With floods and civil war in China in the mid-19th Century, many Chinese men came to Northern California during the gold rush boom not so much to start over but to “earn enough money to provide for their families back home and to return to their homeland with financial security.”
As southern Oregon writer Margaret LaPlante points out, this led in the 1850s and beyond to the establishment of numerous Chinatowns and created tension not only among non-Chinese but also within their own communities.
“Fires swept through Chinatowns continually,” she writes, “but the Chinese showed their resiliency by rebuilding time and time again.”
LaPlante captures some of these Chinatowns through hundreds of historical photographs in “Abandoned Chinatowns: Northern California” ($23.99 in paperback from America Through Time). San Francisco’s original Chinatown was destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906. Other Chinatowns throughout Northern California had their own challenges.
One photograph shows the “third Joss House in Oroville’s Chinatown; the first two burned.” The Joss House, or Chinese temple, “was built in 1863 using bricks manufactured in nearby Palermo. In 1937, after a series of vandalism and thefts, the town decided to turn the Joss House into a museum,” still also available for worship.
LaPlante writes that the “Chinese who lived in Red Bluff built elaborate tunnels underneath the downtown. Most of the tunnels stretched out to the Sacramento River. As in most Chinatowns, there was a great deal of opium, gambling, and prostitution.”
In Truckee, many Chinese “worked on the railroad. The Truckee Chinatown burned in 1878 but was rebuilt on the outskirts of town. In 1886, during the anti-Chinese movement, Truckee’s “Caucasian League” ordered all Chinese residents to leave Truckee on their own or they would be shipped out in boxcars.”
LaPlante devotes an entire chapter to detailing “anti-Chinese sentiment.” The 1870 Naturalization Act forbade Chinese from becoming citizens and vestiges of discriminatory policies remained until at least 1965.
The Chinese “planted vineyards in the wine country; they cleared the delta …; they installed irrigation for orchards; and they worked in the fishing industries and in canneries. … They operated laundries, restaurants, markets.”
LaPlante’s book is a timely reminder of what has come before.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. Send review requests to email@example.com. Columns archived at https://dielbee.blogspot.com