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.