 1870s in Anaheim and Tustin, popular opinion was turning against them. In 1879, Denis Kearney–the California activist who coined the infamous phrase “The Chinese must go!”–stopped in Santa Ana in 1879 to preach his xenophobic message.
But the Chinese kept coming. Santa Ana was becoming a midway point between Mexico (where an increasing number of Chinese were landing before illegally entering the United States) and Los Angeles, and the city's residents needed their cheap services. By 1882, downtown Santa Ana boasted two Chinese wash houses; lodging, drugstores and curio shops soon sprang up. A vegetable garden and barn served as a commons of sorts because the Chinese dominated the vegetable-delivery business in Orange County in those days. Adolph Butz, owner of a plumbing store across the street from Chinatown, told a historian decades later that he thought 200 people lived there at its height, but he also complained the area “became a menace to health” and “had a bad effect on the value of nearby property.”
Soon, residents declared war. An 1886 Santa Ana Standard editorial titled “The Heathen Chinee” railed against “his dark ways and vain tricks.” By 1888, the Santa Ana City Council had formed a committee given the task of asking downtown property owners to not rent to Chinese. “The location of Chinamen right in the heart of the city is a great detriment to all property in the neighborhood,” the Evening Blade wrote in an article simply titled “Remove the Chinese.” “We suggest that immediate action be taken to eradicate this plague spot–this eyesore of the city.”
Editorials and offers didn't work, so white citizens began a campaign of terror. Men threw rocks at the Chinese, with little fear of repercussion; kids openly stole from their stores. The region's newspapers cast Chinatown as a den of iniquity, its residents barely human. A popular chant of the era was “Chin, chin, Chinamen, chin, chin, Chinamen, you eat rats!” In 1893, unidentified men burned down a Chinese boarding house in western Santa Ana, shooting at lodgers as they tried to escape. Robberies were so frequent that vegetable sellers buried their money in the ground. Tensions were high enough that in 1896, celery farmers in present-day Fountain Valley had to hire guards to protect their Chinese workers from Americans.
Even when the Chinese tried to do good, Americans smacked them down. Native-born Ong Q. Tow, who owned a shop in Chinatown and had built a replica of the U.S.S. Maine in the wake of its sinking to display his patriotism, tried to enlist in Company L. That was Santa Ana's chapter of the State Guard, which was preparing to fight in the Spanish-American War. They refused his request, citing his Chinese heritage. (Tow went on to enlist anyway, becoming one of the first Chinese-Americans to fight in the Army.)
The anti-Chinese offensive worked. The 1900 Census showed only 19 people remained in Chinatown. That was too many for the city fathers, though. So in 1901, Santa Ana sent its mayor, a councilman and a Chamber of Commerce member to a statewide convention in San Francisco that sought to renew the Exclusion Act and share strategies on how to rid California of Chinamen; it was the only OC city to send a delegation. In 1904, the Santa Ana City Council passed a law severely penalizing Chinese abalone fisherman; seems they were outfishing their Anglo counterparts, and, as the Los Angeles Herald wrote, “the less wily Caucasians were compelled to resort to ordinances” in order to compete.
That year, the council also acquired a lot in Chinatown to build a new City Hall and gentrify the Chinese away. City founder William Spurgeon suggested they relocate near the municipal dump, but residents there opposed having “Celestials” so near their homes. The solution, according to the Evening Blade? After paying the Chinese $400 and giving them 30 days “to settle their business affairs,” the city should ban them from Santa Ana altogether and finish off Chinatown.
“The burning of [the area],” they wrote, “will be the occasion of a sort of celebration of the consummation of the first part of the plan to rid the city of undesirable residents.”
So by the time doctors found a supposed leper there two years later, the city's consensus had already been reached: The Chinese had to go. And now they had the perfect scapegoat.
The threat of leprosy and other diseases had long been used by Americans to rid their towns of the Chinese, usually by mobs.
Government-sponsored leveling of Chinatowns, however, were rare. In 1900, Honolulu's district burned down after officials set fire to it, ostensibly to fight bubonic plague. But when San Francisco officials announced they weren't going to allow the local Chinese to rebuild Chinatown after the city's devastating April 1906 quake, the Chinese government protested, and the neighborhood was rebuilt without incident.
While the atmosphere was always right for Santa Ana to rid itself of its Chinatown, officials kept hesitating, as if waiting for an excuse to shield them from accusations of racism. And they found it in Wong Woh Ye.
Nothing is known about Ye's life; he appears in no business directories, census lists or voter rolls. Newspapers reported he had lived on and off in Santa Ana's Chinatown for 20 years and that he had come down with something that left sores on his skin, although roommates remarked he was eating all his meals and was getting no worse. But someone lost to history alerted Dr. Jesse M. Burlew, a private practitioner who visited Chinatown on May 24, 1906, and saw Ye. He deemed Ye a leper and alerted members of the city's health board, who, the Evening Blade said, found “a startling state of affairs” filled with “sickening filth” ready to contaminate the city's vegetable supply. Santa Ana Health Officer John I. Clark warned housewives to not buy their greens from the Chinese anymore, with the Evening Blade writing that “the Mongolians are wily enough to hide the loathsome signs [of disease] as long as possible.”
Ye and seven other Chinese were quickly quarantined on the south side of the Chinatown lot, in tents surrounded by barbed wire; Ye received his own tent “until such time as the supervisors can provide a more suitable place for him.” Their belongings were left behind to “probably be confiscated and burned,” per the Evening Blade.
The following night, the city's Board of Health issued a resolution calling for Chinatown's end by fire “as the most effectual method of destroying and stamping out the germs of leprosy.” The measure passed unanimously the following morning at a special City Council meeting. There was some discussion about whether they were authorized to burn down the buildings without the permission of owner Martha Shaffer–one council member wondered why they couldn't be boarded up until she returned from Hermosa Beach. Shaffer's attorney warned the council that “they would regret taking such extreme measures,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
But the attorney, the Times chortled, “was requested to attend to his own affairs, and not try to advise the trustees as to their authority on this matter.”
Meanwhile, Santa Ana's city attorney, while openly questioning the constitutionality of demolishing the enclave, shrugged and said, “Do it, burn these buildings up and take the consequences.”
The final okay came from Orange County District Attorney Horace C. Head, son of a Ku Klux Klan member who helped Orange County secede from LA County. He reassured the council that no criminal charges would be filed. “Well, gentleman,” Head told them with a smile, “[any complainers] would have to come to me for warrants, and I don't think that you need fear any criminal suit.”
In less than 48 hours, Santa Ana officials had accomplished what had been discussed for years.
Although the council tried to keep its decision quiet, word quickly got around town, leading to the massive crowds that saw Chinatown in flames that night. There wasn't much to eradicate by then: four houses, a store, the barn and the vegetable garden. The fire “was as picturesque an event as could be imagined,” the Times cooed. Firemen arrived on the scene to protect City Hall from damage; city officials clubbed to death the cats, dogs and chickens the Chinese kept that tried to run away.
Willie Ching Wing, a prominent member of Los Angeles' Chinatown, arrived in Santa Ana after the fire started. The quarantined Chinese had let him know about their troubles, and Wing initially told the Times that “he understood [the fire] was being done by people who wanted to drive his countrymen out of the city.” He found his countrymen hungry and shivering, huddled in one tent to keep warm in the pounding rain; the city had to move them to Salvation Army barracks and finally feed them. Ye was left behind.
Wing returned to LA, reassured by the promises of city leaders that the exiles would be compensated for their losses and be given lodging. He told the Evening Blade before departing that “everybody here has treated the China boys well.” But he'd been had. The Times reported the following day that Ye “was left to die as best he may,” with the sick man complaining his medicine “was all gone.” While Ye's compatriots remained in the Salvation Army barracks, council members decided that not only would they not get a settlement or new homes, but also they had to leave the city immediately.
Word of this got back to Wing, who came back to Santa Ana on June 4 with a representative from the Los Angeles Chinese Chamber of Commerce to investigate. Two days later, they brought along Dr. Ralph Williams, a dermatologist tasked with investigating Ye's condition. The three went to Santa Ana City Hall, demanding an explanation from Burlew.
But by the time Santa Ana officials took them to the tent, Ye was dead. Burlew said he had last seen him the previous afternoon, but that a guard was supposed to monitor him at all times and “why [the guard] failed to notice his death” would be investigated; it never was. Burlew did an autopsy along with other Santa Ana doctors and concluded that Ye did, in fact, die of leprosy.
Newspapers initially reported that Williams agreed with Burlew's diagnosis. But in an extraordinary interview with the Los Angeles Examiner, the doctor not only stated he felt Ye didn't have the disease, but he also blasted Santa Ana officials for the measures they took against the sick man. “What the man died of I don't know, for I did not see him before death,” Williams said. “I can't believe that a man could die of leprosy without showing any of the ordinary signs of the disease.”
The comments so angered Burlew and city officials that they lodged a complaint against him with the Southern California Medical Association, demanding censure. What, if any, follow-up happened is lost to the proverbial dustbins. But this much is certain: There is no death certificate for Ye, and his burial plot is unknown. In August 1906, Burlew sent a letter to the Southern California Practitioner, the trade magazine for doctors in Southern California, to try to clear his name. “It was claimed by Los Angeles Chinamen, backed by their Los Angeles American medical advisers, that the case was not one of leprosy and that an injustice was being done the Chinks, through the ignorance of Santa Ana's physicians,” Burlew wrote. He admitted that Ye's immediate cause of death wasn't leprosy, but rather pneumonia. But Burlew stood by his diagnosis. He went on to become a pioneering doctor in Orange County, the first local surgeon to be made a fellow of the American College of Physicians and Surgeons; the Burlew Medical Library and Health Resource Center at St. Joseph Hospital of Orange is named after him.
Although Ye was dead, Wing wasn't done. The Times reported that the Chinese counted their losses at $1,562.55, a figure the paper mocked on June 8 by opining their “entire possessions could not amount to a third of this sum.” The city countered with $100, to be split among the seven survivors; Wing told them to refuse the offer and instead sue, using Williams' findings to show that Santa Ana “acted without warrant in ordering” Chinatown burned. They never did, and they never lived in downtown Santa Ana again, leaving for the outskirts of the city or other Chinatowns in Orange County until those places were also destroyed. The last Chinese in Santa Ana, Lee You, left the city in 1923, returning to his homeland.
Almost a year after the burning of Chinatown, Shaffer wrote to the council. The landlord had never been paid for its sacking and demanded $1,200 in lost rent. The city fathers openly laughed–a former member said the city wasn't “liable for a copper center,” while the mayor at the time, Arthur J. McFadden, said they “need not rush into” paying Shaffer anything. It wasn't until 1910 that the council responded to Shaffer–the city clerk wrote her a letter stating that her “claim is outlawed, and we are prohibited from paying it.”
Getting rid of Chinatown became a point of pride for all residents. The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce quickly put out a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the town for businesses, making sure to note that “Santa Ana has no Chinatown.” Republican John N. Anderson, in his successful 1912 campaign to become a state senator for the 39th district, cited his work “remov[ing] several of the old shacks” of Chinatown as reason for voting him in. When a Japanese man got a license to open a laundry the year before, the City Council quickly revoked it; one council member declared, “This is a white man's town,” while former District Attorney Head told the council “that if the city revokes the license, the Jap will not go to court.”
Why? The burning of Chinatown.
Years after the death of Wong Woh Ye, county health officials dealt with another Asian leper case in a different manner. In July 1914, they found a 32-year-old Japanese man with the last name Saki in Villa Park. While isolating him in the same manner that Santa Ana officials did with Ye, they also made sure to feed, clothe and treat him. Saki escaped four months later, eventually living among Japanese in El Modena until getting caught by health officials in June 1915. The houses of the Japanese weren't burned, and the county arranged a cottage for Saki, complete with running water and gas.
“Leprosy is not a contagious disease,” Dr. Harry Zaiser told the Santa Ana Register. “Leprosy is only transmittable through actual blood-to-blood contact.”
While never attracting national attention, Santa Ana's Chinatown attack loomed over the city for decades to come. “Not too many Chinese moved here because they still knew the history about why they burned up the town,” said Fred Lau, in a 1984 interview with the Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) at Cal State Fullerton. In the late 1940s, Lau was one of the first Chinese to return to the city. “They did not want to be around here.”
“It was done maliciously and with malice aforethought,” admitted McFadden, the mayor who had refused to pay Chinatown's landlord for her losses, to COPH interviewers in 1970. “[City leaders] wanted to get rid of Chinatown, and they just deliberately burned it down.”
But he felt no guilt–it had to happen. “The town had grown to the point where it practically surrounded that neighborhood,” McFadden added, “and it wasn't a good idea to have a Chinatown in that situation.”
For years after the burning, the Register wistfully recalled the area every Chinese New Year. In 1922, it noted that “weird Oriental spirits” might haunt the staging of a Chinese play held at the Temple Theater–built on the very grounds of Chinatown. There, the paper recalled, “stood the establishments of Chuck, the vegetable man, and Dock Yick [Sing], the dispenser of Chinese medicines. Next door, the establishment of Kee Kee attracted the gamblers. Their ghosts, mayhap, will attend [the play] . . . to see that [it] is done in true Oriental manner.”
Local historians romanticized the story to lessen the reality of the deed as the years passed. Tedford said the Chinese were given furnished homes in the wake of Chinatown's ruin. Swanner wrote in his accounts that Williams didn't dispute Burlew's leprosy diagnosis and that underground tunnels and cellars were found, repeating a white urban legend about Chinatowns that no newspaper of the time reported. In his account, Sleeper took to making up dialogue wholesale and cracked jokes about newspapers getting Ye's name “Wong.”
Today, what was Santa Ana's Chinatown is hipster lofts and the parking lot behind the DGWB ad agency, which occupies the old City Hall (built in the 1930s, it replaced the City Hall that originally stood next to Chinatown). No marker stands anywhere in the area to commemorate its existence.
Perhaps the best summation of Santa Ana's attitude was in a 1984 COPH interview with Lucy Lockett. The former schoolteacher was 13 years old at the time of Chinatown's demise, and she fondly remembered the vegetable carts and laundry men that served the city during her childhood. Nevertheless, she insisted, “They all had to go. [Burning Chinatown] was a good thing to clear up the area.”
“Couldn't get away with that now,” her interviewer responded.
“No,” Lockett replied. And then she laughed.