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The Chinese Presence in California : Archeologist Digs for Artifacts in Early Chinatowns

November 28, 1985|DIANE AINSWORTH

I remember walking through Ventura's Chinatown, back and forth in front of Peirano's store. These Chinese people in their black pajama suits--they were very friendly. You didn't have to be afraid to go through there. The buildings were these two-story places with the tops coming out a little bit; you've seen those in Chinatowns. They had quite a colony there.

--Mary J. Huning, a resident, describing Ventura around 1900. From the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, Spring 1984, by Margaret Jennings, editor.

History has yet to glean a precise date for the arrival of the Chinese in Southern California.

All that is known from world affairs, census figures, newspapers and city records is that the doors of immigration from China to the United States officially opened in 1844, and that Chinatowns were springing up almost overnight in California by the mid-1850s.

Every major city in the state today embraces a Chinatown. To walk down the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura or Santa Barbara is to see the evidence, if token, of the Chinese presence in North America. Smaller cities as well--places such as Weaverville and many Mother Lode towns bear the traces of the overseas Chinese.

But what history has yet to uncover may lie buried in the archeological record. In recent months, excavations to the north and east of Los Angeles County have brought to light fresh clues about the timing of the Chinese arrival in this area and aspects of their culture that survived the 19th-Century exodus to America.

A Flurry of Activity

The focus of this flurry of activity lies 45 miles north of Los Angeles, in the once sleepy mission town of Ventura. There, archeologist Roberta Greenwood has spearheaded an effort to gather information from oral histories, city records and maps, and ongoing analyses of Chinese artifacts to document the rise and fall of the city's three Chinatowns.

Greenwood is a specialist in Chinese culture and president of Greenwood & Associates, a private archeological consulting firm. She led one of the first systematic archeological investigations of Chinese culture in the nation at Ventura 10 years ago. Today, her work is providing historians with new insights into some previously untapped areas of local history.

"Very little was actually known about the material culture of the Chinese immigrant in America until a 1975 excavation in Ventura," Greenwood said in an interview in her Pacific Palisades office.

"Nineteenth-Century Ventura was well suited to provide us not only with material evidence of the immigrant Chinese, but with information on the degree to which the Chinese adapted to life in an American community and what customs survived their journey here."

That excavation was made possible through a series of environmental impact studies and field tests that the City of Ventura had undertaken in anticipation of a federally funded urban redevelopment project.

"We were asked to assess the area when local crews realized they had uncovered evidence of prior occupation," Greenwood said. Indian beads, stone tools and broken ceramics were reportedly strewn about the site.

Greenwood attributes the ensuing excavation to a rare blend of circumstances. "This set of circumstances does not often prevail," she said. In many cases, valuable data are destroyed because demolition crews do not recognize the importance of such artifacts.

"Similar evidence of Chinese occupation in downtown San Francisco was abandoned many years ago," Greenwood said, "leaving valuable artifacts for looters, collectors, and construction people." Federal environmental laws since then have prompted scientific studies in San Francisco in recent years.

From the combined data of Gold Rush Chinatowns that have been examined, immigrant Chinese initially fixed their sights on jobs in the gold mines. As more miners flooded into the state, and as most of the accessible placer gold was depleted, they turned to the railroads, to the canneries and to the fruit orchards. Increased competition for work in those industries, as well, swiftly turned the tables against them.

In Los Angeles, census figures show that a pocket of Chinese had settled here by 1860, although no official record can verify a founding date. It was only when the first Chinese woman arrived in town on Oct. 22, 1859, that the Los Angeles Star acknowledged the existence of a Chinese community at all.

Greenwood said all Chinatowns in California were overwhelmingly male during the Gold Rush era and into the early 20th Century. Los Angeles' remained predominantly male until 1910.

The scarcity of Chinese women was partly because of discriminatory U.S. immigration practices barring Chinese women from entering the country. Greenwood said male Chinese immigrants believed they would stay in America only long enough to earn enough money for their families.

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