Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts

Streetscape of colorful one and two-story businesses.
Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts

Photo by Sarah Stierch, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21031346

Quick Facts

Location:
Isleton, California
Designation:
National Register of Historic Places
OPEN TO PUBLIC:
Yes

The Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts are located in Isleton, California in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a large agricultural area in Sacramento County. Also known as the Asian American District, this area was the commercial and social center for both the town's Chinese and Japanese residents. Isleton's Asian American District is the only Asian community that was constructed in the Delta during the 1920s, and the architectural style of the buildings, particularly the use of pressed tin siding, is unique to Delta Asian communities and to the town of Isleton.
 

Before the 1800s, immigration from Asia to the United States was minimal. During the 19th century, however, the U.S. experienced mass migrations of immigrants from several Asian countries, particularly China. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s Chinese were recruited as a major source of labor for the mining and railroad industries in the western U.S. In the early 1870s thousands of Chinese laborers were hired to work on an extensive levee project in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta constructing a large network of earthen levees that eventually turned 500,000 acres of swamp into some of California's most valuable farm land. The reclaimed land was able to support large farms and the expansion of the sugar beet, pear, and asparagus industries created a demand for cheap manual labor. Many of the Chinese workers stayed in the area and made a living as farm workers and sharecroppers, settling in towns in the region such as Walnut Grove, Rio Vista, Locke, and Courtland.
 

Founded in 1874 by Josiah Pool, Isleton grew as a result of land reclamation and local agricultural development. Isleton's Chinatown began in 1878 on rented land and consisted of a contract labor office and businesses designed to meet the needs of the Chinese workers who came into town on their days off. In 1880 the census recorded 880 Chinese residents in Isleton working as mostly farmers or farm laborers. By the 1890s the Chinese district of the town, located along the Sacramento River, was well-established with 35 residences, four stores, a laundry, restaurants, boarding houses, and other businesses.
 

In the early 1880s the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. The Act barred Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the U.S. for 10 years and forbade Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Other exclusionary laws aimed at Chinese immigrants were passed by Congress between 1888 and 1902, effectively reducing the number of Chinese entering the U.S.

 

After the enactment of the exclusionary laws, Japanese immigrants became increasingly sought after by American businesses. Because of this, the number of Japanese immigrating to the U.S., particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly. Japanese immigrants came to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region partially in response to the need for laborers to replace the dwindling numbers of Chinese workers and partially because of the asparagus boom that began in the Delta after 1895. Along with the workers came merchants who established businesses in the eastern section of Isleton's Chinatown, located on Delta Avenue, to serve the growing numbers of Japanese workers.
 

Isleton's Chinese and Japanese sections grew rapidly during the first quarter of the 20th century, aided by the construction of several asparagus canneries and the continued agricultural prosperity in the Delta region. In 1910, there were six asparagus canneries in the area, three located in Isleton, with Japanese and Chinese laborers supplying 90 percent of the workforce. In addition, Chinese and Japanese workers planted, maintained, and harvested the majority of the crops grown in the area.
 

In 1915, a fire burned down the Chinese and Japanese commercial districts, but the area was rebuilt in a new location to the east of Delta Avenue. The new area was broken into two separate sections with the Chinese settling in the area to the west of F Street and the Japanese to the east of F Street. Both sections included residences, restaurants, grocery stores, soft drink parlors, saloons, and other general businesses, and boarding houses and hotels that housed seasonal laborers. In addition, numerous gambling halls, a "Joss" house, and the Bing Kung Tong building were built in the Chinese section. The Japanese section also had several community bath houses, an Association meeting hall, and a movie theater.
 

On May 31, 1926, a large fire once again destroyed Isleton's two Asian districts. One hundred and ten buildings were destroyed and 1,500 people lost their homes and belongings. The districts were rebuilt with wood-framed buildings with metal siding for fire prevention. Many of the buildings were constructed by local Dutch and German carpenters hired by the Noah Adams Lumber Yard Company. Other buildings were built by Chinese and Japanese carpenters, laborers, and district residents. From the rebuilding of the town in 1926 until the start of World War II in 1942, Isleton enjoyed a period of prosperity directly related to the asparagus and potato crops that dominated Delta agriculture and to the canneries constructed in the region.

The majority of the population in the two districts was seasonal and weekends and winter months saw the most activity when laborers came to town to gamble and socialize. Rooms were available in both districts and the well known Kumamoto-ya Hotel provided a community dining room for renters at the hotel, as well as a pool hall and saloon. The Japanese Association's hall and movie theater were popular among the Japanese workers, while the Isleton branch building for the Bing Kung Tong was a focal point of the Chinese community, providing social and religious support and employment services to the Chinese population.

 

Another integral part of both of the districts were the four gambling halls that fronted Main Street. The halls provided patrons with hot tea and two meals a day free of charge which became important during the Depression in the 1930s when wages fell below one dollar a day. Isleton's gambling halls were well known throughout the Delta and were frequented well into the 20th century.
 

Unlike many of the Asian communities in the Delta region, Isleton's two districts were family oriented. Many of the buildings were owned by families, and Asian schools were established to teach Chinese and Japanese languages and customs. Children attended a segregated "Oriental" school during the day and their own language school in the afternoons. There was also a "migratory" school located just west of E Street that was used by children of migrant workers.
 

Isleton's Chinese population began to decline in the 1930s and 1940s as younger generations moved to larger urban areas, a trend echoed in other Chinatowns throughout the Delta region. Filipino workers began moving into and frequenting the districts. The success of the canneries ensured that the districts maintained stable and growing populations, helping them to continue to thrive throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s.
 

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December 1941, the Asian district underwent a dramatic change. After the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 which authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing all of California and most of Oregon, Washington, and Arizona "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal from these areas of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry – citizens and non-citizens alike – to relocation centers. The Japanese in Isleton were evacuated and sent to relocation centers throughout the U.S.

 

During the war, Filipino and Mexican laborers, who were brought in by local farmers and cannery companies, occupied the Japanese district. Although a few Japanese residents returned to Isleton after the war, they soon left for nearby cities. The majority of the buildings in the Japanese section were occupied by other workers, and the original occupants could not recoup their losses. The heyday of Isleton's Chinese and Japanese districts was at an end.
 

Today, the Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts retain the physical feel of the area's 1920s and 1930s boom period, with the majority of the buildings dating from after the 1926 fire. Most of the buildings are one or two story wood-frame with gable roofs, false fronts, and stepped or peaked parapets. Corrugated metal or pressed tin over horizontal boards was used for the siding on the rear and side walls while front facades were covered with various sidings of pressed tin, stucco, or wood. Many of the buildings in the Chinese section also had second story balconies or porches. Almost all of the two story buildings had businesses on the ground floor and residences on the second. The second stories of the larger buildings were used as boarding houses.
 

The few brick buildings in the district vary in style from Art Deco to a simple Main Street commercial style. They are generally built of red brick with yellow-face brick facades and traditional commercial false fronts with gabled or slanted roofs.


There are also numerous rear and side gardens in the district. Gardens have traditionally been an integral part of Asian communities and common plantings in the two districts' small gardens include fruit trees (primarily figs), pepper trees, citrus trees, grapes, cactus, flowers, and vegetables.

The Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts are located in Isleton, CA, and are roughly bounded by River Rd., H St., Union St., and E St. The districts are separated by F St. with the Chinese Commercial District located between E and F Sts. and the Japanese Commercial District between F and H Sts.

Last updated: June 5, 2018