History Lesson, Old School O.C.

Orange County has no history. Even within California, we’re ahistorical. Everything happened last week, or maybe in the long ago 1950s. At some point there were some Mexicans? We think? It’s all a fog.

My family has roots here going back to the mid nineteenth century, covered wagons and all, so I’ve heard more of the narrative, but until a few years ago I didn’t know about Santa Ana’s Chinatown. When my father told me about it I was shocked. I have seen exactly one article about this incident ever, which I found in the wayback machine and cribbed a bit for the story.

Until May of 1906, there was a flourishing Chinatown around 3rd and Bush. The Chinese had come to build railroads, dig ditches, and farm. They stayed for that and to run laundries and other small businesses. The city fathers didn’t like them, and although they’d saved some cash by putting the city hall next to Chinatown they wanted the Chinese out. At one point an offer of $400 a person was made if they all left, but it’s not clear who was informed of this. There was good money to be made when the property values went up after the Yellow Peril was gone.

Chinatown had to go. It was obviously full of opium dens and gambling halls. “White slavery” was assumed, and disease too, because it smelled funny. The city sent in a health officer, who duly found a gentleman named Wong Woh Yeh who wasn’t feeling so good and had skin ulcers. He was declared to be a leper. The local paper reported that “The diseased Chinaman occupies a room barely large enough for a miserable bunk, knocked together of planks, with tattered rags for covering. He is able to walk about, although the case (of leprosy) is far advanced, probably three to four months progress. …The feature of much interest to the public of the city is the fact that right in the room of the patient and in other rooms surrounding it are many vegetables, which the yellow vendors distribute from one end of town to the other.”

On May 24, the city council ordered the fire department to burn all of Chinatown, and burn all domestic animals except horses. (Horses are valuable.) The Chinese themselves were to be driven out of town.

On either May 25 or May 28, 1906 this was done. The Fire Department set the fire, and a crowd watched as Chinatown burned. Two hundred or so Chinese were pushed outside the city, homeless. After the fire, only one person of Chinese descent remained in town. Twenty-five years later there were no Chinese at all in the entire county.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing that occurred ten miles from where I sit. I have never in my life met anyone who knows this happened.

21 thoughts on “History Lesson, Old School O.C.

    1. Dad had mentioned it; he knew a lot about turn of the century California history. I then went and researched it more about five years ago, and found the newspaper article and some primary sources.
      1900-1910 was a big time for burning down chinatowns and throwing out the Chinese. Happened all over.

      1. PS. They think that about 5000 people of Chinese descent were left homeless by the parallel event in Honolulu.

  1. Thank you for sharing that. What an amazing, horrible atrocity made worse because hardly anyone knows about it.
    I think Americans tend to forget the horrors we have committed because they aren’t reported/swept under the rug. Maybe that’s a human thing?
    Me? I’m all about the truth and justice, to a fault I’m sure.

  2. WOW.
    Funny, They fail to mention that in the Santa Ana historical society “museum” tour.
    Gee, why’s that?
    My history of Santa Ana starts much later. I read Fast Food Nation and got interested in how the BIG BANG happened for Orange County and read some on that era. And I thought that was bad.
    eek.

  3. The difference seems to be a matter of how vocal each minority is. There have been a large number of injustices on asian minorities, from the well known deaths in building the railroads and the Japanese internment camps during WWII, to these lesser known incidents. The difference between asian and black oppression is that asian incidents are rarely publicized. The events occur, and usually the governments are sued, reparations made, and everyone goes on with life.
    I haven’t heard of much emnity towards western culture from any of my asian friends or family. A certain degree of racism is expected by many in the asian community. Oddly, the biggest irk that asians have these days is the proliferation of asiaphiles (i.e. males chasing asian female booty). It’s strange that a race would gloss over the fact that so many of their ancestors were discriminated against and taken advantage of, yet the what really bothers them is the glorification of their female gender basely purely on being “exotic”.

    1. Mmm… “exotic”
      You’re right. I hate being labeled as “exotic.” I wasn’t born here, but I was raised here; Just about every pickup line I had was somewhere along the line of, “I like asain women, they’re exotic.” We don’t walk around in kei-po’s and sarongs!
      Anyways….maybe I can start the vocalization of how discriminating our race has endured all these years… 😛 Reparation! 😀

      1. Re: Mmm… “exotic”
        I always thought you were exotic just because you put Pixie Sticks in your Sprite. Chinese? I figured you were a space alien!

      2. Re: Mmm… “exotic”
        Mmm, sprite and pixie sticks… 😛 I did that? Wow, it’s been awhile. I would love to do that now, but I’m afraid I might get diabetic–or even worse, get the baby to be diabetic too! (now I don’t know if that can happen, but being pregnant sure does alot of weird things to you!)

  4. Chinatown in OC?!
    I never knew…but at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one! But that is definitely sad that it was burned down completely and left out of the history books for good. 🙁 I do have to say though, there is still a small thriving community there that is “chinatown”–I think Irvine? They’ll come back, you just watch. 🙂

    1. Re: Chinatown in OC?!
      Yeah, Irvine has a huge Chinese population now, 99 Ranch Market and all. Most of my Chinese-American friends locally live there.

    1. Of course, sure.
      This was a big thing around that time, burning Chinatowns. The interesting part about ours is that no one remembers it. There are whole books about other similar events.
      It’s tied up with the history of drugs, because opium was associated with the Chinese, and opium dens were easy to find and destroy. Of course what we got after that was the heroin trade…

    1. Yes, the animals were killed and burned because they were presumed to be diseased also. Except the horses, because they’re expensive.

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