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Here's The Winning Design For LA's Memorial To The 1871 Chinese Massacre

An artist's rendering of a memorial made up of several sculptures resembling tree trunks, located among pepper trees.
The memorial will mainly consist of a grove of 18 tree-like sculptures where the massacre started on Los Angeles Street. The sculptures represent those killed.
(Design by Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung.
Courtesy of the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)
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An artistic duo from Los Angeles has won the competition to design the city’s memorial to victims of one of the deadliest attacks on Chinese people in U.S. history.

To come up with their design, artist Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and writer Judy Chui-Hua Chung spent months meticulously researching and photographing the various sites where the Chinese Massacre of 1871 unfolded across downtown L.A.

On Oct. 24, 1871, a mob killed at least 18 people (about 10% of the city’s Chinese population), most by lynching. The mass killing remains little-known even among Angelenos. Currently, the only marker of the massacre is a sidewalk plaque.

Leong and Chung said they both only learned about the attack several years ago and described feeling shock and sorrow that it took so long.

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"This history wasn't part of the city's consciousness," Leong said. "I felt appalled that such a significant part of California history was left out and forgotten."

A campaign to create a memorial was launched in 2021, the year the city observed the 150th anniversary of the massacre and then-Mayor Eric Garcetti apologized for atrocities against L.A.'s Chinese residents.

Drawing from the input of community leaders and recommendations by the Civic Memory panel convened by Garcetti, the city put out a call for design proposals last year. Nearly 170 entries flooded in from around the world.

The selection of a design kicks off a fundraising campaign to build the $3.6 million memorial, said Felicia Filer of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Mayor Karen Bass's proposed budget calls for the city to contribute $250,000. The rest would be raised from foundations.

The goal is to have the memorial in place by the summer of 2026.

A near-unanimous choice

Chung, who is Taiwanese American, and Leong, who is of Toisanese, Cantonese and Hokkein ancestry, were the only finalists not to have an architect on their team.

Filer, who oversees public art for the department, said their design was the near-unanimous choice of the review panelists, with most ranking it their top pick for meeting the goal of educating the public "in a way that was really moving and just beautiful."

"I think that their approach was 100% as artists as opposed to being more technical in nature," Filer said.

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The primary site for the memorial will be where the massacre began on Los Angeles Street — now a swath of sidewalk outside the Chinese American Museum, just yards from El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the city’s historic birthplace.

An artist's rendering of a grove of tree-like sculptures on a city sidewalk amid California pepper trees.
The design also calls for constructing a sculpture of a full tree made of a silvery, metal-like material, made to represent hope and potential.
( Design proposal from Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung
Courtesy of the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)

The centerpiece of the memorial will be a grove of tree sculptures made of a stone-like material, inspired by the banyan trees that guarded villages in a southeast region of China — where many of the massacre victims were from.

Eighteen tree sculptures dotting the sidewalk will represent the dead. Set apart from the cluster will be a fallen branch intended to honor others who were killed but never identified by name, and lost to history.

While the tree sculptures resemble trunks with the branches cut off, the design also calls for constructing a sculpture of a full tree made of a silvery, metal-like material.

“The trunks themselves are about lives that were cut short," Chung said. “ The silvery tree is the opposite. It represents hope and potential. We wanted to have both representations in our memorial.”

The design team has also planned multiple design elements throughout downtown to mark key locations of the massacre.

Black-and-white photo of Chinese males killed in the Chinese Massacre of 1871.
After the masscre, the bodies of 17 men who were killed were lined up in rows outside the city jail.
(Los Angeles Public Library)

Two low-lying sculptural benches, for example, will be installed in a corner of Grand Park, near where the old city jail was located. After the massacre, the bodies of 17 men had been lined up in two rows outside the jail, which is also where 20 survivors had fled for safety from the mob.

At a time when “hostile architecture” has become common in cities with large unhoused populations, the designers looked for ways to draw Angelenos in.

An artist's rendering of a sculptural benches surrounding a tree in a city park.
The corner of Grand Park where the two low-lying sculptural benches will be installed.
(Design by Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung
Courtesy of the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)

“We wanted the design to be inviting for people to be able to have the space to reflect and also really interact with the memorial,” Leong said.

The benches are meant to symbolize roots, which the earliest Asian Americans were not allowed to put down because of xenophobic laws and massacres like the one in L.A.

Another pair of benches will be placed in Chinatown as a way to connect the memorial site to a neighborhood that has faced displacement, Leong said.

An artist's rendering of two low-lying benches surrounding an oak tree in a courtyard. In the background is a storefront that reads "Li Yuen" and Chinese lanterns hanging above the store.
The memorial will include "root" benches in Chinatown to connect the present-day neighborhood to the past.
(Design proposal from Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung
Courtesy City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)

The original Chinatown was leveled in the 1920s to make way for Union Station. Today, its immigrant population is being pushed out by gentrification and rising rents.

Smaller sculptures will mark several pivotal locations during the massacre like Broadway & 7th where a judge named William H. Gray hid several men and women in the cellar of his vineyard.

An artist's rendering of sculptural marker on a city street in Los Angeles where a pedestrian is walking.
A marker will be sited at Broadway & 7th where a judge hid several men and women trying to escape the mob in the cellar of his vineyard.
(Design by Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung
Courtesy of the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)

How the massacre unfolded

While there is debate about some of the details, the 1871 massacre began when two Chinese men from rival factions got into a gunfight over a woman.

A couple of non-Asian men who got involved in the shooting — a police officer and rancher — were felled by the crossfire. That led a mob of 500 white and Latino men to collect in the Calle de los Negros, which was known for its concentration of Chinese laborers.

A close-up of a bronze sidewalk plaque with both English and Chinese font.
A bronze sidewalk plaque on Los Angeles Street near El Pueblo de Los Angeles is the only marker of the 1871 massacre.
(Josie Huang

The Chinese men who hid inside one-story adobe Coronel Building were shot at by rioters.

“Some even got up on the roof with hatchets and tried to get in by cutting holes into the roof of the building, and then firing shots into the building hoping to hit somebody who was Chinese,” said former L.A. City Councilmember Mike Woo, who helped lead a campaign to build a memorial.

Within hours, at least 18 Chinese males had been shot at or lynched, oftentimes both.

A graphic red map of downtown Los Angeles. Major landmarks and roadways are labeled. The map is titles "Chinese Massacre, Los Angeles, 1871." Locations of the attacks are labeled in yellow.
A map of downtown L.A. showing locations of the attacks during the massacre.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Among the dead was the city’s most prominent Chinese Angeleno — a doctor named Chee Long "Gene" Tong, who treated Chinese and non-Chinese patients. The youngest victim may have been just 15: Ah Loo was hung at one of several makeshift gallows erected yards from present-day City Hall, according to The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871.

Eight attackers were convicted but all would walk free after the judgments were overturned on a technicality.

Placing the massacre in historical context

Leong and Chung, who are also life partners, want to place the massacre in the larger context of Asian American history, one marked by paroxysms of anti-Asian violence.

A timeline of milestones, starting with the 1565 arrival of Filipinos to Morro Bay on California’s Central Coast, will be engraved into the sidewalk.

The designers also included a mural on the 101 Freeway featuring key Asian American figures, including the pioneering actor Anna May Wong; Vincent Chin, whose 1982 murder marked a turning point in Asian American activism, and Wong Kim Ark, whose landmark case before the Supreme Court established birthright citizenship for those born in the U.S. to noncitizens.

An artist rendering of a mural on the 110 freeway featuring Joseph Pierce, Wong Kim Ark, Mary Tape, Anna May Wong, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee and Vincent Chin.
Part of Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and Judy Chui-Hua Chung's design proposal.
(Courtesy of the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs)

Chung said the mural role was “one way to be able to balance the violence that happened in 1871.“

“There’s actually a positive side to Asian American history in that these people all contributed significantly in their own ways to the development and the progress of this country,” Chung said.

Chung and Leong's design was chosen by a panel of nine local community and design leaders.

They include rapper and activist Jason Chu; Board of Public Works Commissioner Susana Reyes; architects Annie Chu and Mark Lee; museum leaders Suellen Cheng, Clara Kim, June Li, Steven Wong and the city’s former chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne, now an architecture critic at Yale University.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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