Through the Viewfinder: Los Angeles “Joss House,” ca. 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s “Through the Viewfinder” entry highlights a stereoscopic photograph, published about 1898 by the Garden City Foto [yes, “foto”!] Company and is titled “Joss house, Los Angeles, Cal.”

The term “joss house” was applied by English speakers to a Chinese place of worship, shrine or temple.  In this case, the structure, which has massive deities and large banners on poles flanking the front entrance, was located at the end of North Los Angeles Street where it met Marchessault Street.

The area has changed considerably and Los Angeles Street now curves sharply to the right into Alameda Street.  Marchessault, named for former mayor Damien Marchessault (who committed suicide in the city’s council chambers in 1868), is the lane that ran along the north end of the Plaza and is no longer a roadway.

In the 1880s, some years before this photo was taken, the community’s Chinatown was altered when the former Calle de los Negros, which was southeast of the Plaza, was removed and Los Angeles Street rerouted through that area.  The Chinese community also migrated across Alameda Street into an area that, in the 1930s, was reconfigured into Union Station.  That’s when the current Chinatown was established to the north of the Plaza.

SV Joss House Los Angeles Cal 2010.221.1.1

The Chinese, whose first significant migration into Los Angeles took place in the late 1860s when the first local railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, was being built, were quickly the object of mistrust and hatred.  This culminated in the horrific massacre of 19 Chinese males on 24 October 1871, an atrocity committed by Americans, Europeans and Latinos against a commonly despised group.

Even when overt violence against the Chinese waned, legal and de facto discrimination continued.  Yet, there was also a growing curiosity tied to the emerging tourist trade in greater Los Angeles.  By the end of the 19th century, guidebooks referred visitors to the “exotic” Chinatown.

For example, the 1903 edition of Newman’s Directory and Guide of Los Angeles and Vicinity, advised tourists to “See Chinatown at Night.  Stores, homes, Chinese theatre, Joss house, North Los Angeles Street.  Take car [streetcar] to Plaza.”

Four years later, the 1907 publication, “Los Angeles: A Guide Book,” in its listing for Chinatown, gave the address as Los Angeles and Marchessault streets and listed “A miniature China.  The joss house, Chinese theatre, stores, homes.”  The use of the term “a miniature China” is particularly strange, as, clearly, nothing about the Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles bore any resemblance to towns and cities in China.  Of course, a tourist would hardly know that, or likely bother to look into the statement!

The surface-level fascination with the Chinese was also encapsulated in the traditional paper dragon brought about Chinese residents for local parades and pageants, including La Fiesta de Los Angeles, an event that ran for many years from the mid-1890s until the World War I period.  Some Anglos might have patronized Chinese restaurants, where much of the food, however, was not authentic to the home country and many cookbooks were available by the 1920s.  Others might have employed the use of Chinese motifs for interior decoration in their homes as part of a trend of exoticism in architecture.

But, a deeper understanding of Chinese cultural and religious practices, such as what was entailed in worship at a Buddhist temple or shrine, was not of interest to most Anglos in Los Angeles or elsewhere.  The resulting lack of understanding and misunderstandings perpetuated and reinforced stereotypes and conditioned the behavior of the dominant ethnic group towards the Chinese.  Commercially sold photographs, such as real photo postcard, and postcards routinely emphasized the exotic nature of Chinese dress, language, architecture, and other elements, but were literally and figuratively two-dimensional.

Thanks to changing attitudes and the presence of institutions like the Chinese-American Museum, we have a much better and fuller understanding of the complexity, depth and range of Chinese and Chinese-American life and comparisons to how the community was viewed 120 years ago are why having photographs like this in the museum’s collection are important.

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