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Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Early Contacts

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A History of Chinese Americans in California:

Riverside Chinese American Community Site
Riverside, Riverside County

The last buildings of the historic Chinese American community in Riverside were torn down in the summer of 1977 to make way for a shopping center. The razed buildings have often been referred to as a single structure when, in fact, they were a series of six adjacent buildings with common walls to save space and expense. Each building had one door and one window in front, and wooden additions to the rear. A common flat roof stretched continuously across all of them. The facade contained some classical detail in the decorative brickwork that bordered the roof, the brick arches over the windows, and the brick pilasters that marked the division of the buildings.

The use of each building is unknown, although brick ovens inside one of the buildings with built-in woks suggest that it may have been a restaurant. Some time prior to demolition, the interiors of the buildings were vandalized, and derogatory racial epithets against Chinese Americans were spray painted on the walls.

Riverside is famous for its navel oranges, but the role of Chinese laborers in early development of the citrus industry is now often overlooked. Riverside was founded as an experimental colony in 1870. The arrival of the first Chinese Americans is unrecorded, but by 1876, they had established a community in the area of University, Ninth, Orange, and Main streets. Agricultural labor was largely Chinese American, as was railroad construction labor. A notice of January 8, 1881 mentions, "Chinamen are being employed in grading the California Southern Railroad at $20 per month." The number of Chinese American workers increased sharply in 1885-86 during building of the Riverside, Santa Ana & Los Angeles Railroad through town.

Riverside's Chinese Americans earned a reputation for a high level of law observance. Nevertheless, they were subjected to restrictive regulations, selective law enforcement, and other harrassment. Their rents were raised to exorbitant amounts, payable in advance. Five of their leaders were arrested for violation of a nuisance ordinance and were given jail sentences. Lawyers were brought from Los Angeles to counter the harrassment, but eventually, the people decided to move from the downtown area.

In 1886, Duey Wo Lung and other leaders of Riverside's pioneer Chinese Americans founded a seven-acre settlement along a one-block street leading northward from Tequesquite Avenue. On July 31, 1893, most of the buildings in this second Chinese American community were destroyed by fire. Of 26 wooden buildings, only eight were saved. Undaunted, the Chinese American community rebuilt the homes and stores, including two brick buildings, on the same site.

In 1896, violence erupted at the Fay Packing House in Casa Blanca, and seven Chinese American employees were terrorized into leaving. A policeman was subsequently stationed at the packing house, but at a meeting of the city trustees on january 2, 1897 it was advocated that since the officer "was now useful only to protect the Chinamen employed in the packing houses . . . if packers persisted in hiring Chinamen they should protect them."

Until after 1900, the Chinese American population of Riverside rarely dropped below 150, and during the citrus harvest it often numbered several thousand. The 1900 Census Records show more than 200 Chinese Americans in Riverside, mostly men who served as laborers (probably in the citrus orchards), cooks, storekeepers, laundrymen, servants, ironers, gardeners, lodging house keepers, druggists, a barber, a butcher, a tailor, and a vegetable peddler.

Riverside's Chinese American community dwindled because of local prejudice and discriminatory legislation including the Chinese Exclusion Laws. Brick buildings, erected after the great Chinatown fire of July 31, 1893 and torn down in 1977, were the last of the original structures along Chinatown Avenue. The only reminder is a short street named Wong Way.

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