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The forgotten Chinese of Monterey Bay in US

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-11-27 09:44

Hidden legacy that helped shape region's vibrant economy, culture brought to light

Vibrant Chinatowns graced the Monterey Bay region of California more than 100 years ago, but today you would barely know it.

As with Chinatowns, the Chinese pioneers in the region, comprising Monterey, Santa Cruz and Salinas on the state's central coast, were made invisible by racism and discrimination, and almost all trace of them has vanished.

Few people are aware that without the Chinese the region, well known for its tourism industry and productive agriculture, would not be the way it is today, says Sandy Lydon, a historian in Santa Cruz and author of Chinese gold: the Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region.

In recovering the overlooked history, Lydon hopes to put the Chinese "back in the rightful place" in history, he says.

His book, first published in 1985, was a pioneering study of the early Chinese immigrants in the region. He was inspired while teaching Chinese history at a college.

In recent years he has given talks on this history, hoping that "something will improve" amid rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.

The Chinese gold of the title refers to the ability of Chinese people, in the face of adversity, to see the resources where others could not and develop them "to the lasting benefit of the Monterey Bay region".

"Through their particular form of alchemy (insight plus ingenuity plus energy), the Chinese turned what they found into gold," Lydon says. "Chinese gold" was found in harvesting squids, growing sugar beets and drying apples.

"They're really the first commercial fishermen in the region — everything else was episodic. They came by the 1860s and they literally expanded the vision of what is possible in the fishing business.

"And Chinese knew how to preserve fish. For example, abalone spoils within a day. They have the experience from China of knowing what to do with it, and there was a market for dried abalone in China."

With their skills and vision Chinese fishers helped create what Lydon calls a new resource, "ocean gold". Soon after they arrived they turned abalone and squid fishing into an economic boom.

While dried abalone is a delicacy in China, local people did not eat it at that time because they considered it as snail, Lydon says.

The Chinese set up shacks along the shores of Point Lobos, Point Joe and Point Sur and began harvesting abalone. At first only abalone meat had value, but soon there was a market for abalone shell jewelry and furniture, and the shells were exported.

It is well known that Chinese people built the Transcontinental Railroad, but few people know that they also built a number of smaller railroads that helped revolutionize agriculture in the region.

The land in the area is some of the richest in the world, but when the Chinese first came in the 1860s the only crop was wheat, because that was what the white farmers knew how to do, Lydon says.

"They came and helped grow and harvest sugar beets and provided the labor for sugar beet factories. They taught local farmers that you could grow something else besides wheat. The agricultural industry in that area today is built on the foundation — the strength, the energy and the vision of Chinese."

Entrepreneurial business

George Ow, a third-generation Chinese American who grew up in one of the last Chinatowns in Monterey Bay, says his grandfather came to Monterey in 1978 and started off as a laundry man.

"My grandfather was very entrepreneurial ... and came upon the apple drying business."

Watsonville was a major apple region in the country in the 1910s to 1920s, and his grandfather saw commercial prospects in apple "seconds", or in those with blemishes.

They cut off the blemishes, sliced them and dried the slices and exported them to China. However, his grandfather could not get a license as a Chinese national, so he found a white person and made a deal with him to skirt the law.

The business went well for 10 years, but then the environment for Chinese became too hostile, and they decided to return to China.

"The laws were against them," Ow says. "The Chinese could not own land, could not testify in court and a lot of other things."

His father managed to return to the US in the 1930s.

"Hundreds of thousands of people played an important part in building this country but had no record. This book is about my home area, but the stories can apply to California and America, too, to learn about what we did for this country."

Laws at all levels were designed to deprive Chinese of their work, rights and dignity, the book says. With more Chinese laborers arriving in the Monterey Bay region, they became scapegoats.

Local newspapers said the Chinese workers were taking away jobs from "honest, hardworking white men". They even said that if Chinese laborers were killed while doing dangerous jobs at the explosives factory California Powder Works, "it will not be much loss to the community".

By the 1870s California Powder Works employed 35 Chinese laborers. They worked predominantly as coopers, making barrels in which gunpowder was stored, which was considered a dangerous job. However, they were paid only $1 a day even as their white peers were paid up to three times that.

The Chinese workers were "a necessity to do the work most white men would not do at such rates", which allowed the factory to "compete successfully with Eastern manufacturers", the book says.

As with working in the gunpowder factory, Chinese workers were given the most dangerous jobs on railroad construction sites. Between 1875 and 1880 the Chinese built three railroads in Santa Cruz County, connecting the beach towns often cut off from the outside by winter storms.

Learning about the injustices that the early Chinese immigrants suffered helps prevent history repeating itself, Lydon says, and he hopes his readers can be "part of the solution".

"My hope is to give them the honor they couldn't get in their time. I hope their descendants will be proud of what their grandpa was able to do. We can't undo it, but maybe we can learn from it."

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