In this historical photo, Chinese workers handle citrus fruit in the F.B.… (Riverside Municipal Museum )
A fenced lot overgrown with weeds near the heart of downtown Riverside is believed to contain the largest undisturbed early settlement of Chinese farmworkers in Southern California. But now a local developer wants to put up a medical building there.
The proposal has touched off a legal battle with activists who want the lot and its buried artifacts to become a memorial park. They say it should honor early Chinese pioneers and stand testament to the prejudice that led to the birth and demise of this Inland Empire Chinatown.
Though it was smaller than the urban Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles, activists say the Riverside Chinatown played an integral — and largely forgotten — role in creating Southern California's flourishing citrus belt.
Riverside developer Doug Jacobs wants to buy the property to build a medical facility. Activists sued to block the sale temporarily, and Jacobs' side has appealed. In response to activists' concerns, Jacobs said he would set aside room for a Chinese garden and a display area to showcase artifacts.
"This site has been nothing but a weed and trash dumping ground," Jacobs said. "I am building a medical facility because it's needed."
Supporters of a memorial park say the remains are best left undisturbed, perhaps to be fully excavated someday. "When you destroy archaeological resources and do token recognition, it simply trivializes the significance of the site," said Eugene Moy, incoming president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.
Most of the old Chinatown, including the remains of a temple, is entombed underground. A partial excavation of the site in 1984 yielded three tons of artifacts that were put in museum storage, including delicate ceramic vases and opium pipes.
During its heyday from the 1880s to the 1920s, the settlement's Chinese residents supplied groves with needed skills, said Margie Akin, a retired archaeologist and a member of Save Our Chinatown, the committee trying to preserve the site.
Many of the Chinese migrants who came to California to work on the railroads — and later in agriculture — were farmers who brought with them specialized knowledge of oranges, a fruit that originated in China. They were able to efficiently pick and pack oranges for mass consumption in the U.S., Akin said. "It was the Chinese laborers who carried the horticultural knowledge of citrus that was responsible for making Riverside the center of the citrus industry," she said.
Riverside's Chinatown had only about 400 full-time residents, but the number approached 4,000 during harvests. The settlement served as a commercial hub for Chinese laborers for miles around, according to Sue Fawn Chung, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Their labor helped make Riverside a citrus powerhouse by the 1890s, said Judy Lee, vice chairwoman of the preservation committee and a UC Riverside librarian. But fire, prejudice and a lack of women doomed the settlement.
In 1885, racist laws evicted Chinese-owned businesses from a site at the center of town, so Chinese residents moved to the outskirts of town. After a mysterious 1893 fire destroyed most of the new Chinatown, other buildings were erected on top of the debris.
"The Caucasian businesses didn't like the Chinese businesses there, so they booted them out," Lee said. "Now they want to develop over the remains of this second site. It's almost like booting them out again."
The Chinese community finally disappeared, in part because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act forbade Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and prevented those here from marrying white women or owning property. Most of Chinatown's residents remained bachelors. The last of them, a man named George Wong, died in the 1970s, leaving no children, Lee said.
The state of California apologized in 2009 for persecution of Chinese immigrants. Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte) and other members of Congress have introduced a resolution calling on the federal government to make a similar apology. Saving Riverside's Chinatown, activists say, could help raise awareness persuade newer Chinese immigrants to support this cause.
"We have such a big Asian population in the San Gabriel Valley now," the historical society's Moy said. "But most of us have no idea of the very dominant Asian population here more than a century ago."