A large mural, titled “Fowl,” pays homage to Eureka's former Chinese residents. The mural was painted by Oakland artist Dave Kim. (Photo by Héctor Alejandro Arzate)
Chinese immigrants have played a pivotal role in shaping California throughout its history. During the mid-1860s, they built infrastructure like railroads and boosted economies with their businesses. Their efforts led to flourishing Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and San Jose.
But by 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment and policy forced many out of the communities they helped build. In Humboldt County, nearly all Chinese residents of Eureka were expelled in 1885.
Today, in Eureka, a small California port town just south of the Oregon border, local Chinese Americans and their allies are fighting to bring a more complete local history to the surface.
“There used to be a Chinatown here,” said Brieanne Mirjah D’Souza, the coordinator for the Eureka Chinatown Project. “Not only a Chinatown, but a thriving, vibrant Chinatown, and it's no longer here. We don't even talk about it.”
D’Souza, who is Chinese American and West Indian, has been organizing to memorialize the city’s Chinatown. The historic block, which is bounded by F and E Streets, was home to hundreds of immigrants who came to work in Northern California before they were forced out by a mob of white settlers.
“We just wanted to put up a plaque saying Chinatown was here,” D’Souza said. “We were here, and we helped build modern-day Humboldt County and Eureka as we know it.”
With support from the city and the local Clarke Historical Museum the effort has grown way beyond a simple plaque, D’Souza said. In late August, the city unveiled a large mural, titled “Fowl,” to pay homage to its former Chinese residents. The work was painted by Oakland artist Dave Kim and features a large mandarin duck, the silhouette of the former Chinatown, and a portrait of Ben Chin, a Chinese American Army veteran who opened Eureka's Canton Cafe in 1954.
The Eureka plan
On February 6, 1885, Eureka Councilmember David Kendall was walking near Chinatown when he was shot and killed in the crossfire of a shootout. Soon after, a crowd of about 300 mostly white people gathered at the city’s Centennial Hall. According to Katie Buesch, the director of the Clarke Historical Museum, the crowd grew angry and blamed Chinese “gangsters” for Kendall’s death.
“There was a precedent around the West to do things like burn down Chinatowns with the residents inside, running people out of town, boycotting Chinese businesses or employers who employed Chinese workers,” Buesch said. “Eureka went a different route.”
A local white businessman who owned most of the block pleaded with the mob to spare his buildings. Instead, the crowd formed a committee of fifteen local leaders, which ordered all Chinese residents to leave Eureka within 48 hours. They arranged for ships to take the entire community down to the port of San Francisco and threatened anybody who stayed.
According to Buesch, the mob set up gallows nearby with signs that threatened to hang all who remained. She said they also hung effigies made to look like Chinese people.
“It's called the 'Eureka Plan,' and it was replicated in many parts of Humboldt County and also in other areas around the West,” Buesch said. “It was touted as really successful, this ‘nonviolent’ way of removing people from places where they've lived for decades or many years, in some cases.”
Anti-Chinese expulsions and riots are well documented throughout the West, but Buesch said many of the details in Eureka have long been one-sided as a result of local newspapers celebrating the event for its nonviolence.
“It's a much deeper story and one that's plagued with lots of issues around finding historical documents that really tell you the full accurate story,” Buesch said. “But how can it be nonviolent if you're forcibly removing people?"
Wing Hing v. Eureka, and the legacy of Charlie Moon
Many of the displaced Chinese residents were business owners who were forced to leave their property and savings behind, according to some historical documents. Rather than resign themselves to the financial loss, 53 residents filed a lawsuit for reparations — Wing Hing v. Eureka.
“It was the first lawsuit for reparations filed by Chinese residents against a city, and it was a very big deal that it happened at all,” Buesch said. “The Chinese were found to not own any property because they weren't legal citizens of the United States. So the case was thrown out against the city and the reparations were not made.”
Although the lawsuit was unsuccessful, Buesch said the resistance made by Chinese immigrants throughout Humboldt County is a crucial part of history that’s often left out. Meanwhile, D’Souza said other individuals who stood their ground should be celebrated, including one man named Charlie Moon.
“He represents the Chinese people that stayed behind, that resisted and fought back in some way," said D’Souza. “And that's so important because this isn't a victim story.”
Like many immigrants who moved to Humboldt County, Moon found work in manual labor during the late 1800s, earning his keep as a ranch hand for a man named Tom Bair nearby in Redwood Creek. But soon after the expulsion, some men got word that Moon was still in Humboldt County.
According to Buesch, the men showed up to the ranch carrying weapons and demanded that Bair give Moon up. Bair stood up for Moon.
“The story goes that Tom Bair picks up a shotgun and said, ‘If you want, Charlie, you've got to get through me first,’” Buesch said.
Charlie Moon never left Humboldt County. When Bair and his wife died, Moon raised the couple’s children. He married a Native Chilula woman named Minnie Tom. Many of their descendants, like Yolanda Latham, still live in the area.
Latham said her great-great-great-grandfather — and others like him — built Humboldt County.
“When you look around Humboldt County or any county in California, you have to ask yourself, how did they get that?” Latham said. “That was on the backs of the Chinese and the workers and the Native Americans that they had to move out of the way or use.”
Latham said she sees Moon as a survivor. Still, she can’t help but think of the hardships he and his family went through.
“I would love to say Charlie Moon had an amazing story, but he worked hard and he probably saw a lot of hard things and had to go through a lot of difficult moments,” Latham said.
69 years later, Ben Chin
Latham commends the Eureka Chinatown Project for its effort to acknowledge the hard truths in Humboldt’s past. She said it's an especially crucial story to tell at a time of renewed anti-Asian violence throughout the country.
“It's like a beaming light that needs to be put on Humboldt County and the counties around here,” Latham said. “I think we need to be honest about the history. We need to be truthful about it and accept it. What's done is done, but at least acknowledge it and memorialize it so that it’s not dismissed.”
D’Souza said Humboldt County Chinese American history did not end after the expulsion. In 1954, a Chinese American Army veteran named Ben Chin moved to Eureka and opened up Canton Cafe. Although he wasn’t part of the group of residents who were forced out in 1885, he is thought to be the first Chinese American to settle in Eureka after nearly 70 years.
“He was the first to kind of come back and publicly say ‘I am Chinese, here is my Chinese restaurant and come and enjoy it,’” D’Souza said. “He did face a lot of discrimination when he came back. A lot of threats, a lot of just people badgering him, telling him to leave and close up shop. And he resisted. He stayed. That was a very courageous thing for him to do.”
Chin went on to open multiple restaurants in Eureka despite the hardships he faced. He died in 2019.
Today, less than three percent of Humboldt County identifies as Asian American. According to the latest census data, that's slightly fewer than 4,000 people in the entire county.
“We've not received a formal apology in terms of the expulsion of 1885 and the decades of discrimination after that,” D’Souza said. “It's so important to be able to see your culture and your history reflected in your community. And until this mural went up or until the Chinatown project really started, I can't really say that I felt that way.”
She sees the support she’s received from local leaders as a tangible step in the right direction.
The Eureka Chinatown Project plans on establishing a new monument on the block within the next year. They are also working with the city to rename the alley after Charlie Moon. Eventually, they want to implement Chinese history in the local school curriculum. As a new mother, D’Souza said she’s hopeful for what the future holds for her son.
“I'm excited for my son to be able to grow up one day and be able to come here and see this,” she said, “to feel included and to be part of the story being told in our community.”
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.