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Podcast Looks To 1871 L.A. Chinatown Massacre

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The podcast "Blood on Gold Mountain" debuts Wednesday. It tells the story of the 1871 L.A. Chinatown massacre through the eyes of Yut-Ho, a young woman who arrives in California as a refugee.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The podcast blood on gold mountain debuts today, it tells the story of the 1871 LA Chinatown massacre through the eyes of yet ho a young woman who arrives in California as a refugee KPBS arts reporter. Beth haka, Mondo speaks with two of the podcast creators. How Wong, who was a professor of music and humanities at Scripps college and serves as the story's narrator and his son, Micah, who was the show's artistic director.

Speaker 2: 00:30 How, what was the historical incident that inspired this podcast? Blood on gold mountain. And how did you first hear about it?

Speaker 3: 00:39 Well, I love that question because I was here for at least 15 years before I even heard about the 1871 LA Chinatown massacre. This focuses not only on that event when it was a mob of about 500 people, which comprised about 10% of the entire population of LA at that time who dragged out and lynched about 20 Chinese. And that was a huge proportion of the Chinese in LA at the time. And in Chinatown, there were only about a hundred people. So that was 20% of the population of Chinatown was killed in two hours. I never heard of this massacre on these coasts. My children were never taught about it in their LA district schools, uh, even through through 12 years, primary and secondary. So I wanted to know why. And, um, this podcast in certain ways is one of a series of, of things we've done to honor those dead by remembering them

Speaker 2: 01:42 And Micah, how didn't you tackle crafting the narrative for this? What was important for you in terms of how the story was told

Speaker 3: 01:51 For me, even though I have so much reverence for the tragedy of the deaths that are involved in the massacre, I felt like the lives of the characters were at least as important from the point of view of somebody looking at it over this long span of history. I really wanted to bring to life really vibrant and to my mind, realistic Chinese American characters whose personalities and the experiences that they talk about in the story are based on a combination of historical information that I've gathered through research, but also family stories from people who I'm very close to having to do with the refugee experience, having to do with being an immigrant in the United States. And also unfortunately having to do with racists, violence, and hostility here, you see Chinese in this country live outside the, we can't speak to a judge unless it's to accuse another Chinese man Indian or Mexican

Speaker 4: 03:00 Of a crime. That means anyone can bring down the law on us at any time and the claim jumpers, but almost certainly enlist the Sheriff's help to run us out of town.

Speaker 2: 03:12 I got to listen to the first podcast. I like that. It's not strictly about the massacre that you bring us in first through the characters and developing this whole sense of what life was like for those people. At that time.

Speaker 3: 03:25 The story of the massacre is a very, very fast-moving violent story. And it's, it's all, I think dad called it a blood and guts kind of kind of sequence it's, it's very horrific, but the sequence of events leading up to the massacre, which has a lot to do with the characters and their decisions and their actions. There's a love intrigue. There is like a conflict between these two gangs who are struggling for control over Chinatown. And this woman yet ho is just right in the middle of it all. It's like she's thrown into this crazy situation without even knowing ahead of time. And so I really felt that the more that we could give back out and the more that we could give a sense of what was going on with her and with her brother and with some of these other characters who were going to meet the more, the story would feel real and feel engaging.

Speaker 2: 04:15 I understand this all started in 2019, this project. So how did current events at that time influence the creation of the podcast?

Speaker 5: 04:24 No, this was at the time when a lot of consciousness about racism was raised by black lives matter, but also it just felt like the right time to find out they'll local history. Why, why was it neglected? I think this is something that's really pivotal to, to understanding race relations. Um, why do we neglect? Or even in certain ways erased the memory of something that happened in LA, which was the bloodiest race ride on the West coast. Um, and I think that ignoring 20 people being murdered in two hours seems to be callous, you know, and the, the other part where I just want to talk about, um, why a story instead of a historical documentary, no one really knows what's happened even right afterwards, eye witnesses, contradicted each other. They changed their own stories. So not even scholarly articles can agree on what exactly happened. It doesn't seem productive to decide exactly what happened in terms of the massacre, but to try to develop characters as Mike is saying to, to explore why this happened.

Speaker 3: 05:44 I think that the primary sources such as they are, are all so biased and so sensationalized that when we do make choices, we are making them based on a history, the suppression of which has already begun even, even right when it's happening. And there is really an element of, of reconstructing and of understanding, you know, what do we think happened? What makes sense to have happened. And also what makes sense to, um, put in a narrative that's going to be comprehensible and relatable to a 21st century listener

Speaker 2: 06:30 This podcast debuts this week. And this is right on the heels of the incident in Atlanta, where eight Asian women were killed. How can looking at the past and this historical event help inform how we look at what's going on right now.

Speaker 5: 06:46 I mean, it relates in certain ways to personal histories. Um, I myself grew up in a racist little town in New Jersey, uh, where the sheriff and mayor were publicly members of the KKK. So I have some inkling about what pervasive racism does. And I think one of the things that really is sad to me is how it has not stopped in many ways. I think that it's COVID, but also there's been this kind of suspicion of Asians in America ever since the first Asians came here. And so we're trying, I think, to, to counter that by emphasizing humanity, um, because by denying the humanity of others, we destroy our own humanity and everybody winds up less than

Speaker 3: 07:42 I may add. Just one more kind of detail that connects the time of the massacre to now both in the early 1870s. And now are times when there's a lot of economic and social insecurity in the United States and in California. And also in both cases, we have had public figures most recently, former president Donald Trump, but I'm back then soon to be California, governor Leland, Stanford who have publicly made statements about the inferiority or the dangers posed by Chinese or Asian immigrants. And I think that, um, history kind of moves in these cycles sometimes. And, and it's, it's very much by being conscious of the cycles as they've happened in the past that we can get a handle on what's happening now and what we are trying to do.

Speaker 2: 08:43 And in doing research for this, was there anything you uncovered that really surprised you either in terms of the people that you were looking at or the actual incident, or just something that didn't really know about?

Speaker 3: 08:57 Fortunately, I was not surprised to learn about any of the racism, prejudice. I mean, the, the history of the United States is so shot through with that kind of thing in so many different ways. I was surprised to learn of some of these characters in particular. Um, there's a character who we haven't met yet in episode one, but who's going to figure big in later episodes, whose name is [inaudible]. He was one of the leaders of the two gangs who ended up fighting over ho in the lead up to the massacre. And he is just such a rogue. He is like a, he's scary, but he's also very relatable. He used his knowledge of not only Chinese culture, but the American system up to, and including the court system to kind of leverage for power in the struggle. And I feel like he's just something out of like a gangster movie or something, and it's so much fun to be, to be writing, you know, about these things that he did and, and, and trying to bring him to life among, among others.

Speaker 5: 10:01 Yes. I think what was surprising to me was during the massacre, there were a number of bystanders, wide bystanders. Who's tried to stop the violence and that's who we need. We need people who care enough about other people to, to work towards reestablishing a human connection. And that's what this podcast is trying to do. We're trying to reestablish so that Chinese are not considered the other, or even as victims, but as people whose stories are worth telling and listening to

Speaker 2: 10:40 What was the research process like on this and what kind of archival materials did you have to turn to?

Speaker 5: 10:45 Yes, when I started researching this, uh, massacre probably about 10 years ago, I was really struck by the fact that there are only a few academic, uh, publications that were addressing the details of the massacre per se. There, there are plenty that talk about anti-Chinese violence. I think in the 1880s, a decade later, um, over 35, uh, towns were witness to attacks against Chinese. Um, and also we know about the 1882 Chinese exclusion act. So what's really important is to understand that this is not an isolated incident. This is part of a movement in California, and even across the country to really try to deny not only citizenship, but to deny the humanity of these people, they're considered the yellow peril as they were called. And I think that this is why it's so incumbent, especially for us, especially now to really speak up, not only as Asian Americans, but as human who are trying to connect with other human beings in this country.

Speaker 3: 11:57 Well, fortunately the, um, newspapers at the time jumped on this story actually, as it was developing, even before the massacre, um, in particular, I think there are two papers that covered it. Most of all, and they were called the Los Angeles star and the Los Angeles sun. And, um, they were kind of almost competing in terms of how lurid and how, um, sensationalized their coverage was. So in terms of primary sources, that's been mainly what there really is or what I've been able to get my hands on. Um, there are excerpts from those papers contained in books and, um, also even just present online in, um, online archives, um, even though those, those papers in those 1870s incarnations no longer exist. Um, my favorite book and one actually from which I've been able to find a bunch of other secondary sources on this is one that's called the Chinatown war and it's by Scott Zcash. Um, it's very, very dedicated to trying to figure out the truth and also trying to elucidate some of the cultural background of the immigrants at the time. Um, so that one has been hugely helpful in particular to me,

Speaker 2: 13:18 Can you talk a little bit about the sound design for this and the music that was created?

Speaker 3: 13:23 I, um, have been interested in Chinese music particularly because a friend of mine who I met in grad school, who's an amazing, it still is. She lives in London, Nash and move, but, um, she's an amazing good young player, uh, which is a Chinese harp. And I have been on the burner studying our who, which is, um, Chinese fiddle for a couple years. And then there's also the piece, which is like, this is set in a wild West type environment, um, which is very much kind of my wheelhouse in terms of, um, playing and, and designing. So what I really want to do is to get a sound that was combining Chinese and American slash Western sound aesthetics in a way that felt smooth and natural. And I think in, in certain ways, it's almost embodying a certain kind of the, the vibe if I may, of, um, my Asian American experience as a young person in California. And I'm also in other places on the West coast and the West just inhabiting this very, very stark, very, very quote unquote American environment, but bringing a little bit of a, a Chinese sensibility to it. It's East, East, West, and in a big way.

Speaker 2: 14:47 Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking about the podcast blood on gold

Speaker 1: 14:52 Mountain. Thank you so much for having us. Thank you so much, Beth. We really enjoyed, I really enjoyed talking to you. That was Micah Huang and his father. How long speaking with Beth Mondo about the seven part podcast series blood on gold mountain that debuts today

Speaker 6: 15:49 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.