Finding home again: the story of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project (CHCP) and its efforts to reclaim the forgotten historic Chinatowns of San Jose, California.

Author:Lum, Rodney M.
Position:4D Paper

(Original Title: the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project)

San Jose, California, had a key role in the anti-Chinese movement of the 1880s as the Chinese fought valiantly to remain in a valley that repeatedly tried to oust them--by arson, police harassment, local legislation, and unconstitutional ordinances. While the Chinese endured, all of their historic communities have been lost.

The most significant findings on the Chinese American community within the past two decades have emerged from archeological digs within the metropolis of San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley It was progress and development that uncovered the detritus of two historic Chinatowns. Another planned redevelopment in the coming few years will uncover the site of yet another Chinatown.

San Jose's Chinese communities of the nineteenth century, long neglected in history, have been brought to light by the work of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project. The Ng Shing Gung Museum, the book publication of Chinatown, San Jose, USA, the film Homebase: A Chinatown Called Heinlenville, and the ongoing educational and cultural activities of CHCP showcase the magnitude of the struggles of the Chinese pioneers as they survived, flourished, and in the end triumphed over adversities. (1)


San Jose, California, once counted as many as six settlements considered Chinatowns. As there have not been any Chinatowns locally for approximately seventy-five years and since many of these sites have been overlaid with modern development, even longtime residents of our area are often unaware they ever existed and ignorant of their locations. Few remaining inhabitants of these settlements survive, and, therefore, as time passes these sites have faded not only out of existence but out of memory too.

The past two decades have brought great redevelopment to the metropolitan San Jose area, once a primarily agrarian region known as "The Valley of Heart's Delight" but today known better for its high technology industries. The sites of two Chinatowns have been rediscovered, and in the next few years a third will be added to the list. The inevitable wave of progress benefits us in that whenever there is development, regulations dictate that before work can proceed, archaeological studies must be done. Archaeologists working these locations, in conjunction with historians and cultural experts, turn their findings into stories that can provide a coherent view of the historical, social, and cultural life of a lost community.


In 1985, development began in downtown San Jose to build a grand new hotel to be known as the San Jose Fairmont. Excavation for the garage revealed the site of the historic Market Street Chinatown of 1866. Only established for a few years, a fire in 1870 had gutted the town, but the determined citizens soon rebuilt in the same location. At one time the home to 2,000-3,000 inhabitants, this Chinatown was in the heart of downtown near the business district and across from the new City Hall. Unfortunately, its prominent location targeted it to be cited as a blight on the community, and another fire, likely arson, burned it down once again in 1887. The San Jose Daily Herald duly reported, "Chinatown is dead. It is dead forever." (2)


After the Chinese were burnt out of the Market Street Chinatown, some resettled in an area called the Woolen Mills Chinatown, named for the local factory that provided employment to many of these Chinese. A fire in 1902 later destroyed this settlement also. Nearly a century later, construction on State Route 87 led to archaeological studies being performed by Past Forward, Inc. Their findings revealed that "the Woolen Mills Chinatown was a well-organized and planned community" with an "elaborate sewer and hydrant system." (3) The San Jose Chinatowns were shown to be well-constructed communities despite the fact that they were forced by outside agencies to relocate themselves frequently.


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