Things come in waves sometimes. This year one wave’s theme is Chinese-American history. In August, 2012, I stumbled across a memorial in Tacoma, Washington. This October, I came across another site where historians are working to record Chinese-American history and preserve historical buildings: Isleton, California.
Isleton is in the Sacramento River delta. Delta backroads snake along the top of dikes and wind into a maze of channels, islands, and draw bridges connecting farms and small towns. With no shoulder, turn-outs, or road-side attractions you roll down the river channels wishing you could spy on the farms and ranchettes below the dike but wearily keep focused on the tarmac since the narrow road demands your concentration. After navigating this dike-top road southbound for a spell, Isleton appears as an oasis.
With Isleton comes your chance to get off of the dike. But that’s not your only reason to take a little detour into the old town. It’s not a hotbed of activity. I saw one open restaurant, a few professional offices, a antique shop or two, and many empty storefronts in the old main street area of the historic town. But do pull over. There’s more here than a quick glance will tell you. Take a close look at the old-west era buildings. Some of the buildings have been maintained and restored. Others look to be in ruins but with clear notes of a once rich and thriving community; a Chinese community.
Many of the buildings are classic western store-fronts but with some subtle hints of their immigrant residents.One look at these buildings and you’ll know this isn’t your usual California town. The basic architecture is typical enough, but missing are the Spanish-influenced stucco and tile structures found in many old California settlements.
It’s not just what’s missing that gives clues to the town’s past. Look closely and you’ll see Chinese writing above a doorway or in a window. One of the buildings stands out, a mix of brightly painted woodwork and rusting aluminum siding.
Today about 800 people call Isleton home; in the 1870’s it’s estimated that over 1500 Chinese lived here. What’s exciting is that there’s a wonderful movement afoot to restore one of the historic buildings in town. The Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society is restoring the Bing Kong Tong. According to Wikipedia,
The word tong means “hall” or “gathering place”. In North America a tong (Chinese: 堂; Cantonese Yale: tong; Pinyin: táng; literal: hall) is a type of organization found among Chinese living in the United States and Canada.
Growing up on the west coast, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was well aware of the role Chinese immigrants played in the development of The West. During the California Gold Rush thousands of Chinese immigrated to California. Those that didn’t pan for gold in the Sierras worked in the cities and rural areas of the state. Many served as laborers helping to build roads and railroads for little pay. Others, settled in rural areas such as Isleton and created thriving communities. And, as in Tacoma, discrimination eventually drove many of those residents to other parts of the country. As times changed so did the demographics of Isleton. Today, less than one percent of Isleton’s residents are of Asian descent.
It’s encouraging to see the current residents of Isleton recognizing the previous residents and the importance of remembering its past. These old buildings tell an important, little-discussed aspect of California’s diverse history.