Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

Climbing Golden Mountain
by Geoffrey Dunn

There are but a few Chinese in Santa Cruz,
because our people hate them, dread them, despise them.
-Duncan McPherson, 1882

Part 1

It is the summer of 1885 and three young children are peering into a barbershop on Front Street a few steps from where the Veterans' Memorial Building still stands today. If the children could be stirred to look up, they would see row upon row of rusty horseshoes nailed to the old wooden structure or the barber's sign, "Sing Lee and Front Street," tacked above the door. But their attention is not to be swayed from the scene taking place inside.

Sing Lee, the barber, is carefully unbraiding long strands of silk interwoven with the coarse, black hair of his customer. He disentangles the hair with a wooden comb, then applies near-boiling water to his customer's face and forescalp.

With a small triangular razor, he scrapes away the hair until the scalp is almost bleeding. In his left hand he is holding a wooden tray close to his customer's shoulder so that the hair does not fall to the floor. He shaves the ears and the skin between the eyes, places the razor on a stool and, finally, re-braids the silk and the hair from the back of the skull into a foot-long queue, or pigtail.

All of this surely fascinates the diminutive onlookers, but the barbershop provides an even more curious attraction than the shaving of a Chinaman: Sing Lee has six fingers on his right hand.

The children stare at the small piece of flesh and bone protruding from the barber's right thumb. One of them giggles, then another. Sing Lee turns and glares back at his young audience through the window of his shop.

What the children see in those brown eyes set in eternity is a matter of speculation. Perhaps they see the rice fields and ancient temples of the great land to the west from which Sing Lee ventured. Perhaps they see the torch lights which would come to drive Sing Lee and 300 of his fellow countrymen away from the city of the Holy Cross.

Or perhaps they see even further into the future--to the parking lots and concrete buildings which would come to serve as a mausoleum for a time that once was and would never be again.

The children look nervously at one another. It is getting near the noon hour and, without saying a word, they hurry back to their homes.

The Chinese community in which "Sing Lee and Front Street" conducted business a century ago was the second of four Santa Cruz Chinatowns. The first was located on what is now Pacific Avenue, between Walnut and Lincoln Streets, and dates as far back as 1859.

It lasted until the 1870s, when downtown business merchants shifted their center of activity from Front Street to Pacific Avenue and the Chinese moved to the quieter location on Front Street. In spite of considerable anti-Chinese sentiment and activity, that Chinatown lasted for nearly two decades, boasting a population of well over 100 residents, 10 laundries, three herb stores, opium dens and gambling halls.

Then in 1894 the Great Santa Cruz Fire, which destroyed the County Courthouse on Cooper Street and much of the downtown business district, also claimed the Front Street Chinatown as a victim. Many of the Santa Cruz Chinese, particularly members of the Gee Kong Tong (or Chinese Free Masons), moved to the Blackburn Ranch on West Sycamore Street near the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot.

Still other members of the Front Street community (many of whom belonged to the Congregational Association of Christian Chinese) moved around the corner to Bellevue Place, which ran east to the San Lorenzo River from where Cooper Street intersects with Front Street. The Chinese set up residence there in a series of ramshackle homes owned by a prosperous German immigrant, George Birkenseer.

There were numerous other Chinese communities in Santa Cruz County during the late 1800s: a small colony of Chinese who harvested abalone and seaweed just north of Davenport; another colony of about 30 fishermen just south of Capitola at what is now New Brighton State Beach; small camps of railroad workers throughout the San Lorenzo Valley; and a large Chinatown in Watsonville.

But Birkenseer's--located approximately where Coast Commercial Bank and the U.A. Theatres now stand--was the fourth and final Santa Cruz Chinatown. During the 1920s, white residents from as far away as San Jose and Fresno would flock into Birkenseer's to gamble, womanize, drink white whiskey, and a few, even, to smoke opium. Locals came to have their clothes washed or to purchase herbs. At least 14 buildings were occupied by the Chinese there as late as 1928.

"It was a lively place back then," remembered the late Malio Stagnaro, a Santa Cruz native who sold fish to the Chinese back in the Twenties. "Always lots of gambling, good food. The Chinese treated their patrons well."

By the mid-1930s, however, local authorities began cracking down on the gambling, drugs and bordellos (which were then owned and operated exclusively by whites in Birkenseer's), so that by the beginning of World War II, only four dwellings were occupied by the Chinese.

In 1952, all but one of the Chinatown shacks were boarded and vacant. Mrs. Gue She Lee, her second husband Arnold Sima, and her youngest son, Jun Lee, were the last residents of Chinatown. When the flood of 1955 swept through the city, they, too, were forced to leave and make way for the redevelopment project which brought Albertson's, Longs and the UA Theaters to Santa Cruz.

The bulldozers did their dirty work and the last remnants of the Santa Cruz Chinatown crumbled. All that remained were the ghosts.

There are some who believe that the first Chinese to come to the Americas arrived here over a thousand years ago on sturdy wooden junks capable of trans-Pacific voyages. Anthropologists have noted striking similarities between symbols used by the Olemec tribes of Mexico and the peoples of Southern China, but so far positive proof of such cross-cultural interaction has yet to be established. In any event, the first confirmed Chinese immigrant to California was a cook named Ah Nam, who arrived in Monterey some time before 1815.

Mid-nineteenth century China, much like Ireland on the other side of the earth, was a nation plagued by war, floods, famine and banditry. The nation had recently been defeated by Great Britain in the Opium War of 1840, leaving the Chinese economy virtually in ruins.

Word that gold had been discovered in California quickly spread through Hong Kong to China's coastal provinces. Thousands of young men, almost all of them from the Canton region, journeyed across the Pacific, hoping to bring back enough wealth to alleviate the misery of their impoverished families.

By 1860, over 30,000 Chinese "pioneers," mostly between the ages of 17 and 35, migrated to the land of the "Golden Mountain."

While they were greeted with curiosity upon their arrival in San Francisco, the Chinese met with considerable hostility in the goldfields of the Sierra Nevada. They were often run off of their claims, scores were killed, and the promise of a fast fortune turned to dust.

Many of the Chinese driven from the mines took positions with the Central Pacific Railroad Company. "Without them," the Central's president, Leland Stanford declared, "it would be impossible to finish the western portion of this great national highway." It was largely with Chinese labor that the Central Pacific completed the monumental task of laying track over the rugged Sierras and across the Nevada and Utah deserts.

Still other unsuccessful miners filtered back to the coast. Many Chinese came to Santa Cruz County, and once here they also found railroad work. They dug tunnels and laid track from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz for the South Pacific Coast Railroad, and from Santa Cruz to Watsonville for F.A. Hihn's narrow-gauge rail.

At least 31 Chinese shovel workers were killed in 1878 while digging the mile-long Summit Tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains. When the railroads were finished, most Chinese found work as day laborers, domestic help or in laundries.

Reports published by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that there were 156 Chinese living in Santa Cruz County in 1870, 523 in 1880, and a peak of 785 in 1890 when the county's white population totaled less than 20,000.

The most prominent feature of the Santa Cruz Chinatown was its absence of women. Reports vary, but it can be reasonably assumed that there were less than two dozen Chinese women living here at any one time prior to 1920. Santa Cruz was not unique in this aspect. In 1890, for instance, the ratio of Chinese men to women in California was 22 to 1.

Chinese custom of the nineteenth century dictated that wives were to remain in the home, even when their husbands went abroad. Many Chinese women during this period still had their feet bound. Those women who came to California were largely unmarried, widowed, or the wives of wealthy merchants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted the immigration of Chinese laborers, also barred the entrance of their wives. After 1882 those Chinese men who were already working in California could not call on their families to join them.

Thus the Chinatowns of the West Coast were "bachelor societies"--societies in which the men were lonely and sexually frustrated, while the women were outcasts and often abused. The few Chinese women immigrants who weren't married to merchants frequently found themselves serving as unwilling prostitutes. Many were brought here exclusively for that purpose.

Although it does not state so specifically, the U.S. Commerce report for Santa Cruz County in 1880 hints at the existence of seven Chinese prostitutes in the Front Street Chinatown. The report identifies seven "unemployed women" living with a male "cook" at a single residence. The women were unrelated. That this could have been anything but a bordello is unlikely.

Given the absence of any family structure, California Chinatowns were organized on large-scale social units. One such level of organization was the secret society or "tong." These societies developed in China during the seventeenth century to oppose the Manchu dynasty, and they reproduced themselves on the West Coast.

In Santa Cruz, virtually all of the Chinese prior to 1890 were members of the Gee Kong Tong, or Chinese Free Masons. They met in a temple called a "joss house" by whites, where they unbraided their queues (marks of subjection mandated by the Manchus) and repeated oaths to free their native land.

There were temples at each of the four Chinatowns, the last being located on the banks of the San Lorenzo River near the present-day UA Theatres. It was torn down in 1950.

"The interior of the joss house," according to Ernest Otto, "featured pictures of ancient heroes of China who had become deified. The shrine was in an alcove at one end of the room. A continuing burning light was before the shrine. Smoke from burning incense of sandalwood, punks and red candles had, through the years, so blackened the figures on the sacred pictures, the characters could scarcely be seen."

The leader of the Santa Cruz secret society was Wong Kee, a colorful local merchant who on holidays, Otto recalled, "Wore a black horsehair skull cap topped with buttons of red silk or coral beads" and robes which were "in tones of emerald green, Chinese reds, lavender, and navy blue." The local whites referred to him as "the town mayor."

Wong Kee's store was located in the only brick building in Chinatown. In it could be found copper pots, kettles, ribbon, firecrackers, rice, oysters, shark fins, sweet bamboo sprouts, okra, teas, hams and dried fish.

The second floor housed a gambling hall, where "fan tan," "pie gow," and Chinese checkers were played. All business transactions were calculated on an abacus.

Another joss house was located at the California Powder Works on the San Lorenzo River, where Paradise Park is presently located. Scores of Chinese men (perhaps as many as 100) lived and worked there during the 1870s, when the company had one of the two government contracts to produce smokeless gun powder for the U.S. Army.

The other major organization in Chinatown was the Congregational Association of Christian Chinese. It was founded here in 1881 by the Reverend Mahlon Willet. Later, a Chinese cook and merchant named Pon Fang was sent to Santa Cruz by Willet's missionary group to head the Chinese congregation.

In 1892 Pon Fang established the first "Chinese Christian Endeavor Society" in the United States. Forty residents of the Santa Cruz Chinatown were members. The society met on Friday nights, Pon Fang teaching his followers how to read and write English along with the fundamentals of Christianity.

Since he was a merchant, Pon Fang was able to bring his wife and young son, Samuel, to the U.S. His wife (whose name apparently was never recorded in the press) was the first woman in the Santa Cruz Chinatown to have bound feet. While living here she gave birth to four more children: Joseph, Ruth, Esther and Daniel.

After the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the population of the Santa Cruz Chinatown began to dwindle and interest waned in the Congregational mission. Pon Fang, like many local Chinese, moved to San Francisco, taking his family with him.

Continue with Part 2.

This article is a chapter from, Santa Cruz is in the Heart, by Geoffrey Dunn. Capitola Book Company. Copyright 1983 Geoffrey Dunn. Reproduced with the permission of the author.

View similarly tagged articles:

Chinatown, Chinese Americans, immigrants, racism


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