By Elaine Dunn | September 2021
Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe, right, presents city resolution that apologizes t early Chinese immigrants and their descendents ot Andy Li, president of the Contra Costa Community College District..
The Chinese Exclusion Act and the fact that most early Chinese immigrants entered California through San Francisco after interrogation on Angel Island are well-known facts. However, not so well known is the treatment they endured after settling in California in the 1850s.
In his annual address to the California Legislature in 1852, Governor John McDougal gave the first endorsement for employing Chinese immigrants for projects in reclaiming flooded lands. This took place while there were ongoing anti-Chinese meetings being held in gold mining districts.
Chinese immigrant laborers contributed much to American history. They were involved in building roads and a played key role in the completion of the first Transcontinental Railway. They built and worked on small wineries in both Sonoma and Napa Valley. The buildings of Brookside Winery in San Bernardino County were built from bricks made by the Chinese. And in WWII, many enlisted to defend America despite the discrimination.
However, in the 1850s, the United States Constitution recognized only two skin colors: white and black. Since Chinese immigrants were neither, some were allowed to become naturalized citizens, but most were not. And without citizenship, they could neither vote nor hold government office. And, therefore, they had no say in shaping their own future in their new country. Their designation of "aliens ineligible for citizenship" rendered them unable to even own land or file mining claims.
Chinese immigrants were perpetual outsiders in American society. Huang Zunxian, the Chinese consul general of San Francisco from 1882 to1885, witnessed Chinese workers in California and across the West face discriminatory violence and harassment. Huang wrote a series of poems critical of the rampant prejudice. One went as follows:
''They have sealed the gates tightly
Door after door with guards beating alarms
Anyone with a yellow-colored face
Is beaten even if guiltless.
The American eagle strides the heavens soaring
With half the globe clutched in his claw
Although the Chinese arrived later,
Couldn't you leave them a little space?''
For some Chinese, they found their “little space” in Northern California, or so they thought!
Locke (樂居), the name was shortened from the Village of Lockeport in 1920, is located in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, approximately 28 miles south of Sacramento. It was built by Chinese immigrants between 1893 and 1915. The hamlet is on the National Historic Registry because it was the only town built exclusively for Chinese citizens. In its heyday, it was a bustling hub for gamblers and the Asian American population.
In 1915, after an accidental fire burnt down the Chinatown of nearby Walnut Grove, three Chinese merchants approached landowner George Locke to build on his land. They hired tradesmen to build three buildings: a combination dry goods store and beer saloon, a gambling hall and a hotel. Other buildings followed shortly. There were 1000-1500 Chinese living in Locke. By 1926, Locke even opened the Lock Chinese School. The Chinese immigrants ran the gambling halls and opium dens. It was hoped that Locke would be a tourist destination for the riverboat and train passengers. But that never panned out because of discrimination against the Chinese.
However, it did become the destination point for another purpose of a less savory nature. According to Wikipedia, as the town grew, so did its reputation as destination for illicit entertainment, gaining the nickname "California's Monte Carlo." At one point, it had five gambling halls, five brothels, speakeasies and opium dens.
Locke was a rare sanctuary from anti-Chinese discrimination rampant in California. (Perhaps its Chinese name, 樂, meaning happy, had something to do with it?) A 1983 oral history account by a longtime Chinese resident of Locke recalled some of the hostility: “We never dared to walk on the streets alone then – except in Locke. This was our place.”
Chinese immigrants who settled in nearby Antioch wasn’t so lucky.
Antioch is approximately 58 miles southwest of Sacramento, also on the San Joaquin River Delta. It is one of many California cities, including Los Angeles and Santa Ana, where white residents lynched Chinese people and/or burned down their neighborhoods in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In the 1870s, the Chinese in California faced hatred churned up by politicians. Slogans such as “The Chinese must go!” was everywhere. Companies were banned from hiring Chinese. Arson fires in Chinatowns began popping up.
Antioch’s Chinese residents endured much hostility and hardship. Since 1851, a county law went into effect that prohibited Chinese people from walking the streets after dusk, according to the Antioch Historical Society. In order to get around, the Chinese built a series of tunnels connecting the business district to the waterfront where a small Chinatown stood. It consisted of a few wooden houses and a cluster of houseboats that made up the immigrant community.
In 1926, when the Palace Hotel was demolished to make way for a new theater, renants of a section of the Chinese tunnels were uncovered in the basements of the current Reign Salon and other downtown businesses, including a cafe. The tunnels are reportedly well-built and sturdily framed.
The excuse for ridding Antioch of Chinese came in 1876 when the town’s doctor disclosed publicly that a handful of young men he treated had contracted venereal disease. The Chinese sex workers were pronounced the culprits. A mob quickly formed and talks of “murdering the women” came up. “Better counsels prevailed,” according to a report. The angry mob descended on Chinatown, telling the occupants to leave town by 3 p.m. that afternoon. Young, old, healthy or deathly Chinese all had only hours to pack up and leave. The frightened Chinese and their belongings, knotted up in kerchiefs, waited on the dock for ferries to take them to San Francisco and Stockton.
The following day, a Sunday, rumours circulated that some Chinese residents had returned to Chinatown. And by 8 p.m. that evening, someone had set the emptied-out Antioch Chinatown ablaze. The Sacramento Bee pronounced, "The Caucasian torch lighted the way of the heathen out of the wilderness." Only two of the buildings in Chinatown remained standing by morning. However, on May 2, 1876, the Los Angeles Evening Express reported, “Today the remaining houses have been removed and Antioch is now free from this degraded class.”
And, if you think fake news started in the Donald Trump era, think again!
The Antioch Ledger blamed the Chinese residents for the arson attack. It falsely reported, "had the women not returned, the property would have remained intact." A few days later, they lied again.
“A large number of Chinamen quietly pursue their avocations in our midst, unmolested,” they wrote. “No Chinaman has ever been interfered with."
In the 1960 census, out of the 17,000 people living in Antioch, only 12 were Chinese. But by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, affordable housing prices in the area brought back some Asians. By the 2010 census, 10% of the population self-identified as Asian Americans Pacific Islanders.
When the anti-Asian hate surfaced with the pandemic, Mayor Lamar Thorpe of Antioch decided it was an appropriate time to take action. Thorpe, 42, is Black, and was raised by a Mexican American family in East Los Angeles. To him, racial injustice is a deeply personal matter.
“I got elected during the Black Lives Matter wave, and I feel our city that drove the Chinese Americans out over 100 years ago needs to confront what happened, and we need to make amends,” he said.
Thorpe proposed the city formally apologize for its mistreatment of the early Chinese residents. A press conference was held on April 14 at Waldie Plaza, the site of the former Chinatown. Thorpe signed a proclamation condemning hate against Asians and Pacific Islanders. A city resolution said it “must acknowledge that the legacy of early Chinese immigrants and xenophobia are part of our collective consciousness that helps contribute to the current anti-Asian-American and Pacific Islander hate.”
The mayor also worked with the Antioch Historical Museum to install a permanent exhibit to honor the city’s early Chinese immigrants, and will designate the site of the former Chinatown as the Antioch Chinese Historic District.
A local businessman, an immigrant from Taiwan, donated $10,000 toward the establishment of Antioch Chinese Historic District. He is also the founder of the grass-roots Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Assn. He said, “We should move away from the intimidation and fear of the past to something stronger. We want to unite not just Asian Americans but all Americans.”
· “The Chinese American immigration journey,” ( t, p. 10)
· “The Lucky Ones” by Mae Ngai uncovers the three-generational saga of the Tape family – the patriach’s self-invention as an immigration broker in post-gold rush, racially explosive San Francisco, and the extraordinary rise it enabled.
· “Bitter Melon” by Jeff Fillenkirk, James Motlow captured the stories of elderly residents of Locke, Calif., some of which bear an eerie resemblance to the anti-Jewish ones of Hitler's Germany. Motlow's black-and-white photographs capture his subjects' steadfast dignity as well as the soft light of the delta region.
Tags: Anti-Chinese, Chinese discrimination, early Chinese immigrants, Chinese American history
Community gathered for opening of Locke Chinese School in 1926.(The School can be seen on p. 1.)
Plaque in installed in 2006 commemorating the Chinese contributions and the old underground tunnels in Antioch. The plaque has since disappeared (per Mercury News).