Not Just Dragon Dancing. The History Of LA's Chinatown Parade You Might Not Know

The long dragon stands at rest in the street for the La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade, 1901. (The California Historical Society and University of Southern California Digital Library)

The Chinatown parade is an L.A. institution, one of the oldest and most popular events of its kind in the country.

Every Lunar New Year, tens of thousands of people squeeze into the neighborhood to watch dragon dancers and to see Miss Chinatowns (past and present) and celebrity grand marshals. Bruce Lee and Hugh Hefner (Year of the Rabbit, natch) are among the household names to do those honors.

But the first time Chinese paraded before other Angelenos 125 years ago, it was a very different picture.

The parade was not for Lunar New Year, nor was it organized by Chinese people. It was called La Fiesta de Los Angeles and its Anglo planners were looking for a way in 1894 to advertise the city as a land of progress and bounty.

Such festivities could also be a chance to repair damage to L.A's image, which had been tainted by racist violence towards Chinese immigrants.

Only a couple decades earlier, a mob had killed an estimated 18 Chinese males by hanging or shooting — an atrocity covered by newspapers around the world to the chagrin of city boosters.

The site of the 1871 massacre: Calle de los negros in Chinatown, at the junction of Los Angeles, Arcadia and Aliso streets. (Courtesy of The California Historical Society and University of Southern California Digital Library)

In a move both forward-thinking and exploitative, the parade organizers decided to showcase the city's multiculturalism as a sign of its uniqueness — hence the Spanish name — and invited Chinese immigrants to take part.


MORE: How The Destruction Of LA's Original Chinatown Led To The One We Have Today


After decades of discrimination, the Chinese community was eager to improve its public standing, said Eugene Moy of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

"By marching out there with dragons and lions and historic costumes, you're sharing your history, your heritage," Moy said. "You weren't just a second-class citizen but rather an active and productive member of society."

But some parade planners didn't want them there.

SETBACK AFTER SETBACK

At the time La Fiesta was being planned, anti-Chinese sentiment in Los Angeles was running high. That anger was directed towards the mostly-male group of laborers who had come to the region to work on the San Fernando Tunnel and Southern Pacific Railroad.

Native-born workers saw them as job threats, while popular culture painted them as backwards, depraved or inscrutable.

In 1882, Congress clamped down on immigration passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act prevented more Chinese workers from coming to the U.S. and it also barred the Chinese from becoming citizens. Local and state authorities found ways to marginalize the Chinese further with rules that prevented them from owning property.

Despite the constant setbacks, Chinese immigrants set down roots in Los Angeles, moving out of railroad work and into farming and small businesses such as laundries, shops and restaurants. And what had started as a largely bachelor society of Chinese men gave way to more families.

Four schoolchildren in Los Angeles, circa 1890 (Courtesy of The California Historical Society and University of Southern California Digital Library)

By 1890, the immigrants had built a community that was around 2,000 people, and growing fast.

PACKAGING L.A.'s DIVERSITY

Around this time, L.A.'s boosters were looking for a way to herald the city as a major metropolis — something Chicago pulled off with the World's Fair in 1893, and neighboring Pasadena was attempting with the Tournament of Roses, which got its start in 1890.

Max Meyberg, an electrical fixtures merchant, led the charge to hold La Fiesta de Los Angeles. Historian William Deverell said the multi-day event was intended to "announce L.A.'s ambition for the 20th century."

Deverell said the decision to invite the Chinese "was a way for the organizers to clap themselves on the back and say, 'We sure have some spectacle.'"

"This is not a multicultural perspective that we would recognize nor celebrate today," said Deverell, who directs the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The head of the Chinese dragon costume at the La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade, circa 1900. (Courtesy of The California Historical Society and University of Southern California Digital Library)

But not all of the organizers were on board. In his book Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, Deverell recounts how some Fiesta planners, felt that "the mere idea of having the Chinese in the parade indicated failure, that their presence would lend nothing to the celebration and might result in a serious disturbance."

A "lengthy and heated debate" among organizers resulted in the decision to invite the Chinese only if "all representatives of other nations in the city" such as Mexicans and Native Americans were also included.

The Chinese merchants working with the organizers bristled at their treatment, Deverell wrote, but in the end, they decided to put on a show.

A "BARBARIC" HIT

On April 10, 1894, marching bands and horse-drawn buggies paraded up and down Hill, Broadway, Spring and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles. But that was nothing new to spectators.

Then they saw the Chinese contingent of the parade. And it was riveting.

Spectators enjoy the Chinese display at the La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade in 1901. (Courtesy of The California Historical Society and University of Southern California Digital Library)

The Los Angeles Herald raved about the "gorgeous banners," "strange and striking costumes" and "weird and ear-splitting music from their gongs and drums and wind instruments."

The Chinese paraders had captured the American Orientalist imagination, and at the same time gained wider acceptance.

One Herald writer noted that Chinese immigrants have "always been ostracized from public recognition in our gala festivities until they made their gorgeous and barbaric appearance" in the parade.

Another writer in the L.A. Times delivered a backhanded compliment, calling the Chinese part of the parade a surprise because "no one expected the Celestials to take such a great interest in the affair as they did."

When it came time to plan the second La Fiesta in 1895, the Chinese considered bowing out given the initial controversy surrounding their participation. But the planners, recognizing how popular the Chinese display had been, visited Chinatown leaders and urged them to stick with it.

An artist's rendering of the Chinese section of the La Fiesta parade published in the April 23, 1896 edition of the Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles Herald )

The dragon, a symbol of good luck, came to be a hallmark of the Chinese procession.

The first dragon used in the parade had to be borrowed from the Chinese community in Marysville, north of Sacramento. The next year, L.A. community members bought a new dragon from China. An L.A. Times reporter praised the Chinese for "going to so much trouble and expense to give this gorgeous attraction to the fiesta parades."

THE PARADE'S EVOLUTION

The Chinese community continued to participate in the parade, which was rebranded La Fiesta de Los Flores in 1901.

After a few hiatuses, La Fiesta was brought to a close in the 1940s. (It would be revived in the 1970s and morph into the present-day Fiesta Broadway, the city's Cinquo de Mayo celebration.

By the end of La Fiesta's run, the Chinese community didn't need help drawing crowds. Parades to celebrate events like Lunar New Year or the mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown had become stand-alone spectacles and covered in the press.

After the Chinese Chamber of Commerce formed in the mid-1950s, it took over parade planning. The result was the version spectators know today with celebrity grand marshals and Miss Chinatown and her court.

The 2018 Miss Chinatown queen and her court at the Golden Dragon Parade. (Lisa Xie)

Now most of L.A.'s Chinese diaspora lives outside of Chinatown.

Esther Ho, a Cal Poly Pomona student who has volunteered at the parade with her family for about a decade, said the parade now plays the role of bringing Chinese-Americans together in one place.

"I personally know a lot of people who come to the parade every single year to really experience and see other Chinese and Chinese-Americans," Ho said. "You can see exactly how big the Chinese community is because you see them in the parade, on the streets watching the parade, at the grandstand and alongside all the Chinese mom-and-pop shops and restaurants."

Dragon dancers may be the top draw, but Moy said the parade is no longer just promoting Chinese culture. He notes that Chinatown has a large Latino population and borders the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights.

L.A.'s diversity is reflected in the parade which last year also featured Mexican folk dancers and school bands from all over the city. In that sense, the parade has achieved the multiculturalism that La Fiesta planners worked to sell to the world over a century ago.

"You have people who represent the whole cross-section of society," Moy said. "It's a community parade."

The 120th Golden Dragon Parade begins Saturday at 1 p.m. Details here.