Chinese pioneers of Ventura County subjects of new museum exhibit
From China to Ventura
- By Brett Johnson
- Posted August 25, 2012 at 3 p.m.
For pictures and more information see
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Photo by Museum of Ventura County, Contributed photo
What: The exhibit "Hidden Voices: The Chinese of Ventura County" opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 25 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St. in Ventura. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $1 for kids 6 to 17. Kids under 6 and museum members get in free. Admission also is free for all on the first Sunday of every month. General museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. For more information, call 653-0323 or visit http://www.venturamuseum.org.
Festival: In lieu of an opening night reception, the museum will host a Chinese Cultural Heritage Festival on Sept. 8 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Highlights of that will include a Chinese lion dance; a dance troupe and calligraphy and brush painting shows from the Ventura County Chinese American Association; and a papermaking demonstration from the Conejo Chinese Cultural Association. Admission is $5; children under 12 and museum members get in free.
Other exhibit-related events and dates at the museum include:
Oct. 7: A 2 p.m. screening of the documentary film "Courage & Contribution: The Chinese in Ventura County." The film deals with 19th century Chinese immigration to California and the evolution of Chinatown communities in Ventura and Oxnard. It highlights contributions of Chinese agricultural workers and merchants, Chinese fire companies and the story of Bill Soo Hoo of Oxnard, the first Chinese mayor elected in California history. Free.
Oct. 27: A 1 p.m. book talk by William Gow, co-author (with Linda Bentz) of "Hidden Lives: A Century of Chinese American History in Ventura County." Gow is the great-grandson of Wong Ah Gow and Lou Oy Gow, who owned Gow Markets in Oxnard in the early 1900s. He will talk about the role of Chinese immigrants in the evolution of Ventura County. $5.
Nov. 18: A 2 p.m. lecture from local artist BiJian Fan on the history of paper and various paper arts in China. He will also talk about modern techniques and materials he uses in his kinetic sculptures. $5.
People interested in the Cultural Heritage Festival and the other events are asked to RSVP at 653-0323 ext. 7.
The Chinatowns that sprang up in Ventura and Oxnard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries held together a tiny and hardscrabble community of gritty people who had left their homeland to escape hardships only to find a new slate of them here.
Almost all these people came from the Guangdong (formerly Canton) province of southeast China, an area wracked by rebellions and opium wars, as well as widespread hunger, poverty and death. In Ventura County and elsewhere in the U.S., they suffered racial discrimination and were subjects of exclusion laws — the first immigrant group ever targeted that way in U.S. history — that made it impossible for most to bring their families here.
They eked out a largely mundane life. Many — alone, not speaking English nor understanding our culture — got jobs as farm laborers, ranch cooks, construction workers, fishermen, domestic servants and laundry cleaners. In the local Chinatowns, they lived in crude wooden buildings in tight quarters.
"It must have been a really tough existence," said historian Linda Bentz of the Ventura County Chinese American Historical Society, who wrote a 47-page journal last year about the early Chinese here. Then, almost as quickly as they emerged, the local Chinatowns faded away, vanished in the annals of time. They were a secretive people and left behind little in the way of records, diaries, keepsakes or photos.
But bit by bit, a clearer though still fragmented picture of these local Chinese pioneers is emerging — cobbled together from a historical olio that includes ceramic shards excavated in present-day downtown Ventura, a few family heirlooms still floating around here and there, the discovery of Chinese fish camps at the Channel Islands, and traces and hints in rare old interviews and newspaper articles.
Much of this, and Bentz's journal work, is included in the new exhibit "Hidden Voices: The Chinese of Ventura County" that opens Saturday and continues through Nov. 25 at the Museum of Ventura County in Ventura.
Bentz's work, which took 10 years to complete, was published last year under the museum's auspices in the Journal of Ventura County History.
It was a reminder to the staff "that we hadn't featured that part of our local history in a long time," said the museum's Ariane Karakalos, who co-curated the exhibit with Bentz.
"A lot of people will be surprised that the city (as well as Oxnard) had a Chinatown," Karakalos said. "A lot of people aren't aware of that piece of local history."
It is "super interesting," she added, "to see how these people came here and were so very different."
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A THUMBNAIL TOUR
The museum sports pieces of these people and their culture. A case will house what Bentz called "brownware" — fragments of ceramic soy sauce jars, dishes and the like, along with old coins.
"It has a lot of meaning, realizing that someone used these things 150 years ago," Karakalos noted.
Bentz dug up a circa 1900 goods inventory from a Ventura Chinatown store as part of a display on the importance role merchants played in those days. Among its items: rice, brown sugar, pork, dried fish, vegetables, flour, black tea, cigars and herbal medicines.
One centerpiece figures to be the 1910 wedding dress of Nellie Yee Chung, who was born in Ventura in 1888 and was an early resident of its Chinatown.
The hand-embroidered silk gown, adorned with decorative flowers and birds and featuring a mix of pink, purple, green and charcoal black colors, is the thing that will draw eyeballs in the exhibit room, Bentz predicted.
"It's fantastic," she said. "It's the original thing. It's just gorgeous."
The dress is on loan from family descendants, Karakalos said, adding, "It's a rare find."
Also part of the exhibit is an abacus — Chinese shopkeepers didn't have cash registers then. This one has wooden counting balls fashioned to resemble pearls, Karakalos said.
Another unique item on view is a Chinese queue, a plait or ribbon of hair worn hanging from the back of the head. Most Chinese men, the curators noted, cut their queues after 1911 in the dying days of the old dynasties and the coming of the Republic of China.
More cultural flavor will come from a contemporary lion costume on loan from Irene Sy, the principal of a Chinese language school in Camarillo and vice president of the Ventura County Chinese American Association.
The costume, Sy explained, is used when people perform the lion dance at events such as weddings, the opening of a business and, of course, the biggest celebration, the Chinese New Year.
The lion, she said, is an auspicious animal in Chinese culture and its meaning is to bring peace, happiness and prosperity to the community.
Both her group and a companion organization, the Conejo Chinese Cultural Association, are part of the museum exhibit and also will participate in a Sept. 8 Chinese Cultural Heritage Festival there.
The exhibit is an opportunity to "share our culture and our history" with the community, Sy said.
"It's very impressive, and it's important to recognize the minorities of Ventura County and the contributions of immigrants to our society through history," said Yingchun Wu, a Newbury Park resident and president of the Conejo Chinese group.
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The late 1840s Gold Rush brought many thousands of Chinese to California, which they called Gum Saan, translated as "Gold Mountain." Chinese miners were robbed, driven from claims and subject to an 1852 foreign miners' tax that eventually was imposed only on them, Bentz wrote in her 2011 journal.
Around the mid-19th century, the Chinese also came to Ventura. The Chinatown there initially was along Figueroa Street between Main and Santa Clara streets.
As in California and the nation, the Chinese presence drew opposition. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Ultimately, the law was extended all the way into the 1940s.
Elsewhere, the first wave of Chinese Americans were hanged and banished; there were lynchings in Los Angeles, and Chinatowns across the West were burned to the ground, according to Jean Pfaelzer's 2007 book "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans."
Ventura County largely avoided such large-scales skirmishes and tragedies, Bentz said.
But a countywide Anti-Chinese League did form, and held weekly protest meetings at a local hall. They thought the Chinese were "filthy" and at one point tried to establish an American laundry because they didn't like the Chinese doing that work, Bentz noted.
Local papers joined the chorus. The Ventura Free Press, an ancestor of this paper, stated in its Feb. 26, 1886 issue that "We are nothing these days if not anti-Chinese." Another article on April 2 that year began bluntly: "The Chinese must go."
But things here generally didn't turn violent, though an 1893 protest march through the Chinatown on Figueroa Street reportedly was scary enough that the Chinese thought they were going to be deported; they scattered into their homes, barred the doors and turned off lights.
In another incident, an early local merchant named Ung Hing had to drive away a mob beating on his door by threatening to shoot them with a pistol. But that, Bentz said, "was about as rough as it got."
Through all this, the local Chinese persevered. By the 1890s, Bentz wrote in the journal, Figueroa Street "was filled with the sights and sounds of a bustling ethnic community." The Chinatown population was thought to be around 200.
There, one could find mercantile businesses, employment firms, a barbershop, residences, a kitchen and other buildings. Nellie Yee Chung, in a later interview, described simple two-room houses in Chinatown that were connected in the back. Residents there raised chickens and pigeons, and some gardened. They built a shed to dry clothes.
After land around the San Buenaventura Mission was sold and developed in 1905, the Chinese were driven from their homes. They relocated to a second Chinatown on the north side of Main Street from west of the mission to Ventura Avenue that lasted until about 1920.
Oxnard's Chinatown rose almost as quickly as did the town, which incorporated as a city in 1903, a mere five years after a sugar beet factory was built there by the four brothers for whom the city would be named. Many Chinese laborers moved to Oxnard to work in the beet fields.
An 1899 article in the Oxnard Courier noted that the area did not have a Chinatown as in Ventura and Los Angeles — but such an ethnic enclave soon took hold.
Oxnard's Chinatown initially was located on Saviers Road (now Oxnard Boulevard) between Fifth and Sixth streets, and later shifted to Saviers between Seventh and Eighth streets, bounded by A Street.
Like the Ventura version, the Oxnard one had a China alley through the middle and its own fire brigade; some said the latter were established after slow response times from existing local departments to blazes in the Chinatowns.
They were also home to shadier activities. Both local Chinatowns had gambling halls and opium establishments, and the Oxnard one also had a saloon and "houses of ill repute." In the journal, Bentz related an incident where Bartley Soo Hoo, of Oxnard's famed Soo Hoo family, roller-skated in front of one of the brothels once during his childhood and was admonished by one of the madams to keep quiet as "my girls are asleep."
In a way, that type of behavior was understandable, Bentz said. Many of the Chinese were far away from home living in a hostile society that disliked them and tried to pass laws against them. So they turned to such things.
"And maybe sometimes they needed to smoke a little opium to make them feel better — kind of like happy hour now," she said.
Both local Chinatowns also were home to the Bing Kong tong, Bentz wrote. Tongs were fraternal groups in the tight-knit Chinatowns everywhere. Some were benevolent, helping people there find housing and jobs, but others were involved in protection rackets and criminal activities; the Bing Kong tong was suspected of the latter.
"We don't have any evidence it was happening in these communities (Ventura and Oxnard), but that's what they were known for," Bentz said.
The exhibit touches on the five people profiled in Bentz's journal. In addition to Nellie Yee Chung, they include early Ventura Chinatown residents Minnie Soo Hoo and merchant Tom Lim Yan.
Yan's wide influence there lasted more than 30 years. In 1881, the Ventura Signal dubbed him the "Boss Chinaman."
Merchants tended to wield power in Chinatowns because they were often the most educated and financially well off people there. They often spoke English and assisted others with language translations, writing letters and getting them sent home.
Thus, their stores were gathering places and "a central element in the community," Karakalos said. "They were pretty much the anchors of the social fabric."
Merchants also were exempt from exclusion laws, meaning they could travel to China and return with family members.
The exhibit also touches on latter-day local Chinese residents such as Walton Jue, whose Jue's Market was a Main Street mainstay in Ventura for years until the family gave it up recently, and Bill Soo Hoo, who was elected mayor of Oxnard in 1966, thus becoming the first mayor of Chinese descent in California history.
Soo Hoo's run for City Council and to make changes in Oxnard reportedly came after he bought a lot on Deodar Street but was told he couldn't live there, that it was for "Caucasians only." The exhibit is to include one of Soo Hoo's gavels from a council meeting.
The exhibit is augmented by photographs. Many of the early Chinese here are the work of John Calvin Brewster, a chronicler of life in Ventura County from his arrival in Ventura in the mid-1870s to his death in 1909.
Bentz's work is hardly done. She co-authored a book with William Gow titled "Hidden Lives: A Century of Chinese American History in Ventura County" that they hope to have out during the exhibit's run.
She also just returned from Santa Rosa Island, where she saw evidence of 14 Chinese camps where the men would spend three months at a time harvesting abalone and the like.
Today, the Chinese population in Ventura County has shifted to the east. Census numbers cited by Bentz show almost 10,400 people of Chinese descent living in the county, up considerably from both the 2000 and 1990 censuses.
The biggest concentration of them, some several thousand, is in Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Valley, Wu said. Only a few thousand live "below the grade," Sy noted.
The Chinese today are more likely to be doctors and health care professionals than laborers. They are attracted by employers such as Amgen and Baxter Healthcare Corp., Wu said. She'd know; she's a product quality coordinator at Baxter.
The Chinese school in Thousand Oaks, Wu added, now has an enrollment of 650; some 30 years ago, she said, they started with 15.
Today's Chinese community leaders say they are grateful for and indebted to the early pioneers who came here and endured hardships.
Or as Bentz said: "They were an amazing people."
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