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Chinatown Nostalgia in Vacaville

John Rico

THE ROAR AND THE SMELL — Back about 40 years, when Vacaville fruit growers sought dependable workers, they invariably selected Chinese, who drifted into the area from the depleted gold mine jobs of the Mother Lode.

These Chinese workers, who had departed their native soil without female companions, dreamed of the day when they could accumulate enough money to go back to their homes, but this seldom occurred.

Vacaville residents accepted the ways of these Chinese laborers. These men were peaceful, complacent, yet dependable. They all had known hard work and the pruning of fruit trees, picking the brush and harvesting the crops was far easier than the swing of a pick or the handling of a shovel in the gold fields.

Hundreds of these Chinese laborers came to Vacaville, so much so that they had established their section of the community, known to many as Chinatown, a section of Callen Street, between Dobbins east to the Ulatis Creek.

Winds in the proper direction would carry the odor of the cooking Chinese foods throughout the community. Most of these Orientals prepared the meals over open pit fires and the mere fact that the escaping smoke covered the inside of the building with soot was not alarming to these people.

The tongs feuded, and killings took place, but these feuds were among the Chinese, and the law brushed off such incidents as commonplace.

Chinese New Year was a festive event in old Chinatown of Vacaville. Thousands of firecrackers were braided in long strings, hung in front of the places of business, and then ignited into a continuous roar which could be heard throughout the town. It was a time for celebrating and the people of the community joined with these aging Chinese to recognize their New Year.

There were gambling dens and hideaway tunnels throughout the area. The buildings were in a state of collapse, the lean-to front porches acted as protection for the sun and rain, and without restriction opium smoking was practiced.

This was a period in Vacaville’s history before the day of automation. A familiar sight was the leisurely gait of these Chinese laborers and they went to and from their jobs, perhaps a distance of ten miles in a daily round trip.

It is hard to believe the resentment which now exists between the government of the US and that of the Republic of China. As the Chinese leaders have said:

“We know the American people are our friends. Our enemies are their leaders.”

People living in Vacaville today who can look back to the days of old Chinatown here and to the friendliness of the oriental residents, will vouch that an end came to a cherished era in our history.

The last traces of this era have been erased from Vacaville — the Chinese residents lived out their long lives and passed on — and the buildings were bulldozed into heaps or rubble and burned. The dark cellars and tunnels have been covered over.

Chinatown, Vacaville, is now only a memory, but it is a happy one.