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The Chinese Border : Many Agree That Mexicali Owes Its Development to Asians

August 16, 1990|SYD LOVE

MEXICALI — For several years, he helped build railroads in California, difficult, back-busting, hot and dusty toil. It paid poorly, too.

Woo Som Yee was a coolie, one of the thousands of Chinese laborers imported to the United States during the latter part of the 1800s to put the nation on iron wheels. When he completed his contract, he had to leave the land he helped modernize.

He could have returned to China, but opted instead for Mexico, making his way to the vast desert valley just across the border from what is now Imperial County.

Woo Som Yee would become known in his new land as Francisco Yee. And he would leave a legacy of hard work and financial success common to the Chinese who helped settle the Mexicali area and who helped nourish Tijuana and other older sectors of the Baja California peninsula.

Francisco Yee's grandson, Adolfo Yee Chek, a restaurateur known as Fito Yee, is well-acquainted with the history of the Chinese in Mexicali and Tijuana. He has been in the area for many years and is adding significantly to it himself.

"Mexicali did not exist when my grandfather arrived," he said. "At first, he fished to be able to eat. Then he picked cotton for the Colorado River Land Co. Then he started planting cotton, too." That was around 1902. Mexicali was founded March 14, 1903.

"As Mexicali started and grew in 1903, my grandfather went into business. They had these establishments known as tiendas de abarrotes, where food and general merchandise were sold.

"There were several cafes in Mexicali," Yee said. "Not really restaurants. They were like coffee shops. And they served more Mexican and American food than Chinese."

Those Chinese immigrants who could left the fields and opened tiendas de abarrotes and cafes. As more immigrants arrived to work in the fields, the need increased for the tiendas and cafes. Before long, some of the cafes would become restaurants. There would be hotels, money exchanges, a lottery, banks, clothing stores, fan-tan games, general merchandise stores and--yes--a Chinese laundry.

Chinese would outnumber Mexicans by 2 to 1, later 3 to 1. To the west 120 miles, though their numbers were much fewer, they would also become important business elements in Tijuana. They settled in Tecate and Ensenada, but in smaller colonies.

They never packed political clout, however, and do not to this day. But, from the beginning of their colonies in Baja California, Chinese have been numerous and economically notable.

In those primitive days early in this century, the Mexicali Valley might not have been developed without them. As former Chinese government official Saul Chong put it:

"Everyone knows Mexicali exists because the Chinese could stand the heat."

It was 1902 when the Colorado River Land Co.--whose principals included Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler--obtained from Guillermo Andrade a concession of 832,000 acres to raise cotton. The company took over the Mexicali Valley.

Chong, secretary of the Chinese Consulate at Mexicali under China, recalled that, although the company had tried hiring blacks and Hindus, they could not endure the dry, searing temperatures.

"The company offered land to Chinese to facilitate their getting started," Chong said. "This helped open the valley to agriculture."

Sometimes, however, the heat was unbearable, and it led to tragedy and the naming of two god-awful spots, the Desert of the Chinese and the butte known as El Chinero.

For many years, Chinese workers sometimes reached Mexicali by way of steamboat trips from a mainland Mexican port to San Felipe, then by walking the last 136 miles. One doomed group of 42, however, tried this in the 120-degree heat of August, with a guide who was certain he could find the two water holes along the way, even though he had made the trip only once.

It was 1902. The 42 had already walked 500 miles through tropical Mexico before sailing from Guaymas to San Felipe, where they paid a combined $100 to Jose Escobedo to lead them the rest of the way. But Escobedo could not find the water. Only he and seven Chinese survived, and Escobedo died shortly after they reached Mexicali. The desert and butte where so many perished are named for them.

In 1914-16, as war dominated Europe, demand for cotton was high, and, according to Chong's estimate, 15,000 Chinese worked in the Mexicali Valley fields, while the area contained only 5,000 Mexicans. At the same time, civil war was ravaging Mexico, and many Chinese left Sonora and Sinaloa states and resettled at Mexicali.

Before the 1920s ended, other Chinese would arrive to avoid the dangers of Mexico's Cristeros Revolution.

Chong said Chinese also quit Sonora and Sinaloa to escape racism fomented there by followers of former President Plutarco Elias Calles. Also in the 1920s, Prohibition in the United States encouraged establishment of cantinas and gambling halls in Mexican border towns, so business improved on many fronts.

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