Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

Commercial Development: Chinatown
by Susan Lehmann

Chinatown: Although no traces remain, there is curiosity among many Santa Cruz residents about the location of the city's Chinatown and its eventual fate. In reality there were several Chinatowns and all have disappeared for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that the Chinese never established a permanent niche in the Santa Cruz economy and, in the city at least, their numbers were always relatively small. The following is a summary of information about the location of the city's Chinatowns provided by Sandy Lydon's excellent study, Chinese Gold, the Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. The book provides an in-depth history of the Chinese experience in Santa Cruz and the rest of the region and is highly recommended to anyone interested in this important subject.

In the County of Santa Cruz, the early Chinese immigrants were involved in manufacturing. In 1864, about a dozen Chinese laborers arrived at the California Powder Works which by [the] 1870s became the largest industry in Santa Cruz. By that time the number of Chinese had grown to [thirty-five] men who worked primarily in the cooperage. Most lived at the powder factory rather than in town.

The city of Santa Cruz' first Chinatown developed in [the] mid-1860s on the west side of Willow St. (now Pacific Avenue) and consisted of two or three laundries housing less than a dozen men. This small group of buildings eventually expanded to take up most of [the] block between Lincoln and Walnut [Streets]. The Pacific Avenue Chinatown included a temple, one or two stores, a collection of laundries and a small cigar factory. In addition, this Chinatown provided a place to go for the Chinese who were domestic servants and waited on tables in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz had more Chinese servants than other towns in [the] Monterey Bay area because of its wealth which was due to a manufacturing based economy. The middle class, therefore, was larger and had bigger incomes than other towns in the region.

During [ the] 1870s the surveying and realignment of the Santa Cruz streets prompted the first move of Chinatown. Expansion of the Main Street (now Front Street) business district was limited on the east by the San Lorenzo River and on the south by a dead end, so in 1866, during incorporation and survey of the town, Willow Street was renamed Pacific Avenue and designated the primary business street while Front Street was declared a secondary street. As a result, businesses began to relocate in the 1870s to Pacific Avenue and rents there rose. At this time the Chinese began to move to the vacant buildings on Front Street and in 1877, the last of the Chinese moved away from the Pacific Avenue Chinatown.

The Front Street Chinatown was the largest in the city and lasted from the late 1870s until April 1894 when it was destroyed by fire. During its existence, it occupied most of the east side of Front St. between Cooper and Water Streets as well as several buildings across the street on the west side of Front Street. The 1880 census shows a Chinatown consisting of ten buildings housing [thirty-seven] men and one woman. [Thirty-one] of the men were laundrymen, two cooks, one domestic and one a merchant. The woman was a laundress. Less than half of the [ninety-eight] Chinese living in Santa Cruz in 1880 lived in the Front St. Chinatown. A few lived in laundries but most lived in homes where they were servants.

In addition to the laundries, by the mid 1880s three Chinese merchants had set up shop in the Front Street Chinatown. They sold goods such as groceries, peanut oil, Chinese candies, dried oysters, fish and sea weed; as well as Chinese slippers, water pipes, herbs and opium to an almost exclusively Chinese clientele. One store, operated by Wong Kee, occupied the only brick building in the Front Street Chinatown. On the ground level was a grocery store while above there was a gambling parlor and opium den.

The largest enterprise undertaken by the Chinese in the City were the market gardens developed by groups of Chinese in [the] late 1870s. The gardens were run by partnerships who pooled resources and labor to lease plots of land and grow vegetables for sale. In 1880 there were two market gardens in Santa Cruz as well as others in [the] County. Those in the City were located on Mission Street and on Branciforte Avenue.

By 1900 the number had grown to include one at Neary's Lagoon, several on Garfield Avenue, four on King Street, and on the San Lorenzo River bottom behind Front Street. There were also several below Branciforte bluff and along Branciforte Creek. Gardeners usually built a small shack within the garden and lived on [the] grounds. The most profitable crop was strawberries which often appeared as early as February and commanded incredibly high prices. When train service was established within the city some were shipped to San Francisco as well as being sold locally.

The Protestant churches, beginning in the late 1860s, took an interest in providing religious and educational services to the Chinese living in town. The largest of the missions was begun in 1869 by Santa Cruz Congregational Church which offered a Sunday school for Chinese. In 1881 a full fledged Chinese mission was organized by the church. Chinese joined this mission and other churches to socialize and learn English which had bible study, English lessons and singing. The Congregational mission began at the home of its minister and later, during the 1880s, the mission moved to [a] second story location in the Front Street Chinatown where it was eventually led by English speaking Chinese. It was destroyed in the 1894 fire and a new site was found on Bellevue [Place] in what was eventually called Birkenseer's Chinatown. It operated there into the 20th century but its membership declined over time with the declining Chinese population.

The fire that broke out on April 14, 1894 not only devastated the heart of downtown but brought about the complete destruction of the Front Street Chinatown. Following the fire, the Chinese were offered alternative sites to rebuild. Dr. P. B. Fagen and George Birkenseer offered them an island in the San Lorenzo River known as the Midway just 100 yards downstream from the old Front Street site. At the same time Mrs. Harriet Blackburn offered a new site next to Neary's [Lagoon] off Laurel Street on the west side of the Santa Cruz business district. The Chinese mission arranged for leases with Fagen and Birkenseer and it was primarily the Christian Chinese who moved out to the island. A small group led by merchant Wong Kee, who were not Christian, moved to the Blackburn property. This served to divide the Santa Cruz Chinese community in the 1890s and the areas became known by the names of [the] property owners as Blackburn's and Birkenseer's Chinatowns.

Birkenseer's Chinatown was the larger of the two and had [fifty-nine] residents in 1900 composed mainly of cooks, servants, laundrymen and laborers. Blackburn Chinatown listed a total of 19 men with no families and no women or children. Gambling halls continued to thrive in Birkenseer's Chinatown until after World War II and the Sanborn maps labeled several of the 1930s buildings as gambling halls.

In 1905, the Southern Pacific Railroad planned to buy 20 acres west of Chestnut Avenue, including the Blackburn Chinatown, to erect a railroad yard. The railroad company purchased the buildings and demolished them. The only building to survive the sale was Chee Kong Tong headquarters and temple which was disassembled and reconstructed at the extreme east end of the Birkenseer Chinatown. By 1910, the census confirms that the Chinese population in Santa Cruz was declining. The Chinese drifted away and in 1910, there were only 59 in Birkenseer's Chinatown almost all of which were older men. Most were to die or move back to China before 1920. The low lying location of this last Chinatown was to bring about its final destruction. High water was a common problem and [during] a flood in 1905 water covered the wooden sidewalks and subsequent floods often inundated the first floors of the buildings. In 1940 several residents had to be rescued from second stories and following the disastrous flood of 1955, the remaining residents left. The last buildings of Santa Cruz's remaining Chinatown were razed during the redevelopment of the area following the flood.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Prepared by Susan Lehmann, October 20, 2000. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 22-24]

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