This year, I made two Chinese New Year resolutions. The first is that I need to call this historic Hanford area where I work and where my family roots run deep as Chinatown, not China Alley. The idea for my resolution began to form late last year when I was giving a tour of the Taoist Temple. The tourists were surprised when they walked the two hundred and twenty-five feet that comprise the Alley, and the question that arose and that still rings in my ears was: “This is it? This was the city within a city?”
I realized that when I talk and write about China Alley and its hey day, in my mind I am thinking of the greater area of Hanford’s Chinatown, which was much more than just the Alley. There were businesses and homes that surrounded the street named China Alley. There was a hustling and bustling community. Yet, the Alley is all that is left of Hanford’s Chinatown, a jewel in a much larger crown, and that is why its preservation, restoration and revitalization are so important. It’s a valuable source of the history of the early Chinese settlers in California who came to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They congregated and supported each other, creating their own city within a city, so much of which no longer exists.
Why did they create another city within city? That question leads to my other resolution. In the past I’ve sort of glossed over certain stories in our Chinatown’s history. Yes, there was gambling, opium and prostitution. In the past the Chinatown elders didn’t like talking about these subjects. They were the unpleasant parts of history. These elements of our history may not have the best of times gone by, but these stories are important; they are truths of our past. I need to tell them, write them down and share them with you.
So, why did the Hanford’s Chinese pioneers create their own town within the city? They were not allowed to live in certain other areas or to patronize certain shops. Legal constraints set boundaries for where they could and could not reside and those constraints, those deprivations of freedom, were accepted, in part, because they also assured a degree of security and safety.
An editorial written in The Hanford Sentinel in 1889 stated: “To repeal the Chinese act would allow large (farm) owners to flood the country with Chinamen for their own use while the season demands them and the rest of the time these industrious heathens would be competing with our free American citizen and degrading our labor system.”
In June 1893, the newspaper continued its rant against local farmers who hired Chinese instead of Caucasian laborers: “Let the Chinese be deported and the Japs vamoose…”
On Nov. 14, 1905, a headline in the paper read: “Hot Fire in Chinatown.” One of the paragraphs within the following article exemplifies the underlying prejudice that limited and threatened Asian immigrants of the times. It reads: “Before the arrival of the firemen the scene resembled pandemonium. Such a howling and yelling of two hundred or more excited Chinamen is seldom heard, and it was ludicrous to witness their efforts to quench the fire with garden hoses.”
History teaches us that racism and prejudice have been strong currents society. They are cruel and irrational. Often ignored, glossed over or driven underground, they still survive, ugly blights on beautiful landscape.
Perhaps only rarely, still sometimes something wonderful comes out of ugliness – awareness, progress, forgiveness, the healing of wounds, a blending of cultures, an appreciation of what cultures other than our own have to offer, including unique and fusion cuisines.
I’m thinking, specifically, of the dish I’m sharing with you this week. Although easy to prepare and mighty tasty, it’s not one of the prettiest dishes to come out of my kitchen or to fill my bowl. Its name isn’t quite poetic either – Steamed Meat with Rice Powder. It’s a homey kind of dish, not one usually found on Chinese restaurant menus, and each region of China makes it a little bit differently. In general, however, the meat is marinated, coated in a seasoned rice powder and steamed. The rice powder adds a layer of flavor and gives the meat a silky texture.
In this recipe the rice powder is laced with Chinese Five-Spice powder, which is available premixed in most grocery stores. Chinese Five-Spice powder’s claim to fame is that it includes the five flavors found in Chinese cooking: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. The ingredients are usually Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seed and star anise.
I used pork butt this time, although shoulder or even spareribs may be used if cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Beef or lamb may also be substituted. If you wish to substitute chicken, I use boneless chicken thighs and cut the steaming time in half.