Buried History of Riverside's Chinese Immigrants Threatened by Development

Chinatown Main Street Ghost  I Illustration by Ed Fuentes

A legal drama has recovered a long history of Chinese in Riverside, and is beginning to uncover how farmers from the Pearl River Delta in China influenced an industry.

Preservationists are fighting to save what is left of Riverside's Chinatown, believed to be the largest uncovered archive of late 19th century Chinese laborers in Southern California. In a 1984-1985 archaeological excavation of the site, over three tons of artifacts were recovered, all of which currently sits in storage with the city of Riverside.

Now the property, at Tequesquite and Brockton, is in the midst of a controversy land swap between its current owner, the Riverside County Office of Education, and developer Doug Jacobs, who plans to build a three story medical clinic.

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Jacobs first responded to public outcry by changing the exterior of the proposed building to reflect Chinese heritage, and offer the promise to survey the land for artifacts, install a garden, and create exhibition space.

Advocates are campaigning for the site to become a memorial garden honoring Chinese pioneers of Riverside, their place in Southern California citrus industry, and for some, serve as a reminder of anti-Chinese sentiment.

It has been an ongoing debate that heated up in 2008. The Save Our Chinatown Committee was formed that same year to protect the site from development that, according to their website, "is incompatible with archaeological preservation."

Public comment ensued, and support to preserve the parcel grew. Without warning, the developer moved forward in February 2009 by dispatching bulldozers on two different weekends (once after dark) preventing preservationists from rushing to City Hall to arrange stoppage.

Advocates turned into activists, recording the site being compromised and called police, who could only cite the developer for making noise on a weekend.

The Save Our Chinatown Committee then filed a lawsuit. "We had no choice. We had to do it," says Dr. Margie Akin, a retired anthropologist and Save Our Chinatown Committee member who witnessed the grounds being leveled by crews. "It was slimy and sneaky."

In August 2009, a judge's decision halted work on the parcel, citing the agreement between the Riverside County Office of Education and developer Doug Jacobs violated state law. It leaves a slight opening for a possible settlement that will preserve the site, and activists are waiting out the summer to see the land will be developed entombing history, or saved for future excavations.

"The lot should be a memorial park honoring how Chinese contributed to the history of Riverside's impact on the citrus industry," says Akin, who worked on the 1984 excavation, (plus the 1990 excavation of the old Los Angeles Chinatown at Union Station.)

From February through March 1985, archaeologists, college students, and volunteers carefully excavated portions of the Chinatown site.  In this photo, archaeologists study Feature 7, a trash site that came to be called the 'Bonanza Pit' for its wealth of artifacts | Photo Courtesy of the Riverside Metropolitan Museum

The lot's history, and current treatment of uncovered artifacts, is a testament to anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, say many of the Chinatown supporters, who remind the city that the colony of laborers was once relocated from the center of town in the late 1800s. "Now they want to develop over the remains of this second site. It's almost like booting them out again," said Judy Lee, vice chairwoman of the committee and a UC Riverside librarian, in a recent LA Times article.

The developer has some support as well. The Riverside Press-Enterprise has extensive coverage of the long battle, yet one article introduced Jacobs as "an amiable straight-talking businessman with more than three decades experience developing in the city." It has been noted that Jacobs' redesign of the project was approved by city council, despite public comment against it. Even now, with the judges current ruling, Jacob does not expect his plans to build a three-story medical clinic to be halted.

"This site has been nothing but a weed and trash dumping ground," Jacobs told the Los Angeles Times.

Kevin Hallaran also worked on the 1984 excavation and is now the city's historian at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum. "When the 1984-85 archeology dig was shut down, only ⅕ of the site was recovered from the former trash pit, yielding over 3 tons of artifacts," he says. "A good portion were bottle rims, and bags and bags of rusting metal."

Hallaren refutes claims that important artifacts remain underground, including buried structures, and is optimistic of the developers plans. "It is assured there would not be a loss of Riverside's culture with the developers promise. There is an exhibit designer under contract," says Hallaran, adding the city museum will oversee exhibitions.

"Why not buy the land sooner?" was the question often posed by members of city council and the school board during public comments against development.

"The community was under the impression that it was publicly owned," explains Akin. "Nothing was being done with the property and most of the people who are active know you leave a archaeology site alone. It was never offered for public sale."

And so all parties wait to hear what will happen to the small patch of land that was once the most active Chinatown in the Citrus Belt of the Inland Empire.

Part 2 Coming Soon: From Gold Mountain to Orange Farms

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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