“He looked up and he could see smoke. The smoke … just covered the sky,” Young Yu said.
The fire that devastated the neighborhood was just one of a shocking list of wrongdoings that the city of San Jose formally apologized for in late September, marking the first time in about 130 years that the city has documented its historic role in to pass anti-Chinese policy.
The apology and decision, read by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, came as the city looked for ways to respond to growing anti-Asian hatred over the past year.
Reported hate crimes against Asians in 16 of the country’s largest cities and counties increased 164% in May 2021, compared to May the year before, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University-San Bernardino.
Through listening sessions in San Jose, community members raised an idea to reckon with the city’s past.
“It’s a huge, huge sense of justice,” Young Yu said.
Smoldering racism leads to arson
The apology and decision describe a time when San Jose’s critical agricultural and railroad industries relied heavily on Chinese immigrant work while anti-Chinese rallies were held in the city.
It goes on to point out ways San Jose had played a role in anti-Chinese violence: the city had condemned all Chinese laundries, declared its Market Street Chinatown a public nuisance, and when arsonists burned it down, the Chinese refused permission to rebuild in elsewhere.
Young Yu’s grandfather, Young Wah Gok, was part of the community. She told CNN that he had immigrated to San Jose at the age of 11 from a village in southern China and joined Market Street Chinatown, a home base for Chinese immigrants.
Her grandfather had told her about his funny adventures, like when a gambler called him to the table and said, “‘You pick those numbers for me.’ Here he is, a child who just arrived from China after a few weeks, and he picks the winning numbers. “
But the stories of racism and harassment Young Yu later learned from her father: how her grandfather was chased by white boys in the neighborhood, where he worked as a house boy, how stones were thrown at him.
An atmosphere of hatred was fierce as San Jose City Council condemned Market Street Chinatown.
Young Yu said there were “people who came into Chinatown with suppose you say you know you have two weeks. And there was already a feeling that Chinatown … that they should leave, but they always had “I hope they can fight it. But I do not think they expected fire.”
An article in the San Francisco Daily Examiner about the arson called it “San Jose’s Joy” and a “gala day in San Jose.”
A photograph of the fire shows the crowds gathered to see. Another shows an aftermath of crumbling buildings as spectators pass by. Young Yu said the water tower, which was always full, had somehow been emptied, making it nearly impossible to fight the fire.
“This was really a sense of doom. Because after the fire, what then? Are they going to come after the individual?” Said Young Yu.
Reconstruction in an era of anti-Chinese politics
The Chinese immigrants in San Jose had an ally in John Heinlen, a German immigrant. Shortly after the fire, Heinlen helped Chinese community rebuild its property, an area now in Japantown, San Jose.
But he was met with opposition from the city, which declared his requested permits “out of order”.
In fact, a protest broke out near his property where a resolution drafted by the mayor and city council read a Chinatown would be “a public nuisance, harmful to adjacent private property, dangerous to the health and well-being of all citizens living. and has a home in its vicinity and a standing threat to both public and private morality, peace, tranquility and good order, etc. ”
Despite fierce opposition, Heinlen completed construction on “Heinlenville”, San Jose’s last Chinatown, which lasted until 1931.
Events in San Jose were not isolated. During the 1870s, an economic depression in the United States caused Chinese immigrants to become scapegoats. In October 1871, a mob of rioters in Los Angeles hanged 18 Chinese immigrants after one of them allegedly killed a popular salon owner. In September 1885, white miners in Wyoming, led by the Labor Knights, killed 28 Chinese and wounded at least 15. And in November 1885, a mob of whites in Tacoma, WA, led by the mayor and supported by the city police, invaded Tacomas Chinatown and ordered its residents out. of the city.
All of these events occurred in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only federal law that prevented a particular nationality from becoming U.S. citizens for more than half a century.
Because of the law, Young Yu’s grandfather never became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was not allowed to do so until 1943, only a few years before his death.
Artifacts found a century later
About 100 years after the Market Street Chinatown fire, people discovered that construction on the new Fairmont Hotel in San Jose discovered artifacts underground.
When toothbrushes, ceramic kitchen utensils and whiskey bottles appeared, the Chinese historical and cultural project was formed to house the items in a new museum.
Gerrye Wong, one of the organization’s co-founders, taught public school in California for 30 years, but never mentioned the anti-Chinese events in any text or curriculum on California history.
“I grew up in the city of San Jose, but I knew nothing about the five Chinatowns that stood here,” Wong said. “So finding pieces like this, it was like opening a horizon to what life was like for these people.”
In 1991, the Chinese American Museum of History opened in a building designed to be a replica of the last building in Heinlenville called Ng Shing Gung. The original building was a school, a temple, a gathering place, and even a hotel for Chinese visitors who were not allowed to rent a hotel room elsewhere.
Ng Shing Gung is also mentioned in San Jose’s apology, as the city recognizes its role in destroying the structure and letting its ornate altar suffer damage as it was stored outdoors under the municipal stadium for decades.
Wong’s father had tried to save the building in the 1930s.
But she said the city of San Jose “took it into eminent domain and destroyed the building, which was very devastating to my father,” Wong said. “But it was also a revelation to me, for how did I begin to think of building a replica of this building without knowing that he had tried to save it 30 years before that?”
After a careful restoration, the original altar now sits on the second floor of the museum. Wong said she enjoys showing the story to school children on excursions, which she was never able to do as a schoolteacher in a classroom.
Leadership sets the tone, then and now
Councilor Raul Peralez, whose district includes the former Heinlenville, was also unaware of the horrific details of the city’s past before this decision.
As the city tried to fight rising anti-Asian hatred that is popping up along with the coronavirus, “one of the things we wanted to do was just gather the community and find out what more we could do to be able to provide little support, and specifically to make statements as a city as a local government here, “Peralez said.
And statements matter.
Peralez said former President Trump’s rhetoric during the pandemic urged people to act in vicious anti-Asian attacks, both verbal and physical. Similarly, the San Jose leadership in the 1880s, he said, set the tone for racist acts.
“We have to learn our story, don’t we? Or we’re doomed to repeat it,” Peralez said.
With the apology officially on the city record, attention is now turning to a development under construction on the land where Heinlenville once stood. In the center there will be a new Heinlenville Park.
Young Yu will help develop medallions and plaques there to explain what happened centuries before.
“It’s a feeling of overcoming,” she said.