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The State | COLUMN ONE

Chinese Scions Take Root

The rail fortune behind the Huntington Library was built using men society shunned. Now local Asian wealth is key to the site's future.

January 21, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong and Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writers

For more than a month, big rigs filled with crates of limestone mined from Lake Tai west of Shanghai have rumbled down the winding roads of San Marino and through the gates of the Huntington Library.

When the final shipment arrives at the end of the month, the library will have collected about 650 tons of loose rock, destined for the largest Chinese garden outside of China.

When the $80-million project is completed, it will become not only an ambitious new feature in the Huntington's world-famous gardens, but an ironic capstone to a remarkable turn in history.

The Huntington, with its more than 150 acres of botanical gardens, 18th century British and French art, and rare books such as a manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," has virtually embodied the image and aspirations of California's white ruling elite.

The money to build it originated from the vast fortune of Collis P. Huntington, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad. His nephew and heir, Henry E. Huntington, founded the library in 1919, supplementing the bequest with his own wealth from the Pacific Electric Railway, utilities and real estate deals around Southern California.

The Central Pacific Railroad, which connected Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, employed more than 10,000 Chinese immigrants to lay the most treacherous part of the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra in the 1860s. The Chinese laborers, who went on strike to get the same hourly wage as their white counterparts, hacked tunnels through the mountains and laid track in the bitter cold. Many died.

Those who survived were excluded from citizenship in the state and forbidden to purchase land. For decades, Chinese immigrants in California were a largely impoverished underclass.

"If you go back to the deeds of trust in San Marino, a long time before, they stated very clearly this land should not be sold to Jewish people, blacks, and it cannot be sold to the Chinese too," said Dr. Matthew Lin, vice mayor of San Marino and a local developer.

"We've come a long way now."

Indeed, San Marino now has an Asian majority, principally Chinese. And China's booming economy is bringing in many more affluent immigrants.

Though members of the white establishment continue to be a main source of support, the Huntington Library realized that to secure its future it needed help from ethnic Chinese in ways never envisioned by Henry Huntington. The Chinese garden was a way to connect with the new residents, and donors.

"It was about serving a new community," said Suzy Moser, the Huntington's assistant vice president for advancement. "If our neighborhood changes, we need to change."

"When you have an opportunity to serve a new constituency -- and an element of that is to invite them to support you -- you'd be fools not to do it," she said.

To Lin, the Huntington's interest in Chinese donors -- and the community's enthusiastic response -- reflects a change in attitude of the area as a whole.

"Before this, not a lot of Chinese people belonged to the Huntington," he said. "When people immigrated to this area in the '70s or '80s, they tried to raise their children and make ends meet. While they were very busy, they didn't have time to look into the surrounding area.

"Now in the later stages the businesspeople look around and really appreciate it. They've started to give back."

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Collis and Henry Huntington's attitude toward the Chinese was simple: "They thought of the Chinese as a labor source," said Dan Lewis, the curator of American historical manuscripts at the Huntington.

Collis Huntington wrote admiringly to a colleague about their usefulness. "I like the idea of your getting over more Chinamen," he wrote to a company official in 1867. "It would be all the better for us and the state if there should a half million come over in 1868."

Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in California, and by the time Henry Huntington was building his local rail lines, the clamor was so strident that he mostly used Mexican and white workers, historians said.

Collis and Henry Huntington would probably be extremely surprised that an institution started by their family was now asking Chinese Americans for money, said Selena Spurgeon, an 82-year-old Arcadia resident who has written a biography of Henry Huntington.

Though Henry Huntington would probably be delighted that people of all backgrounds appreciated his generosity, she said she would expect Collis to be entirely amazed at Chinese Americans' change in social stature.

"He just considered the Chinese servants, not equal socially at all," Spurgeon said. "I'm sure he didn't have any social connection."

Henry Huntington helped found San Marino before his death in 1927. The mansion-lined community of 13,000 became synonymous with old money and power, and a number of its wealthy residents served on the library's board of trustees.

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