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Sunday, February 20, 2005

First gold, then a future brought Chinese to the area

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Yee family opened a restaurant in downtown Vacaville

Large numbers of Chinese men flocked to California around 1850, attracted by the Gold Rush and the hope of earning enough money to return to China, buy land there and raise their families.

These men also carried back memories of a different country. When opportunity came along a generation later, they in turn urged their sons to set out for California.  By then, the Gold Rush was history. This second Chinese group concentrated on finding employment in building the intercontinental railway.

Bringing with them a strong agricultural background and valued knowledge of caring and maintaining orchards, their skills were sought after by California’s emerging orchardists

This is the story of the Yee family, who came from a small village in southwest China, near Canton. Ron Limbaugh interviewed Yee Ah Chong, the son of Yee Gim Wo, for the Vacaville Heritage project in 1977. His interview, sharing Yee Ah Chong’s recollections of a vanished world, is preserved at the Vacaville Museum.

“My grandfather came to America in the 1850s to look for gold,” Yee Ah Chong recalled. “He wanted $200 in gold to go back and buy some land. So he did it. He came and stayed a year or so and got his $200 and went home. He had a family started there, you know. Then, when they asked for more recruits to come and finish the railroad in about 1866 or 1867, my grandfather told my dad, ‘You go on over. That’s a wonderful country.’ He was just a young man, only 18 years old, and he came.”

Yee Gim Wo “bummed around until about 1889 or 1890, till he got enough money to go home and pick his wife.” By that time, he was in his late 30s, while she probably was in her teens. “They got married and I guess he brought her over to San Francisco in 1891 and they had a baby and they first moved to Sebastopol. They stayed there a couple of months and then moved to Vacaville. ... I was born in 1901. I was next to the youngest. ... My family was the first Chinese family to come to Vacaville. There was a lot of Chinese at the time, but there were not many Chinese families in Vacaville.”

Most of the bachelor Chinese men worked in the orchards. Yee Gim Wo, with a growing family to support, decided on opening a business in downtown Vacaville.

“Well, my father had a little restaurant. He come here and there were quite a few Chinese and he thought well maybe he’d come here and make a kind of a little Chinese restaurant of some kind ... It wasn’t like our restaurants now, but he made noodles and he made noodle-like tidbits, snack things. Of course at that time there were quite a few Japanese starting to come in and most of his business was with the Japanese. They’d come in and eat noodles.”

His restaurant and a noodle-making   factory in the basement were located on the corner of Kendal and Dobbins streets in a tin building next to George Power’s blacksmith shop. Power owned the big tin building, which he rented out to the Yee family and a second family. 

A small Chinese community developed along Dobbins and on the south side of Kendal, although the streets acquired their own nicknames among the residents. “We got to calling that (Kendal) Cross Street. Up ‘til this day we speak of that part of town as Cross Street, ‘cause we live on Straight Street, Dobbins Street. Mother would always say, ‘Well, go up to Cross Street and buy this and that.’ ” Most houses were made of tin, huddled together. On the east side of Dobbins resided the Chinese community, on the west side the Japanese community.

Newspaper articles of the time decry the fact that the living conditions were too close together, unsanitary and posing a fire hazard, as most cooking was done over open fires.  Even during the early 20th century, conditions improved only slowly. Yee Ah Chong, recalled that, “We was the first to have running water and a water toilet. I remember when I was a kid we used to have an old outhouse in back, and then finally we got a water toilet. It wasn’t inside the house, but right out the back door. We had running water and electric lights.”

Others made do with less comfort. “You took a bath in a tub if you wanted or go down to the creek and wash. There were no baths. ... Chinese ...  took a sponge bath every night when they came home from work. They had a little tub and they’d soak their feet and they’d kind of sponge bath all over. Every night when they came back from work they’d do this cause that’s what they did in China. You’d wash your feet first cause in those days you went barefoot and you had to wash your feet every night. You soaked your feet and you washed yourself with a little rag and kept yourself clean that way.”

Living in close contact with the Japanese community, Yee Ah Chong was also able to observe their customs of personal hygiene. “Now the Japanese lived in almost as much squalor, but they believed in that soap and baths. Everybody in town that had one of those bathtubs would start a fire under it. They were a lot cleaner than the Chinese were. There was no question about it. But the housing was just as squalid and as much a fire hazard as anybody else. In fact, they were more trouble because every night they had that big fire going, heating that water in the bathtub. A north wind would come along and blow it all over the place.”

During the 1880s and ‘90s, discrimination against the Chinese community ran high throughout California. Around 1885, more than 1,550 Chinese lived and worked in the Vacaville area, many of them in the surrounding orchards, as servants in households and in a variety of other menial jobs.

Discriminations mainly showed itself in slurs and frequent raids on   game parlors and opium dens. Fruit growers were too much aware of their dependency on this highly qualified work force, even passing a resolution in 1886 condemning extremist agitation against the Chinese.

Well into the early 20th century, Yee Ah Chong experienced his father’s standing in the “white” community as something to be remarked on.

“My father, the stinker, (when) he was at home, was well respected by the Whites around town. Old Noodle Tom, he had quite a reputation. He was honest. He was trustworthy. And he spoke a little better (pidgin) English than anybody in town, so he was the town interpreter. In any little civil case at the court house or county or town or something, why Noodle Tom was called for interpreting work. Or when a lease was made Noodle Tom was there to interpret the lease ... ”

While Yee Gim Wo, Old Noodle Tom, was respected outside Chinatown, his reputation in the community was different. He was known as an ornery and belligerent man.

“So they depended on him for that (his ability to interpret). As much as they (the Chinese community) disliked him, they had to depend on him for that. He was so disliked in Chinatown. I think he was pretty belligerent. ... He was always telling people off you know. ...”

At one time, somebody in the Chinese community was angry enough with Yee Gim Wo to hurt him. “There was a high wooden sidewalk and he knew what time my father was coming home and he laid under the sidewalk and when   my dad came he shot him. He shot him through a crack in the board and hit him in the arm. That was about a year or two before I was born. Oh, he was a stinker.”

One of the reasons for Yee Gim Wo’s belligerent disposition may have been the fact that he had contracted syphilis at an earlier age. “He was a - I can see now that through the later years he was all eaten with syphilis. He walked - he had a locomotive back. He just shuffled along. He had lost his arm and he drooled. He picked it up rowdying around you know in his young days. ...”

I will continue Ah Yee Chong’s story about the Chinese community in my next column.