Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

Climbing Golden Mountain - 2
by Geoffrey Dunn

Part 2

Aside from performing tasks as day laborers, many Chinese men worked in the laundry business. In 1880 there were already 19 Chinese laundries in the county, employing 70 workers full time. Ten were located in downtown Santa Cruz.

Because most white males felt laundry work beneath their dignity, the Chinese were able to enter the wash house business with a minimum of resistance. Chinese laundries were labor intensive and required little initial investment. They rapidly became the foundation of the Chinese economy.

On entering a Chinese laundry, Otto recalled in one of his historical columns,"One saw a long ironing board against the wall on each side, with six or seven men ironing ... At the side of each was a sauce bowl filled with water set on top of a starch box. The Chinese, wearing white cotton blouses, would bend over to fill their mouths with water and then spray it over the clothes to dampen them." Rocks behind the wash houses were used for beating the clothes.

Chinese gardeners provided the Santa Cruz community with a large supply of its fresh fruits and vegetables. In 1885 the Santa Cruz Surf reported 125 "soil cultivators" in the city earning $20 a month. One large Chinese garden was located at the Blackburn Ranch near Chestnut and West Sycamore Streets, and another off King Street above what is now Mission Hill Junior High.

Henry Biekiewicz, a Polish visitor to the West Coast in the 1870s, reported that "the fruits and vegetables, raspberries, and strawberries under the care of Chinese gardeners grow to a fabulous size. I have seen strawberries as large as small pears and heads of cabbage four times the size of European heads." Chinese vegetable peddlers sold their produce from overflowing baskets balanced on shoulder poles.

The first commercial fishing in Monterey Bay was done by the Chinese, although that industry, particularly after 1880, was centered on the Monterey Peninsula. The Santa Cruz Chinese--like their counterparts in San Francisco and New York-- developed close ties with the Italian fishing colony. The Italians provided Chinatown with a variety of fish (petrale sole, gopher cod, octopus and pompano), which the Chinese dried on racks located near the San Lorenzo River.

When the Chinese weren't working (and perhaps even when they were), they were often under the influence of opium. The British had imported the habit from India to China in the nineteenth century, and the Chinese brought it with them to America.

Otto claimed that the drug was smoked by a "high percentage" of the local Chinese population. Nearly every shop or laundry had a small room or den set aside for opium consumption. The room usually had a selection of water pipes and a mattress of some sort on which the user could pass out.

One of the biggest opium busts in the history of Santa Cruz Chinatown took place on November 25, 1925. Wong Tai Yut was arrested that day by the local sheriff with "two large tins" of the drug estimated in value at $400.

By far the greatest celebration in Chinatown occurred during the Chinese New Year. The Chinese stopped working for three days and prepared huge, elaborate meals for the festivities. "Dinners were served with the finest delicacies," Otto recalled, "pork, chicken, bird's nest soup and shark fins."

On February 1, 1915 the local daily reported that "the Chinese New Year was ushered in last night by a fusillade of firecrackers, feasting and worship. But the New Year is observed less and less each year as the Chinatown population decreases..."

By then, wounds from an ugly chapter in Santa Cruz history may have been forgotten--but they had surely taken their toll.

To state that the Chinese were "driven out" of Santa Cruz, as some historians have suggested, is to oversimplify greatly the complex web of social, political and economic forces which eventually resulted in the demise of the local Chinese community; but certainly, the whites did attempt to drive them out.

There were three great waves of anti-Chinese sentiment here, the first beginning in the late 1870s, the second in 1882 and the third commencing in 1885. At the center of all three was Duncan McPherson, editor and publisher of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

In 1879 a Sentinel editorial written by McPherson characterized the Chinese as "half-human, half-devil, rat-eating, rag-wearing, law-ignoring, Christian civilization-hating, opium smoking, labor-degrading, entrail-sucking Celestials."

McPherson, of course, was not the only racist in the state, and California's anti-Chinese movement did not begin here in Santa Cruz. As early as 1850 the Chinese were referred to in the press as "rats," "mongrels" and "low-animals." In the winter of 1867, the first formal anti-Coolie organization drove laborers away from their jobs on San Francisco's Potrero Hill. A few months later, a Chinese vegetable peddler was stoned to death there by an angry mob of youths.

The incipient anti-Chinese sentiment spread throughout the West Coast and culminated in 1877 with the establishment of the Workingmen's Party of California. While its platform contained a number of decidedly radical proposals designed to redistribute wealth, the Workingmen's Party was first and foremost an anti-Chinese organization. Its demagogic leader, Denis Kearney, called for the immediate deportation of all Chinese laborers from the state.

"Are you ready to march down to the wharf and stop the leprous Chinaman from landing?" Kearney once addressed an angry mob. "The dignity of labor must be sustained even if we have to kill every wretch that opposes it... The Chinese must go!"

By January of 1878 the Workingmen's Party had become a major political force in California.

Seventy-five miles down the coast, the Workingmen's organization took on a uniquely Santa Cruz flavor. In San Francisco the organization was made up largely of white workers--men and women who feared their livelihoods were threatened by cheap Chinese labor. In Santa Cruz, where the Chinese generally didn't compete with whites for jobs, the Workingmen were composed largely of the landed gentry and businessmen.

The president of the local Workingmen's club was Elihu Anthony, a wealthy industrialist, landowner and Methodist minister. Its most vociferous sympathizer was McPherson, who not only published the Sentinel but according to E.H. Harrison's History of Santa Cruz, had "more buildings in this city than any other man."

Suspiciously missing from the Santa Cruz Workingmen's platform were the party's plans for redistributing wealth, save for occasional attacks on the railroads. An entire section of the platform, however, was devoted exclusively to the Chinese:

"Chinese cheap labor is a curse to our land, a menace to our liberties and the institutions of our country and should be restricted and forever abolished; and no citizen shall be eligible for membership into this club who employs or knowingly patronizes in any form, shape or manner that class of people known as the Chinese."

The first direct action taken by the local Workingmen was aimed at the Chinese laundries. In March 1880 the club requested that the Santa Cruz City Council remove all Chinese wash houses from within the city limits. The Council balked at that blatantly racist proposal, but three months later passed a law which had a similar effect.

On June 5, 1880 the Council adopted the following ordinance: "No person shall carry baskets or bags attached to poles carried upon back or shoulders on public sidewalks." Chinese deliverers were forced from the safety of the sidewalks into the roadway, but the industry survived the restrictive legislation. The ordinance was later declared unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the United States Congress in Washington was beginning to express concern with the growing anti-Chinese activities, sending a commission to the West Coast with orders to investigate the situation. In 1882 legislation was introduced in the Senate which would restrict Chinese immigration for 20 years.

Both houses of Congress passed the bill, but President Chester Arthur vetoed it on April 4 of the same year.

Santa Cruzans were irate with the President's decision. Three years earlier, County residents had voted 2540 to 4 in favor of restricting Chinese immigration, and they were determined to keep further Chinese from entering their community.

Arthur's veto spurred a spontaneous parade in downtown Santa Cruz. Fanned by the rhetoric of McPherson, who declared, "The Chinese are a scab on the face of our state," local residents burned Arthur's effigy at the lower downtown plaza.

Later that year, Arthur signed a slightly modified version of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was amended in 1884, extended indefinitely in 1902, and wasn't repealed until 1943. For over 50 years, Chinese laborers and their wives were barred from entering this country.

The final great wave of the local anti-Chinese movement had its beginnings in February 1885 and culminated a year later. By then local Sino-racism was stripped of its Workingmen's facade. The state "Non-Partisan Anti-Chinese Association" had active clubs in Watsonville, Aptos, Boulder Creek and Felton. In downtown Santa Cruz, Anthony and McPherson remained at the forefront of the movement.

Once again Chinese laundries provided the initial focus for their attack. A health ordinance regulating sewage disposal was aimed directly at Chinese wash houses. Soon after the local association called for a boycott of all Chinese merchants (including vegetable peddlers) and even white-owned businesses which employed Chinese.

McPherson and his associates didn't stop there. Perhaps motivated by economic self-interest, the Sentinel publisher called for an extension of the boycott to include his competition, the Santa Cruz Surf, whose fiery editor, A.A. Taylor, had opposed the original boycott on the grounds that it divided the white community.

A vitriolic debate ensued between the two men. Finally, on December 14, 1885, Taylor played his trump card. "The poor man who buys a beet from a Chinaman's basket ought to be boycotted," the Surf editorial argued, " [but] the man who sells or rents to a Chinaman is a reformer and ought to be made governor."

In one of the great ironies of local history, it turned out that McPherson himself was the landlord of a Chinese laundry and that he had been collecting rent from the "entrail-sucking Celestials" for quite some time. "I have made a living out of the paper," McPherson once boasted, "and money out of real estate."

Taylor eventually won a lawsuit from the Sentinel and the paper's business manager was later cited by the state Anti-Coolie League "for failure to act in good faith."

The Sentinel-Surf battle, however, did little to curb local Sinophobia. On February 27 of the following year, the Anti-Chinese Association staged a county-wide torchlight parade down Pacific Avenue. Hundreds of association members participated in the march, carrying banners and shouting, "The Chinese must go!"

But the Chinese stayed. In what is surely a tribute to the internal solidity of their Front Street community, the Santa Cruz Chinese withstood the decade-long effort to drive them out. A major fire in 1887 and the Great Fire of 1894 finally forced them to move their community, but they did so largely on their own terms--and they didn't move far.

It would be all too easy to attribute the anti-Chinese sentiment which infested this area to the economic depression which struck California in the late 1870s and lasted for most of the following decade. Unemployment rates in San Francisco, for instance, skyrocketed during this period, a factor which certainly contributed to the bitterness of the white working class.

Such was not the case in Santa Cruz. There was some unemployment here, to be sure, but the whites were not competing with the Chinese for work. Rather, it seems more likely that the white business community feared the competition of successful Chinese merchants and attempted to drive them from the marketplace. Old-fashioned racism served as the axle of their movement, and the well-publicized bigotry of Duncan McPherson and his ilk greased it for over a decade.

While the boycotts and torchlight parades failed in their short-term objectives, they had long-term implications which eventually resulted in the demise of the Santa Cruz community. The restrictive legislation which outlawed the immigration of Chinese laborers and women cut the lifeline of the local Chinatown. Business regulations prevented the Chinese from entering the economic mainstream. Without new blood or the opportunity for social mobility, the Chinese community atrophied. Only a handful of Chinatowns on the West Coast survived the subsequent economic and social decay.

In the 1980s, the Evergreen Cemetery which overlooks Harvey West Park is a quiet, serene setting, save for a few hikers and stray dogs who wander through its pathways. High up one of its southeastern slopes there is a sprawling bay tree and a cubic structure which looks something like a small incinerator.

Beneath the shadow of the sprawling bay are headstones with Chinese characters on them, another which reads "Chinese Burial Ground, January 1, 1901," and still another reading "Lee Song, 1851-1929." It was on this small plot of soil that most of the Santa Cruz Chinese were buried.

"Chinese funerals were elaborate affairs," according to Renie Leaman, a longtime friend of the cemetery. "Most of Chinatown turned out for the gatherings." When a member of the Santa Cruz community passed away, a seer or astrologer was consulted to discern the proper day to conduct the burial. Sometimes the wait lasted as long as two weeks.

A pair of horse-drawn wagons led the funeral processions, one carrying the casket, the other carrying wooden baskets loaded with oranges, apples, chickens, roast pig, firecrackers and all the possessions of the deceased.

Behind the carriages, men swirled paper streamers to scare away the devil. There were thousands of holes in the streamers, and the Chinese believed that the devil had to pass through each one in order to get to the dead person's soul. Occasionally, a member of the procession stomped on the streamer, hoping that the devil had become entangled in the holes. Firecrackers were also exploded to ward off evil spirits.

At the graveyard the casket and baskets were hauled up the hill. Chinese music and the smell of burning herbs filled the air. The deceased's possessions were set on fire in the holy oven, while the baskets of food were situated around the grave and some coins were placed in a plate so that the deceased would not go into the next life without wealth. But their bodies did not remain in Evergreen.

Many of the Chinese who came to Santa Cruz in the 1800s did not intend to stay here. Certainly, they did not intend to die here. After a body had been entombed for a decade, it was dug up by family members or friends, packaged, and sent back to China.

"This is a cherished burial custom," the Sentinel noted in an article dated November 4, 1925. "The Chinese believe that their bones should have as a final resting place the soil of their flowery kingdom, and no matter where they die, the bones are unearthed and sent to the burial ground of the villages of their birth." Eighteen bodies had been disinterred earlier that afternoon.

Scorned and oppressed in America, the Santa Cruz Chinese made sure that their spirits would not meet the same fate. The land of the Golden Mountain may have taken their sweat and blood, may have turned their dreams into dust and their culture into a laughing stock, but it would never claim their souls.

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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