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Political Gumbo: Finally, The Truth Comes to Mills Place


Published on Tuesday, January 9, 2024 | 5:40 am

The City will undo a grave mistake on Tuesday when two plaques are unveiled remembering a horrific riot that forced Chinese residents to flee town after a racist attack in 1885.

The plaque provides information on the violent incident 137 years ago that destroyed portions of the city’s Chinese district.

Here’s the short version of the event.

In 1883 Yuen Kee moved his laundry, which was the first Chinese-owned business in Pasadena, to Mills Street, now called Mills Place in present-day Old Pasadena.

The story from there is all too familiar. Racists attempted to limit the influx of minorities into the area. Soon racist articles were published in the newspapers calling for the Chinese to be expelled legally from Pasadena.

A group of white men had gathered near the laundry and began throwing rocks at it. A lamp was knocked over and the fire began. In full mob mentality, the men began looting the laundry after the Chinese residents fled for their lives.

Matt Hormann wrote the definitive account on the incident. Versions of that story have appeared in the Pasadena Weekly and Pasadena Now.

Sadly though before Hormann told the story it was all but forgotten, largely because a plaque at Mills Place, formerly Mills Street when the laundry was located there, only acknowledges the fire but gives no account of the incident and hate.

“Named for Alexander Fraser Mills, a nurseryman who planted a citrus grove on 7 ½ acres at the Northwest corner of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue in 1878,” the plaque states. “Mills Place was originally named Ward Alley in 1885. A fire at this site destroyed a laundry owned by Chinese settlers.”

That plaque was right down the street from the old PW headquarters on Green Street.

After reading Hormann’s story I never bothered to look at the thing again. Every time I passed it, I chuckled and shook my head in disgust.

And the plaque may have stayed there if not for efforts of District 2 City Councilmember Felicia Williams and Pasadena residents.

The review of the information on the plaques was made after two Pasadena residents notified Williams that what was written on the plaques did not accurately capture the gravity of the events connected to the fire which occurred in 1885.

Williams is half-Asian.

Respect to the residents and Williams for their respective roles in the matter, and the members of the Human Relations Commission that deliberated on the matter.

And of course Hormann must be acknowledged for his award-level writing that properly put the past in the present.  

Truth to tell, the old plaque never should have been installed.

History must be properly preserved and facts are important.

We cannot erase hate by pretending these events did not happen.

Just as removing photos at City Hall does not undo the damage done by former mayors and the Pasadena Improvement Association which sought to prevent Black residents in Pasadena from buying property.

Yes, I fully get the call to remove them.

But more important is facing America’s original sin head on.

Civil discussion, education and tolerance is key to preventing hate.

And yes there are those in Pasadena doing the work. That includes activists, elected officials and yes, City employees.

As Dr. King said none of us should be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

We don’t need to wait until February to have that conversation.


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