Forms of Recognition: Alameda’s Anti-Asian History

Recognition and Acknowledgment can only do so much; we know. But it’s the start of a larger truth and reconciliation process that America needs to engage in.

This may be a project that focuses on Native American “stuff”, but…

Native American History isn’t the only American History that has been ignored by Alameda’s Colonial Historians.

“The Chinese Vegetable Vendor”, Bancroft Collection, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, (undated.)

Asian-American History is largely overlooked; despite the fact that Alameda was the terminus for the Intercontinental Railroad. And Chinese people are primarily credited for building the railways connecting the Eastern and Western United States. There was an influx of Chinese immigrants, who would become the backbone of a service industry, in California.

During the same time:

  1. Alameda was being founded (1853);
  2. Intercontinental Railroad terminus in Alameda (1869);
  3. Chinese Exclusion Act (1882);
  4. First Excavation of “Sather’s Mound” for San Francisco Call (1892);
  5. During 1908, during reporting on the second (and final) excavation of the Mound Street Shellmound, a “Chinese Vegetable Garden” was pictured, and described in newspaper articles, to be on the shellmound itself.
“The Alameda Indian Mounds”, San Francisco Call, Sep. 11, 1892

In the last example, the “Chinese Vegetable Garden” was pictured as part of a “Chinese Camp”. The garden itself appeared to be fairly large, and the image seemed to show the boundary of the camp itself butting up against more farmland.

“A Comparison”, the Alameda Argus, July 25, 1878.

In Alameda and Brooklyn townships there are not less than 300 Chinamen engaged in gardening operations.

“A Comparison”, the Alameda Argus, July 25, 1878.

Research into “Chinese Vegetable Gardens” around the San Francisco Bay Area, California, and beyond, show that these “gardens” were misnomers. In reality, these “gardens” were farms; and could cover several acres. Many were terraced.

Chinese Vegetable Gardens, Portland, Oregon, c. 1909 via Oregon History Project.

These farms produced food for entire towns. Not just the Asian-American people who would later be confined to Chinatowns across America.

Sam Hop Co., San Francisco, California, Feb. 5, 1908

In historic City of Alameda Municipal Codes, there are laws against the sale of vegetables specifically by Chinese people who did not purchase a vegetable sales permit. These kinds of laws were created as economic barriers to knock the legs out from under any possible competition with white grocers and farmers. White people were so blinded by their own poison that they had no problem publishing their thoughts in black & white.

“The Determined Heathen”, Alameda Daily Evening Encinal, April 7, 1894

Chinese-Americans were already barred from owning land, and were excluded from full citizenship because of the same racist, white supremacist ideologies that were already affecting African-American, and Indigenous/Native/First American people. And, just like them, Chinese-American History has been largely ignored, and unspoken.

Despite the extraordinary measures by white people to insulate their fragility with false “exceptionalism”–by cheating, and excluding fair competition at every turn–rumors of Chinese wealth generated through farming began to circulate.

One rumor claimed that a man was able to amass $4,000 within four years, and return to China a well-off man from just the sale of vegetables, alone. [$4,000 in 1890 is roughly equivalent to $123,581.54 today.]

Untitled, Undated (between 1880-1910), picture of Chinese Man with Pail of Vegetables in His Left Hand

Such was the contempt for any nonwhite citizen of Alameda, that a strong opposition rose by White Alamedans against the minority farmers, who–despite feeding the island–began to be demonized for “benefitting” from the “best land for residences”; and for their practice of enriching bad soil with manure. The land owners who rented to Chinese immigrants, the Alameda Board of Health, Alameda Chief of Police, were all assailed as enemies of Alameda; responsible for the detriment of city life, and degradation of Alameda’s haut monde.

This story continues. But it’s continued in the shadows of Alameda’s white history. The accomplishments of the Chinese immigrants who literally built this island were re-appropriated and claimed by White Men, who are extolled as “heroes” and “visionaries”. When it is truly the work of the (non-white) global majority.

Of course, none of this history has been made available at the Alameda Museum. Maybe one day soon multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Alameda History will be made available to us all. George Gunn, Alameda Museum’s White History curator was allowed to quietly retire like the coward he is. And the Alameda Museum is currently looking for a new curator. [Good luck.]

Stay tuned for more.