A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. Preparing to write this column I surely wished the handful of photographs I had on my desk would speak to me. My wish ungranted, I started to make one list of what I knew about the building in the pictures, and another of what I needed to find out, lost history that needed excavating. Then I became distracted when I noticed a new issue of Preservation Magazine was in a haphazard stack of unopened mail.
The first thing I do when I crack open a new issue of the magazine, which is published out by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is to turn to the section titled “Transitions.” These pictorial pages evoke a wide variety of emotions as they are dedicated to historic places that have been designated as “restored,” “threatened,” “saved” or “lost.” Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed China Alley in 2011 as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, when I peruse these pages I take a few moments to visualize a page in the magazine featuring a spectacular photograph of China Alley with a “restored” title.
I thought about the early days of Chinatown’s restoration efforts and how they began. While working for the Kings County Planning Department, Dennis Triplett learned about the formation of the National Register of Historic Places, a list designed to encourage the recognition of old buildings and sites. He suggested to Uncle Richard that the old Sam Yum Association building, in Chinatown, be considered for the National Register. As a result of this conversation, a committee of local businessmen was formed to study the condition of the building. The committee evolved into the Taoist Temple Preservation Society in 1973.
Musing over this recollection prompted me to looked up online the original application requesting that the Temple to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I found the following:
“Hanford’s China Alley is the last Chinatown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which remains culturally and physically intact. It represents some of the last traces of the Chinese culture that immigrated in the 1800s from the Far-Yuen region of China to the San Joaquin Valley. The construction of California’s railroads and the production of fruit and vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley were in large part due to the labor of these Chinese.
“A history of the Chinese that lived in the San Joaquin Valley during the 1800s is virtually nonexistent. Most of the published history of the California Chinese examines only their role in gold mining and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Most of the information contained below (in the application) about Hanford’s China Alley is difficult to authenticate because it has, through the years, passed verbally from person to person.”
I’m happy to report the Taoist Temple was placed on the National Register in 1972 and has been completely restored as a cultural museum that has been open to the public for tours since the early 1980s. In part because of this, we have been able to authenticate and document much of Chinatown’s rich history.
My mind zigzagged back to the National Trust, and lit on their annual “This Place Matters campaign. During the month of May (preservation month), the National Trust encourages people to shine a spotlight on the historic places that played a roll in their lives. And of course, our Chinatown matters. A lot.
With that thought my focus returned to the photographs and I whispered, “Even the places that no longer exist matter.”
The pictures are of a building that was located on the north side of the Alley, to the east of the Taoist Temple, where once stood buildings and housing and that no longer exist, where currently the walkway from the old Imperial Dynasty parking lot to the Alley is located. We have a photograph, circa 1880s that shows there was a business in that location called the Sing Wah Store, its signage also denoting it was perhaps an employment office as well. In later photographs (one is dated July 1956), the building signage says On Sang Co; Chinese Herbs for Sale.
Another photograph is of a painting of the On Sang Co. building. The sister of someone who once worked in my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants created it. The original painting hangs in Auntie Harriet’s house, but her mind is too frail to tell further about it.
The buildings that once dotted the area of Chinatown east of the Temple were destroyed in a fire during the early to mid 1960s. Mom isn’t quite sure of the date but she was there. At that time, when there was a fire, Beacon Oil had a whistle/beep code that alerted volunteer firemen where a fire was located. Chinatown was “16” – one long whistle and six short. Mom was running errands downtown and heard the “16” code and rushed to Chinatown and found part of the Alley on fire. The blaze began in one of the houses near the On Sang Co. building and destroyed several houses and business buildings. It was extinguished before it reached the Temple.
Although they no longer exist, except in paintings and photographs, these buildings are an integral part of Chinatown history. They matter. They have their stories which I will continue to research and seek out. In the meantime, I am grateful for these photos and a venue through which to share them. Perhaps I will hear some old news from readers of this column, news that I can add to my list of what I know about the buildings.
This week I’m sharing a baked marinated chicken recipe that, like the lost buildings, has Asian roots. Unlike reclaiming lost history, it’s quick to put together – mix up the ingredients, marinate and bake. There are layers of flavor in this dish. I like to serve it with a simple stir-fried green vegetable, such as baby bok choy, and steamed whole grain rice.