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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.

(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.


The most recent Chinatown in San Jose's past was called Heinlenville. As with the Woolen Mills Chinatown, its inhabitants had also been displaced by the 1887 Market Street fire. Rather than allow themselves to be driven from San Jose, their representatives quickly located a sympathizer in a German American named John Heinlen. Despite great public opposition in the press and at rallies, and official injunctions against it, a new Chinatown rose. Dubbed by some as "Heinlen's Hell-hole," the community was well built of fireproof brick with an eight-foot high wall topped with barbwire against intruders. Ironically, the same architect, Theodore Lenzen, built both Heinlenville and San Jose's City Hall. A key building in this Chinatown was the Joss House called Ng Shing Gung, which functioned not only as a house of worship, but also as a meeting space, Chinese school, storehouse, and temporary lodging. Heinlenville became a more permanent location for the Chinese, existing from 1887 until the 1930s. By that time the Chinese and their American-born children were able to move more freely out into mainstream society, and the Great Depression led to the Heinlen family's bankruptcy. These factors caused the demise of the last Chinatown in San Jose. Creditors received the property, the buildings were razed, and the city took over the area to be used as a storage yard. Only one building, the Ng Shing Gung temple, survived until 1949 when it was also demolished. Fortunately, some far-thinking community leaders made the effort to store away the altar and some of the furnishings of the temple.


CHCP was organized for a purpose: to replicate Heinlenville's temple and restore its altar, thus creating a museum to document the history of the Chinese in Santa Clara Valley and a monument to the legacy of the pioneering Chinese immigrants to the area. CHCP arose from a broad community effort that involved people from various walks of life, different ethnicities, and different political parties. Despite being a "grassroots" effort originated by community activists, including members of the Chinese American Women's Club of Santa Clara, the effort to recreate the temple gained widespread public support. This support expanded to include people from all levels of society, government, education, and business. But only coordination and cooperation among these organizations, professionals, and government agencies enabled the project to succeed. This assemblage of concerned and motivated citizens banded together to create CHCP in 1987, significantly one hundred years after the Market Street Chinatown fire.

The "project" was to have lasted only a few years, and once the building was dedicated and deeded over to the city of San Jose, the job could be considered completed. However, the great momentum that was generated led CHCP to continue with further endeavors. Soon a "Chinese Summer Festival" of various entertainment and cultural displays became a regularly scheduled event at the site. The extensive research involved in the project also led to a curriculum on Chinese American history and culture that was created and distributed widely in the local school districts. A grant program was added to help educators and students interested in studying about or creating their own programs on multiculturalism. CHCP also provides scholarships for students and support for writers, artists, performers, film festivals, and other cultural groups, and participates in community activities and events.

CHCP has formed deep ties with individuals of varied professions. From the archaeologists to the anthropologists and historians who provided the studies, to the community activists and politicians who pushed the project forward, and to the architects and designers who created the space for the exhibits--all have played vital roles. Then there are the directors and staff of History San Jose who do the fine work in their role as managers of the museum. There is also another group that keeps everything going. These are people who volunteer their time, their labor, their financial support, and their spirit to CHCP. From our dedicated museum docents and volunteers at our festivals and events to our volunteer webmasters, they all provide essential manpower. And lastly there is the volunteer governing structure of CHCP: A board of directors and a board of trustees charged with oversight for the museum. These are dedicated individuals, many of whom have been there even before CHCP was formed.

CHCP has been the recipient of several awards from various distinguished institutions. Most recently the Society of Historical Archaeologists has given their Award of Merit to CHCP for their contributions in the Woolen Mills Chinatown studies. Previously a Caltrans Award was given as well as an Albert B. Corey Award, also from the American Historical Society. These awards from professional groups reflect the extent to which CHCP honors the archaeological history of the site in recreating for the public the many stories of the Chinatowns. These awards also display the professional respect and cooperation that CHCP and their partners share. From the original Market Street findings by Archaeological Resource Service, Inc. twenty years ago, to more recent collaborations at the Woolen Mills with Past Forward Inc. and with the Market Street Archaeological Project at Stanford University, these have been fruitful relationships. The end results are brought to the public's attention through different avenues, most notably the museum with its exhibition design by prominent designer Daniel Quan Associates, and also in the curriculum guide Golden Legacy, the books Chinatown, San Jose, USA by CHCP Board Member Connie Young Yu and Life Along the Guadalupe River by archaeologists Rebecca Allen and Mark Hylkema, and the film Homebase: A Chinatown called Heinlenville by Connie's daughter Jessica Yu. Lastly, a website (chcp. org) supplies a wealth of data on local Chinese American history and culture, plus a link into the workings of CHCP.

Led by cofounders Lillian Gong-Guy and Gerrye Wong, CHCP continues its mission into the twenty-first century. CHCP has expanded beyond its original "project" but stays true to its ideals to "preserve, educate, and promote the history and culture of the Chinese and Chinese Americans in America, particularly in Santa Clara Valley, California."


CHCP continues to help operate its museum and is involved in the extended care of the site through a forward-thinking Long-Term Maintenance Agreement with the city of San Jose and with History San Jose, the managing organization. All three parties in this agreement work closely with the goal of maintaining the museum and ensuring its availability to the viewing public.

CHCP is currently in the final stages of enhancing our museum to showcase Cantonese Opera as a popular entertainment, and we are installing new exhibits on the recent findings from the Woolen Mills Chinatown. CHCP has been blessed to work with excellent professionals from the staff of History San Jose to the knowledgeable experts in the community and the many archaeologists who provide the data that is the basis for our exhibits. A shard of pottery, a pork bone, or a woman's comb can tell us a lot about the intricacies of the social fabric or the commerce of the community.

Other ways CHCP maintains relevance is to participate in today's events, not only with festivals, sponsorships, and outreach activities, but also by means of active involvement with various organizations and groups in our community. CHCP is not an advocacy group and has no political agenda, as dictated in the bylaws of our organization. However, these restrictions do not mean that CHCP should not have an influence on what is happening. On the contrary, we take an active role in our community. First, we are in the business of education; what we present to the youth of today will help them understand society better and their roles within it. As our future, the youth need to know about the injustices and prejudices encountered by the immigrants, and the youth need to be shown examples of how others have found the determination and the means to overcome them. CHCP supports organizations such as Vision New America or the Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute at DeAnza College, both training young people to be politically and socially involved. We also encourage groups such as Asian Americans for Community Involvement as they provide new immigrants with legal, medical, and social assistance.


Heinlenville has sat buried for over fifty years in the midst of Japantown, underneath what the city calls the Corporation Yard. Restricted access to the public meant that citizens could not even walk the site of historic Heinlenville. But soon San Jose will relocate the Yard and open the site to redevelopment for housing and commercial use. Next year when the earthmovers come, we intend to have archaeologists to monitor what they unearth. This will provide a wealth of fresh data and new stories to interpret and present to the public.

But just as important, CHCP is actively involved in the redevelopment process with the City. We are representing the Chinese American community, with full intention to inform all involved parties about our history on this parcel of land. Of course, no one expects a "New" Chinatown to rise. There no longer exists the social or commercial need that originally created these enclaves. But we expect any development to respect our past while also reflecting our future. The formal documents guiding developers interested in this property contain wording carefully constructed from public input, including that of CHCP representatives:
 Given the long and powerful history of the site as the last
 Chinatown in San Jose, the history and culture of the site
 needs to be clearly and meaningfully integrated into the
 redevelopment." (4)

The Chinese were long ago removed from Heinlenville and had little say in the matter. This time we expect our voices to be heard and not neglected when this piece of our history is reclaimed. Only through proactive participation in community processes can we succeed. The pioneering Chinese were denied many of the rights and resources now available to all Americans and suffered as a result. CHCP promotes respect and understanding of other cultures to avoid the injustices of the past. It also encourages and supports active participation in our community, whether through political, social, or educational means.


All immigrants seek some place to find security and safety in a difficult, sometimes threatening new environment. And it was the same for the pioneer Chinese. To quote Connie Young Yu, "Chinatowns were sanctuaries, offering physical and emotional protection ... a cultural homebase." (5) San Jose's Chinese pioneer immigrants faced great hardships to remain in the area yet displayed grit and resilience in the face of adversity. Their chances to succeed were greatly enhanced by these Chinatowns, created by the two factors of a common sociocultural environment and the need for protection from a hostile environment. Along with family and, for some, religion, there is no concept so vital as that of a "home."

The basis of America is in its immigrants, and the triumph of this nation has been the integration of all these people of different backgrounds. However, the past shows that it has not been an easy process, and the present shows that there are still conflicts to be resolved. Although the immigration stations of Ellis Island and Angel Island are now historic sites, immigration to the United States is still happening and this continues to change the "face" of this nation.

This year's Chinese American Studies conference is subtitled "A Changing Chinese America" to stimulate discussion on the changing Chinese American population. This idea of a changing demographic is also applicable to Asian America on the whole. Whether it's due to the influence of mixed marriage or to suburban flight leading to an influx of new residents, Chinatowns and Japantowns are becoming more multiethnic. For example, in San Jose's Japantown you now find Hawaiian stores and restaurants representing the most diverse Asian American state in the United States and a neighboring population largely of Latinos. Fortunately, strong local activism and leadership appear to ensure that this Japantown, one of the last three in America, will not vanish like the six Chinatowns of San Jose. When redevelopment commences in San Jose Japantown and the long-buried Heinlenville is unearthed there, we expect to find artifacts of that old Chinatown to further enrich our understanding of the Chinese in San Jose. Furthermore, we are excited for the day when once more the public will be able to walk these grounds freely and see monuments and tributes to what was once San Jose's last Chinatown.

An organization like CHCP needs to be aware that we may be losing our natural audience. We tell the story of the Cantonese from Toishan and Zhongshan, rather clannish people who were among the first Chinese to immigrate to our area. But these early inhabitants and their descendants have largely assimilated into the general population. It is the recent immigrants from various other provinces of China and especially Taiwan who are bringing their new influence to the area. This is "the face of a changing Chinese America" in the Silicon Valley. For these newcomers, the stories in our museum are not specifically theirs. Yet there is a commonality to the immigrant experience that should resonate within them and all Americans. To quote CHCP Trustee Dr. Jeffery Lee, "Remarkably, the community sensed a special kinship to the old town of Heinlenville, although few had childhood experiences in San Jose." (6) And even more so, there is nobility in the great stories of struggle, survival, and triumph that should touch every person regardless of his or her own particular origins. It is our responsibility to inform people of all colors about our stories, because they truly are universal tales for every American to know. With further exploration of new archaeological sites, we will continue to bring the story of our Chinese past to life, even as we promote our future by participating to our fullest extent as Americans.


(1.) As cited in the preface, Connie Young Yu, Chinatown, San Jose, USA (San Jose, CA: San Jose Historical Museum Association, 1993).

(2.) Yu, Chinatown, 30.

(3.) Rebecca Allen and Mark Hylkema, Life along the Guadalupe River--An Archaeological and Historical Journey (San Jose, CA: Friends of the Guadalupe River Parks and Gardens), 51.

(4.) San Jose Redevelopment Agency, "Goals, Objectives and Developer Responsibilities (Attachment)," June 27, 2005, 3.

(5.) Yu, Chinatown, 21.

(6.) Yu, Chinatown, (afterword), 112.

Rodney M. Lum, OD

President, Chinese Historical and Cultural Project
COPYRIGHT 2007 Chinese Historical Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:4D Paper
Author:Lum, Rodney M.
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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