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San Jose Had 5 Chinatowns. What Happened To Them?

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Onlookers watch as a fire tears through the Second Market Street Chinatown. Most of the Chinatowns in San Jose were victims to arson. (Courtesy of History San Jose)

On the West Coast, you can find Chinatowns from Seattle to San Diego. The Bay Area is home to two of the oldest Chinatowns, in San Francisco and Oakland.

San Jose also has a rich history of Chinatowns — there have been five Chinatowns in its history. So, why doesn’t San Jose have a Chinatown today?

The story starts in the 1850s, when the Gold Rush drew thousands of people to California, including Chinese immigrants.

“So many of those Chinese immigrants who came were working class,” said James Lai, a professor of ethnic studies at Santa Clara University. “They came for the same reason why they still come this very day: for economic opportunity.”

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When they arrived in California, the immigrants realized it was far from the dream of “Gold Mountain.” Some attempted mining for gold, but many others found work building the transcontinental railroad. Companies would pay for room, board and transportation, but the contracts for these jobs were short-term. When they ended, many of those men were left to fend for themselves.

“They had to continue on,” Lai said. “They had to find work in different ways.”

Some went to San Francisco and opened laundromats and other businesses, while others built levees throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and picked orchards in the Santa Clara Valley.

When Chinese immigrants first arrived, they expected to do hard labor, make their earnings and return home to their families. A lot of Chinese men came over, leaving women and children behind.

“The ratio was roughly 26-to-1 Chinese American men to women, at this point,” Lai said. “They never achieved the wealth that they hoped they would achieve to be able to return back to their village and retire or help their families. So they stayed and they endured.”

The First Chinatowns in San Jose

Racist policies kept Chinese immigrants from owning property and white people didn’t want them in their neighborhoods. So, they built their own communities. In San Jose, it began with the First Market Street Chinatown, which was built in 1866, but burned down a few years later in 1870. The community rebuilt a few blocks away and became known as Vine Street Chinatown. It too burned down in 1872.

The First Market Street Chinatown in San Jose was built in 1866. In this photo, the towers of McKenzie Iron Foundry, the San Jose Brewery and San Jose waterworks is visible in the background.
The First Market Street Chinatown in San Jose was built in 1866. In this photo, the towers of McKenzie Iron Foundry, the San Jose Brewery and San Jose waterworks are visible in the background. (Courtesy of History San Jose)

From the moment Chinese immigrants started coming to America, they faced racism and violence. White residents wanted to send a message that they weren’t welcome and used arson to terrorize and destroy Chinese communities.

But Chinese immigrants kept rebuilding. Lai explains there wasn’t another option. “It was just simply to continue to try to plant your roots and the only way you could do it was through these kinds of Chinatowns,” he said.

And the community was growing fast. In 1872, the Second Market Street Chinatown was built in downtown San Jose, where the Fairmont Hotel is located today. More than 1,400 people lived there, a far bigger population than the previous Chinatowns. There were shops, three restaurants, a theater and a temple. The people who lived in this Chinatown worked in factories, which manufactured cigars, shoes, clothing and furniture.

The Second Market Street Chinatown

Connie Young Yu is a local South Bay historian whose ancestry traces back to this Chinatown. Her grandfather’s uncle was already living in San Jose and would travel back to China and tell family about the wonders of America.

A rooftop view of San Jose's Second Market Street Chinatown. This Chinatown was much larger than any other Chinatown which came before it.
A rooftop view of San Jose’s Second Market Street Chinatown. This Chinatown was much larger than any other Chinatown which came before it. (Courtesy of History San Jose)

“[My grandfather’s] uncle was telling him about this beautiful area where you can work hard and there were good wages in Gum San,” Yu said. “America was called Gum San: Gold Mountain.”

Yu’s grandfather, Young Soong Quong, arrived in 1881 to the Second Market Street Chinatown when he was 11 years old. He stocked shelves and cleaned floors in his uncle’s shop, where many laborers came to eat, play cards and send money back home.

Eventually, a white family hired him as a houseboy, a job which required him to leave Chinatown. It was there where he experienced racial violence for the first time.

“When he would go back to the Market Street Chinatown, he’d have to run really fast because white kids would be throwing rocks at him,” Yu said. “This was a vivid memory he passed down to us kids.”

The Anti-Chinese Movement in San Jose

Barbara Voss, a historical archeologist at Stanford, is not surprised Young faced racial violence in San Jose.

“The anti-Chinese movement had been building throughout the western United States for about 20 years at this point,” Voss said.

In the late 1880s, an angry mob burned San Jose’s First Methodist Episcopal Church down when they learned the church did missionary work for Chinese immigrants and held a Sunday school service for Chinese children.

California had already enacted legislation that targeted Chinese immigrants, including the Foreign Miner’s License of 1848 which required miners who were not citizens to pay $20 a month for the right to mine in California. Congress passed the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited women, particularly Chinese women from immigrating to the country for “immoral purposes.”

In 1882, Congress passed the nation’s most restrictive immigration bill: The Chinese Exclusion Act. It prohibited all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States and prevented those that were here from becoming citizens.

These anti-Chinese laws passed at the federal and state level set the stage for San Jose to host the first statewide Anti-Chinese Convention in 1886.

“There were motivational speakers who were arguing racist slogans; arguing that the Chinese must go; making arguments about why white people are superior to Chinese people; making arguments about what they perceived to be the negative impact of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans on the economy of San Jose,” Voss said.

Voss finds it eerie how similar some of the arguments made back then are to the anti-immigration arguments of today. The rally was well attended and was held just a few blocks away from the Second Market Street Chinatown.

“The Anti-Chinese movement in San Jose was as much about local boosterism as it was about racism,” Voss explained. “The leaders of this movement found that they could not promote San Jose as a place for business development and settlement if the Chinatown remained in downtown.”

“Chinatown Must Go”

A year after the convention, the San Jose Mercury News featured front page testimony from city leaders including the fire and police chiefs, the street commissioner and the mayor with one message: Chinatown must go.

“It was of their opinion that the general condition of the locality in a sanitary point of view could not be worse and in an aesthetic or moral sense, it was revolting,” the testimony read.

Mayor Charles Breyfogle and the City Council voted unanimously to get rid of the Second Market Street Chinatown. But before any official action was taken, the Chinatown was burned down. That made it the third Chinatown in San Jose to succumb to arson.

The Second Market Street Chinatown burned down in an arson fire in 1887. There were no recorded casualties, but the entire Chinese community in San Jose was displaced.
The Second Market Street Chinatown burned down in an arson fire in 1887. There were no recorded casualties, but the entire Chinese community in San Jose was displaced. (Courtesy of History San Jose)

There were no recorded casualties, but homes and businesses were destroyed and the community was displaced again. There was another small Chinatown in San Jose called the Woolen Mills Chinatown around the same time. The property was owned by the San Jose Woolen Manufacturing Company and provided to workers as a living accommodation. But that Chinatown was too small to accommodate the much larger population of the Second Market Street Chinatown.

Before the fire, Chinese residents had already started moving out of San Jose. After the fire, even more left. “There are anecdotal accounts from descendants that people started considering whether or not to move back to China,” Voss said. “Some folks moved to more rural areas where they were out of the public eye.”

Connie Young Yu’s grandfather was among the immigrants who left for San Francisco. He didn’t return for a decade.

The Rise of Heinlenville

The community would rebuild with the help of another immigrant named John Heinlen. He moved with his wife and children from Ohio to farm in California. Yu said Heinlen’s family faced anti-German discrimination in the Midwest and when he came to California, he saw Chinese immigrants facing discrimination and sympathized with them.

“He was a friend to the Chinese,” she said. “He had hired Chinese before [and] leased land to the Chinese in his other holdings in Fresno.”

A few months after the fire, news broke that Heinlen had leased some of his land to Chinese residents who lost their homes and land. He was going to build a new Chinatown.

“There was such an uproar among the citizens,” Yu said. “They said ‘Down with John Heinlen, he’s a traitor to his people.'”

Despite death threats, Heinlen finished construction of the new Chinatown in 1887, just months after the fire that destroyed the last Chinatown. Angry locals called the new Chinatown “Heinlenville,” and the name stuck.

“They couldn’t drive out Chinatown,” Yu said. “Chinatown was there to stay and John Heinlen, to protect the Chinese, he built an eight-foot-high fence.”

A flag bearing the Chinese words "Ng Shing Gung" Temple of Five Gods, leads a procession outside the gates of Heinlenville. Residents of the Chinatown celebrated festivals with firecrackers and sparklers.
A flag bearing the Chinese words “Ng Shing Gung” Temple of Five Gods, leads a procession outside the gates of Heinlenville. Residents of the Chinatown celebrated festivals with firecrackers and sparklers. (Courtesy of History of San Jose)

The fence had a gate which was locked every night, while foot patrols provided security. Eventually, Young Soong Quong, Connie Young Yu’s grandfather, became a partner at one of the shops in Heinlenville and was able to settle in San Jose.

“Heinlen gave him a chance for a new life in San Jose. He was a merchant and he was able to send for his wife in China,” she said.

They had been separated for 14 years. Yu’s grandmother arrived in California in 1910 and they had their first son, Ming Young. Two years later, Yu’s father, John, was born.

Heinlenville became a thriving community with 2,000 residents. Newspaper accounts said the Ng Shing Gung Temple, a two story structure, was the center of the community. The upper floor housed an intricately carved and gilded altar with five deities. The lower floor was used as a town hall and as a Chinese school for the children who grew up in Heinlenville.

San Jose’s Last Chinatown

Heinlenville was San Jose’s longest established Chinatown, lasting for 44 years, until 1931.

Because the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place for many years, immigration from China slowly dwindled. And many men weren’t as fortunate as Young Soong Quong, who could bring his wife to join him in America. Their families were still in China.

“The workers were getting kind of old and there were no new laborers coming in to work in the fields,” Yu said. Soon, there weren’t enough people left in Chinatown to keep it alive.

The Great Depression took a toll on the Heinlen estate, which owned the land the Chinatown stood on. In 1931, the estate went bankrupt and Heinlenville became city property. All the buildings were eventually demolished.

Connie Young Yu has been working with the city to build a park where the last Chinatown once stood, not far from San Jose’s Japantown. The park will commemorate John Heinlen’s contributions to the city and highlight the history of San Jose’s Chinese community. It will be called Heinlenville Park.

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