Island Of Strangers
by Yang Yang, April 20, 2011
Eureka, California, had a Chinatown occupying several city blocks during the 1880s. After the Chinese were driven out during the infamous Chinese Expulsion of 1885, the abandoned structures were destroyed, leaving no physical trace on the landscape. This article uses archival sources to resurrect this vanished ethnic island, and links the story of its growth and disappearance to larger social, cultural, and economic forces.
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Walking in the Historic Old Town Carson Block of Eureka, California, on a sunny day makes people feel as if they are wandering in a 19th Century Victorian town in Europe. They may find ornamental, pointed arch windows, red brick walls decorated with quoining originating from Italian farmhouses, elegant doors, and other visual delights. However, there is a different town existing near this Victorian block, invisible and blotted from memory: the historical Chinatown of Eureka.
The Chinatown in Eureka is located between E and F, Fourth and Fifth streets. Unlike Chinatowns elsewhere, traditional Chinese elements — including red lanterns, street signs written in Chinese characters, and ceramic roof tiles — can hardly be found. In fact, what was once a distinctive Chinatown is now indistinguishable from other parts of the city. Walking along the Fourth Street between E and F streets, on the west side of the road, a tattoo shop constructed with the Mission Bell Top comes into view, connecting this building with the landscape of southern California, instead of the remote Asian country located on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It is hard to find anyone who even looks Chinese near this block. There is no one of Chinese heritage living there, nor are there any speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, or other Chinese dialects. The only visible Chinese element is the sign of the newly opened “Yen Ching Chinese Restaurant,” on Fifth Street. A middle-aged Chinese woman and her family own this restaurant. Approximately six years ago, they immigrated to the US from Jiangsu, a coastal province north of the traditional source of early Chinese immigrants in California: Canton.
In the 19th Century, this part of Eureka had a very different look. It was a true frontier Chinatown. Most buildings within the Chinese quarters were constructed of wood in a plain fashion, without extra ornaments on the windows or roofs. Built right next to each other, individual houses possessed tiny windows and narrow doors, making a stark contrast to the delicately decorated buildings located in the next block. Chinese immigrants dwelled in this area, socialized, and interacted with their peers. They opened up their own laundry houses, drug stores, and restaurants. Chinese people were on the streets, wearing either traditional Chinese clothes or westernized clothes. But they disappeared. Where are the descendants of the early Chinese laborers in Humboldt County today? Why does the Chinatown look so distinct today from what it used to be in the 19th Century? Why does this Chinatown look so different from its counterparts in other cities of California?
Due to the Chinese Expulsion in 1885, there is no longer a neighborhood in Eureka named “Chinatown.” The entire historical Chinatown was demolished after nativist mobs drove out all Chinese residents of Eureka to San Francisco on the day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, February 7, 1885.
Chinese Immigrants in California
Before 1880, a small number of pioneers arrived on the Pacific coast states due to the lure of the gold rush, in hopes of grasping the opportunity to get out of their miserable poor life back at home. According to “Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” written by Ronald Takaki, these brave adventurers were called “gam saan haak,” which means “travelers to Gold Mountain.” But the bulk of Chinese immigration to the United States can be traced back to the third great wave of migration to the United States, approximately between 1880 and 1914. During this period, Chinese — as well as other Asian laborers — settled in the western states.
In addition to the attraction of the gold fields, push factors also played a crucial role in the early Chinese settlement in California. During the 19th Century, some Chinese immigrants left China due to economic hardship triggered by the two Opium Wars, known as Anglo-Chinese Wars, starting from 1839 to 1860. As Thomas W. Chinn pointed out in “A History of the Chinese in California,” in the aftermath of the defeat of China in the First Opium War of 1840, “the ruling Manchu dynasty of China was entering a long period of decay and decline… More and more land was concentrating into fewer and fewer hands. Periodic famines, floods, and droughts hastened this process.” The corruption of the quasi-feudal Manchu government, land appropriations, and natural disasters pushed peasants to leave China in search of a better life. Other problems also led to emigration. Opium imports drained the country of silver, leading to silver shortages and price inflation. Artisans were also threatened with job loss after the Opium War because “the increase in imports of Western goods ruined native handicrafts industries, particularly in textiles.” Lack of opportunity pushed many Chinese out of their homeland, leading them to cross the Pacific Ocean as contract labor and through the credit-ticket system. This system, combined with diverse push-pull factors, worked as a catalyst, and connected a group of people from a different shore of the Pacific Ocean to the Golden State.
When looking at Eureka, people may wonder what attracted some Chinese to come to this isolated town in the foggy Humboldt Bay area, so different from the hot and moist subtropical monsoon climate in Canton. What propelled these people to seek the far north shore of California, so different from their home?
The answer lies in a significant major industry: logging. The unique physical geographic conditions of this region made Eureka a perfect place to rely on logging as a primary industry. First, the land-locked shape of Humboldt Bay allowed ships to come in without interference from storms. Humboldt Bay occupies “a single narrow entrance from the broad ocean” protecting the land-locked bay from violent wind and waves, and “on which ships of all dimensions and draught can ride in safety in all weather.” With such naturally formed conditions, ships could enter and exit the harbor without being hampered by weather changes during the busy season of transporting timber to other parts of the US. The coastal redwood forests provided timber for the building booms taking place in San Francisco and other cities throughout California.
At the same time as the logging industry worked as a pull factor, drawing many Chinese to Eureka, there are other push factors, which impelled many Chinese from Southern California to migrate to the North Coast. Anti-Chinese sentiment in California triggered the establishment of the “Foreign Miners’ License Tax,” specifically imposed upon Chinese miners. Foreign miners, who did not have an incentive to become citizens, were required to pay $3 monthly. This policy was not abolished until 1870 by the federal Civil Rights Bill. By then California had collected $5 million from the Chinese, a sum representing 25-50% of all state revenue. Due to this obstacle, many early Chinese settlers in California chose to leave the state, or relocate from their original destination. According to the Humboldt Times of June 16, 1860, Chinese began moving into Northern California because of the mining tax. Other Chinese went to Eureka for personal reasons. The majority of early Chinese immigrants were impoverished, coming to the US as contract laborers. Many were caught in debt traps, unable to pay the expenses of transportation to the US and meet high living costs. Moreover, chain migration also led to the influx of the Chinese in Eureka in the 1860s. Chinese moved from San Francisco to this isolated place as they received information about the new settlement from friends and family members and followed in their footsteps.
Eureka’s Historical Chinatown
Chinese began to appear in Eureka in the 1860s. Even though 77% of the 63,000 Chinese in the United States lived in California by 1870, taking up 9% of the total California population, not many Chinese reached the north tip of the state. According to census data recorded in 1880, there were 241 Chinese living in Humboldt County. Among them, 96 actually resided in Eureka, while the others lived in Arcata, Klamath, and other towns. Resembling other counties with a Chinese population, the sex ratio of the local Chinese population was asymmetric: only 20 women out of over 200 men. Charles Huntington also noticed the strange sex ratio among the Chinese population in Eureka, with women making up only about 1% of the 200 inhabitants. Even though people lived in family units, most were males.
Most of the Chinese immigrants were contract laborers. Once they reached their financial goals, they hoped to return home. In addition, traditional Chinese culture, deeply rooted in Confucianism, frowned upon women who worked outside the home. Women’s primary duty was to be obedient to their fathers, husbands, and sons, and to take good care of the whole household. Going off to seek their fortune was not an option for women. Moreover, they would be despised if they could not bear children, especially sons. These values are expressed in some quotes of Confucius: “the woman with no talent is the one who has merit” and “there are three unfilial acts: the greatest of these is the failure to produce sons.” Thus it was the aspiring sons of impoverished families who most often made the arduous voyage across the Pacific, leaving the women behind to wait.
The Chinese living in Eureka’s Chinatown engaged in diverse occupations, mainly divided into the following categories: businessmen, farmers, laundry workers, berry pickers, house servants, and cooks. Some were also employed as swampers and fire tenders in the woods. Businessmen were the minority in the total population in the Chinese community, often their whole family accompanied them and they enjoyed a relatively higher living standard than their Chinese peers.
For example, the Chinese merchant family Tsiau Han Yu from Crescent City, had five children: three daughters and two sons. They wore clothes with delicate decorations ornamented with embroidered patterns. Additionally, their names were different from those who came from poor families. Since traditional Chinese society was highly hierarchical, the names of people from the lower class normally did not contain elegant characters. For instance, one daughter of Tsiau Han Yu was named “Chun Han.” “Han,” a word used in classical literature, means the vastness of the universe. “Chun” means spring, which was commonly used in girls’ names. Compared to the merchant family, most people carried more common names. Based on 1880s census data, there was a woman living in Eureka named “Mary China.” She was a 28-year old patient laborer employed by James Gill, a superintendent of the hospital and almshouse, who also employed another Chinese worker named “Chong” as a servant cook. There was not a last name “China,” and the Chinese did not normally name their children in English names. One possibility is that this young woman did not have a real proper name even back home. Alternatively, like many immigrants, she was named “Mary China” to reflect her geographical origins.
Apart from the businessmen class, most Chinese immigrants performed dirty, dangerous, and despised tasks. Due to a lack of specially trained skills and a sound educational background, many Chinese in Eureka could only work for minimum wage in order to sustain themselves. This led to occupational segregation. According to Huntington, “some [went] to the kitchens of the families which employed them as house servants, some to laundries, some to lawns and gardens, and some to mills and factories, any place where they could find employment.” Chinese mainly worked in occupations that did not require high language proficiency or skills. Newcomers were shunted into these low-status occupations, creating a cycle of poverty and separation from the mainstream. As Huntington mentioned, with attractive occupations closed to them, the primary goal of the Chinese immigrant was simply to find employment, no matter how demeaning.
As is common in communities suffering from ethnic and occupational discrimination, living conditions were miserable. Huntington describes the Chinese in Eureka as “huddled together in small tenements, a great number of which were closely built upon a single block of ground called ‘Chinatown.’ … Chinatown had no sewer system, and all the sewage remained with them on the surface of the ground.” Chinatown’s physical location matched its place in the social hierarchy: low and swampy. As Lynwood Carranco pointed out, “a creek followed a gulch which ran through the block from northeast to southeast and emptied into a slough below the present Fourth and E streets. The slough had been filled at Fourth Street to improve the street; this cut off the creek and left Chinatown without drainage.” As a consequence, the strong odors caused by dumped refuse from kitchens and outhouses prevailed in this region. In a classic example of “blaming the victim,” the wretched conditions prevailing in Chinatown elicited contempt from the public of Eureka:
“The houses were a disgrace. Most of them were on stilts and a large creek went under the shacks. The Chinese were fond of ducks, and they sailed around in the creek. There was a horrible smell because the Chinese dumped all their garbage into the stream. The creek emptied into a slough below Fourth and E streets, but it couldn’t drain because the city blocked it when Fourth Street was put through.”
Reasons of Chinese Expulsion in 1885
The dissatisfying location and the infrastructure issue of Chinatown made the Chinese community the victims of an ecological fallacy. Once they were shut off from the rest of the society, both physically and occupationally, they began to be perceived as a public enemy and a threat to the community that had once welcomed them.
In addition to the lack of sewage system, other factors were also criticized by the public, and were considered as threats to the morality, health, and public safety of the entire city. First, since the early 1880s, some different individuals associated with tongs [organized criminal societies] moved into Eureka’s Chinatown, and began to build brothels and opium dens, with the intent of taking advantage of their peers from China. Such changes in Chinatown caused a strong criticism by the local media, especially newspapers. Opium smoking, considered immoral, became associated with the Chinese in Eureka, as did gambling and brothels. Combined with the fact of two rival tongs’ ritual Sunday morning fights leading to riots, murders, and assaults, the “evil” image of the Chinese was officially solidified among residents in Eureka. Despite the fact that these social evils were restricted to the Chinese community, and that the Chinese were the primary victims, the entire Chinese community was tarred with the brush of guilt by association. As Charles Huntington mentioned, “their games were known only among themselves. White men never went into Chinatown to gamble, or dissipate with opium or whisky… Nobody ever saw a drunken chinaman on the street… yet they were still hated as enemies of society and a danger to the morality of a great Christian city.” In fact, brothels, saloons, and gambling houses were widespread in the frontier town of Eureka, but had never been portrayed as a threat to the stability of the town.
In addition, ignorance of cultural differences also deepened the mistrust of the Chinese. For instance, according to an article “Chinese Lunar New Year,” January 25, 1879, Eureka banned firecrackers and bombs, despite their traditional role in Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. Chinese residents in Eureka petitioned to receive a permission to use firecrackers, which was declined by Mayor Clark who believed that respecting these Chinese residents’ cultural traditions came at the expense of the whole city. As these incidents demonstrate, tensions between the Chinese community and white residents in Eureka were already apparent, years before the Chinese Expulsion.
Even though tensions, prejudice, and misunderstanding of the newcomers was widespread in Eureka and elsewhere in California, it was an economic collapse that precipitated the crisis. Then — as now — immigrants became scapegoats for a society suffering from an economic downturn. By 1885, Eureka had cemented its dominance as a prosperous timber port. The giant redwood trees were the major sources of timber which were rolled, handled, moved, and milled in the city, providing abundant materials for the rich to build their mansions and hotels — including William Carson’s Victorian mansion and timber baron John Vance’s Vance Hotel, which still stand today as landmarks and tourist attractions.
However, in the winter of 1885, everything changed. The cold winter rains closed up logging operations, trapping the whole economy of Eureka in a severe slump, and dramatically increasing the unemployment rate within logging and associated industries. Many unemployed lumber workers fled the woods into town, since “there was little to do other than drink cheap whisky and gamble.” These loggers, miners, sailors, and drifters — single, unemployed, and resentful — made for a volatile mix.
The spark that ignited the explosion came on Friday, February 6, 1885 — the Eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year. City Councilman David C. Kendall was caught in a crossfire between two Chinese men from rival tongs. He was shot and killed. His death precipitated a riot among the restless, unemployed white population. An outraged mob began to round up all the Chinese in Eureka. On February 7, 1885, resolutions were passed, stipulating that “all Chinamen be expelled from the city and that none be allowed to return.” Upon the passage of these resolutions, 480 Chinese were forcibly boarded onto two steamships, the Humboldt and the City of Chester, and deported to San Francisco, forever ending their stories in Humboldt County. Eureka’s Chinatown was demolished, with nothing left behind. Soon afterward, this area was rebuilt and replaced by white residents. Eureka’s Chinatown had been eradicated.
Following Eureka’s example, other cities, including Arcata, Ferndale, and Crescent City, expelled their Chinese residents, forcing them to sell their laundries and other businesses, discharging them all with the purpose of “removing all Mongolians from our midst.”
Not until 60 years after the exodus did the first Chinese person settle in Eureka again during the early 1950s. Ben Chin, who was an owner of a Cantonese restaurant, together with his family, was among the six Chinese families and some individuals, making up fewer than 40 in a total population of more than 106,000 in Humboldt County.
Most of the Chinese living in Eureka today are related to the four local Chinese restaurants. Later, Chinese reappeared in Humboldt County as college students. As Carranza mentioned, “In the 1950s, Oriental students from California and the Orient began to enroll at Humboldt State College in Arcata, helping to lower the bars of prejudice and to condition the local people to Orientals.” Eureka and Humboldt County are finally beginning to catch up to the rest of the state of California, which is now the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Since 2007, there have been around 60 exchange students from China studying at Humboldt State University, and the Chinese and Asian presence in the county continues to expand. Even though Chinese families and students have reemerged in this area, however, the historical Chinatown is no longer their home. It exists only in historical memory.
ang Yang, a native of Xi’an, China, is the winner of “Outstanding Student Paper” award from the Ethnic Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. She graduated from Humboldt State’s Geography and International Studies Department in March of 2011.