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Friday, July 27, 2007

Vallejo’s Chinese Community - Part Two: Into the 20th Century

James E. Kern

By the turn of the 20th century Vallejo’s Chinese community was becoming more tightly interwoven into the overall fabric of the community. Economic prosperity, assimilation into the broader society, and a decline in anti-foreign sentiment brought new stability to the Chinese community. After 1900 the U.S. Navy began to open up jobs at the Mare Island Shipyard to Chinese workers. Although not yet permitted to engage in skilled trades, Chinese workers nevertheless played an important role in providing food and laundry services for the Mare Island Hospital and, later, at the Vallejo General Hospital.

One of the best descriptions of Vallejo’s Chinese-American community during the early decades of the twentieth century can be found in the book “China Gold’ by Theresa A. Sparks. “China Gold’ tells the story of Fong Chow, an immigrant from China who eventually moved his large family from the California Gold Country to Vallejo in 1916. The book describes the family’s livelihood as grocers on busy Georgia Street, the children’s experiences in Vallejo’s schools, and the eventual success of the family’s many children.

The Fong family, in fact, would become known as a “family of firsts’ in the Vallejo community. Of Fong Chow’s many children, daughter Alice would become the first Chinese-American teacher in the San Francisco Public School system. Another daughter, Martha, was the first nursery school teacher of Chinese ancestry, while Minnie became the first Chinese-American public health nurse and Marian the first Chinese-American dental hygienist. Of the sons, several became successful in business while one, First Lieutenant Albert Fong, gave his life in defense of his country during WWII. After Albert’s death, Fong Chow was presented the Silver Star and Purple Heart on his son’s behalf in a ceremony that was widely covered in local newspapers.

While the Fong family’s history has been the most extensively documented, there were numerous other Chinese-American families in Vallejo struggling to become successful during the first half of the twentieth century. Among the most prominent was Joe Soong, whose Vallejo Dollar Store (later National Dollar Stores) provided employment for many of Vallejo’s Chinese-Americans. Other successful Chinese-owned businesses by the 1930s included the Holsum Market, New Vallejo Market, Shanghai Café, and New China Café.

A shared economic livelihood created a close bond among members of the Chinese-American community but that bond was also strengthened through the establishment of many social, political, and community welfare organizations. The Hop Sing Tong was established in Vallejo during the late 19th century and lasted at least through the 1940s. Vallejo City Directories show that their meeting hall was located at 404 Marin Street. The Kuomintang was also active in Vallejo after the turn of the twentieth century, reflecting the community’s concern with political events in China. Their meeting space at 501 Sonoma Blvd. is variously listed in old City Directories as the Chinese Nationalist League or the Young China Association.

In 1925 Vallejo’s Chinese community held a large ceremony to mourn the death of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, father of Chinese nationalism. In 1904, Dr. Sun had spent several months visiting Chinese communities throughout the Bay Area, promoting the Chinese nationalist movement, and perhaps visited Vallejo as well.

These political organizations strengthened the social ties in the community and provided support for newly arrived immigrants. They also helped preserve the community’s heritage by providing lessons in Chinese language, history, and geography to the community’s children. Vallejo’s younger Chinese residents formed the Nu Chi Club in the 1930s which emphasized socializing, dances, picnics and sports like baseball, basketball and bowling.