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LOS ANGELES | L. A. THEN AND NOW

Los Angeles' Curious Role in the Chinese Revolution

September 02, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the heart of downtown's Chinatown is a bronze statue of China's revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the "George Washington" of China. The statue is a storied landmark with a hidden Los Angeles-based history of Chinese insurgents training in secret in the City of Angels.

Almost a century ago, with the help of a band of trade-minded and pro-revolutionary Angelenos, the "Red Dragon" caper--one of the city's best-kept secrets for almost 40 years--was plotted in the old Chinatown, where Union Station now stands.

The plot helped to catapult Sun to power, and it also promised members of a secret syndicate that if the revolution succeeded, China's new government would provide handsome returns to American financial backers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi, the "Dragon Lady," held power in China, and revolution was still in the air among Chinese on both sides of the Pacific. At the hub of the secret plot was a cast of Los Angeles characters who put up millions of dollars to train a militia of 2,100 soldiers and overthrow the last Chinese imperial dynasty.

The oddest among the group was a sickly, 88-pound hunchback Angeleno who had bad eyesight, an obsession with military glory and more than a touch of genius. Homer Lea was neither Chinese nor a trained military man, yet he taught himself military tactics and rose to become a chief military advisor to Sun.

Sun was not alone in admiring Lea. The Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir I. Lenin, who read two books Lea wrote in 1909 and 1912 about global warfare, said Lea knew "more about world politics than all the cabinet ministers now in office."

Although some called Lea an ambitious romantic, others called him a visionary genius. He was born in Denver in 1876 with a severe spinal curvature that made him look virtually neckless and condemned him to constant pain. He reached his full height of 5 feet by age 12. His playmates called him "Little Scrunch-Neck," but he stayed the course on camping trips and in the general rough-and-tumble of Los Angeles, where he moved with his family when he was 16. Lea graduated from Los Angeles High School and attended Occidental College before heading to Stanford University, where his mannerisms, obsessions and sheer brilliance amused and intrigued classmates. He endeared himself to two Chinese foreign students, Allen Chung and Lou Hoy.

His handicap did not trouble them because it was often said in China that "a man's brains are in his back." They also believed that Lea's unusually broad chest showed strength, and his piercing, keen blue eyes could see "15 feet into the ground."

In 1898, when the Spanish-American war broke out, Lea tried to get into West Point, hoping it might waive its physical requirements. Rebuffed, he began teaching himself strategy and tactics by studying famous campaigns. His dormitory walls were lined with battle maps he used to plot imaginary wars all over the world.

Through Chung and Hoy, he acquired a working knowledge of Chinese and went on nocturnal visits to an underground Bay Area organization, the Chinese Freemasons.

Poor health forced Lea to drop out of Stanford in his junior year. But after recuperating from a bout of smallpox, he saw his chance at military leadership when the Boxer Rebellion began in 1900.

His military gifts persuaded the Los Angeles branch of the Protect the Emperor Society, a powerful, secret group wanting to restore China's former ruler, the young emperor Kuang-hsu. In 1900, the society sent Lea to China as a secret military agent to convey funds and raise and train revolutionary troops.

But Lea's ragtag force was defeated by the Boxers, and the Manchu empress put a $10,000 price on his head. He disguised himself as a French missionary and fled China by way of Japan. There, he met Sun, who told him that if the revolution in China succeeded, he would appoint Lea his chief military advisor. "All great careers are carved out by the sword," Lea declared.

By 1901, Lea was back in Los Angeles and determined that his next Chinese venture would succeed. He dressed--to the vast amusement of his old friends--in a general's uniform he designed himself, complete with brass buttons embossed with dragons, and set about finding key U.S. men who could help to organize his army.

With the help of Gen. Adna R. Chaffee, commander of the Allied forces in China during the Boxer Rebellion, Lea recruited aides such as ex-U.S. soldier Ansel E. O'Banion.

Charles Beach Boothe, a pillar of South Pasadena society, was the checkbook of the syndicate that helped to raise as much as $9 million--in 1910 dollars.

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