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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vallejo’s Chinese Community - Part One

James Kern

From its earliest days as California’s state capital through its long association with the U.S. Navy at Mare Island, Vallejo has attracted a diverse population of immigrants from around the globe. The city’s varied economy centered on shipbuilding, flourmills, fishing, transportation, the lumber trade, and commercial activity in support of the U.S. Navy, created a variety of economic opportunities for those who settled here.

Members of Vallejo’s Chinese community were involved in many of these economic pursuits and the Chinese were among the earliest ethnic groups to settle in the city. Although Vallejo’s Chinese once lived in specifically identifiable downtown neighborhoods, the city’s massive redevelopment project of the 1950s and 60s dealt the final blow to these ethnic enclaves. Nonetheless, Vallejo’s Chinese-American community continues to make vital and important contributions to the social fabric of the city, just as it has for the past 150 years.

Although census data is not always reliable, particularly during California’s boisterous gold rush era, the census of 1860 indicates that there were three Chinese residing in Vallejo that year. Within another ten years, however, Vallejo had become the western terminus of the California-Pacific Railroad, and Chinese laborers for that company brought Vallejo’s Chinese population to nearly two hundred. This population figure would remain fairly steady for the rest of the nineteenth century. In addition to construction work with the railroad, Vallejo’s Chinese residents also found work in local fish canneries, a broom factory, several laundries, and as domestic workers employed by local families.

During the nineteenth century Vallejo had a well established Chinese neighborhood along Sonoma Boulevard, between Maine and York Streets. This neighborhood was traditionally referred to as “Old Chinatown’ or “Upper Chinatown,’ to distinguish it from the “New Chinatown’ or “Lower Chinatown’ which grew up a short distance away on Marin Street several decades later. These neighborhoods included homes, numerous businesses, meeting halls and a school. Both of these areas would remain the nucleus of Vallejo’s Chinese-American community until the turbulent years of WWII.

In addition to the Sonoma Blvd. and Marin Street neighborhoods, many of Vallejo’s Chinese residents lived and worked on Georgia Street, the busy commercial district that connected the community with its waterfront and, thus, the Navy at Mare Island. One of Vallejo’s largest Chinese businesses during the early decades of the twentieth century was Sing Lee & Co. at 207 Georgia Street. In 1905 the company advertised itself as a “Manufacturer of Ladies’ and Children’s Underwear, Men’s Furnishings [and] Fancy Goods.’

Like the rest of California, Vallejo too was plagued by the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment that characterized the 1870s and 80s. Local ordinances to regulate laundries were specifically designed to discriminate against the Chinese. A Vallejo anti-Chinese association was organized in the 1880s and included a number of prominent citizens. Interestingly, Vallejo newspaper accounts of that time reveal that most of the men that belonged to this organization had Irish surnames – an indication that the vehement anti-Irish sentiment of the 1840s and 50s had long been forgotten by these “upstanding’ citizens. The editorial stance of the Vallejo Evening Chronicle, however, was decidedly opposed to this anti-Chinese group. Newspaper accounts reported that many Vallejoans walked out of the meetings when talk turned to the blacklisting of local businesses and other more extreme measures. In 1877, when anti-Chinese agitation in San Francisco turned violent, the Navy dispatched ships and sailors from Mare Island to quell the disturbance and restore peace.

Business activity in Vallejo’s Chinese community was more closely interconnected with the city’s overall service and retail economy, unlike the primarily agricultural economies of the rest of Solano County. That may explain why anti-Chinese agitation was less strident in Vallejo than it was in the rest of the county. During the months prior to the establishment of an anti-Chinese group in Vallejo newspaper articles indicated that large rallies were being held first in Sacramento, and later spreading to Dixon and the rest of Solano County, before finally springing up in Vallejo.

Ultimately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed severe restrictions on Chinese immigration into the U.S. Although nearly 300,000 Chinese came to California between 1850 and 1890, only 56,113 Chinese immigrants would enter the U.S. through the Angel Island Immigration station between 1910 and 1940. Thousands more were turned away. This sad chapter in California’s history reflects the broader anti-immigrant sentiment that has characterized U.S. history since the nation’s founding, and which continues today.