In 1868 the Napa Valley Railroad construction crews reached St. Helena. They needed large amounts of gravel from our gravel quarry to lay down the base for the tracks.
Although a few Chinese were previously living in Napa, the need for a large labor force to move gravel brought the first large group of Chinese immigrants to the upper Napa Valley. They were housed where they worked, next to the gravel pit, which is now owned by Harold Smith & Sons.
In the economic downturn of 1873, wine sales dropped. Vineyardists wanted to cut costs and have a large labor force available whenever needed. A request to a labor contractor in San Francisco would bring a train car load of men on the next day’s train.
In 1872 it was written “grapes in the northern portion of the state are picked by Chinamen, who will pick an average of 1500 pounds a day. They board themselves and are paid $1 a day” (Overland Monthly Jan 1872 p41). During a time of huge increase in vineyard development here, a large farm labor force was needed to clear land and plant vines.
The contribution of Chinese to the wine industry was not publicized in those days. When Harper’s Weekly published a drawing of the harvest of 1878 showing Chinese stomping grapes with their feet, the industry was outraged. Partially because of the clean image, but also because grapes were in fact crushed in a press.
Only when an accident or death was reported, were vintners who employed Chinese named in the newspaper. A man got his finger caught in a grape crusher owned by St. Helena’s first mayor Henri Pellet in 1876.
Chinese also worked in fields, hopyards and mines. Some were household servants, cooks, laundrymen, merchants and clerks. They dug the caves at Beringer and Schramsberg. About 100 Chinese worked on the railroad between Napa and St. Helena in 1880. The Sage Canyon Road, now hwy 128, was being graded by 125 Chinese in 1886.
There were some who spoke English, became labor contractors, and developed good relations with grape and hops growers, mining companies, builders and quarries. Quong Goon Loong was one and he also sold tea, sugar, rice, slippers, and bamboo hats. Wah Chung was a prominent labor contractor in 1875. At harvest time he had 300 men waiting to harvest grapes and hops, so many that the 3 wells went dry in Chinatown. Wah Chung had business cards printed by the St. Helena Star printers.
The ghetto was located on what is now West Charter Oak Avenue, set back from Main Street and parallel with it, described as a smoky dragon. It was the first thing a visitor would see on approaching St. Helena. Home to about 400 men at its height, there were open sewers and slaughtering between the shacks.
Chinese were not allowed to own property, so their landlord was John Gillam, who provided rude, hastily thrown up shacks made of scrap lumber. By 1870 there was a China store and Cantonese restaurant (Dillon p224). By 1884 there were boarding houses, a hotel, more stores, the employment office and a Taoist temple.
Ginger’s China Store was in business for 25 years and contracted labor. His ad in 1877 read “Chinese help furnished-San Sing at Ginger’s will furnish all kinds of Chinese help. Good men at cheap prices.” Mow Hing advertised “Charley’s Wash House” on Oak Avenue every week in the newspaper in 1875, promising “no mistakes.”
In 1882 the delinquent tax list included a long list of locals, but also Ah Jim, Hop Wah &Co, Mow Fung, Yee Kay, Quong Yuen Lung, and Quong, Wing & Co.
Chinatown’s Taoist temple was completed in 1891, located at western end of the ghetto. A grand dedication was held with entertainment by a Chinese band from Napa. During the three days 10 roast pigs were consumed by the over 100 attendees. The newspaper described the interior: “ a large table with a bronze pedestal topped by a gold-mounted dragon, surrounded by four bronzed vases and several incense burners. On both sides of the room were two long boards artistically painted with the names of the Napa and Calistoga members engraved there on. The building cost $5000, all donated.
White locals objections stemmed from the bad impression visitors got from Chinatown’s location at the approach to town. But it also stemmed from Chinese willingness to work for lower wages and longer hours than whites, plus they did not expect room and board. Local merchants were incensed that Chinese only shopped in Chinese stores.
The Anti-Chinese movement spread throughout California. In 1877 slumlord Gillam received a letter threatening to burn down Chinatown if he not stop employing Chinese workers. The letter was printed in the newspaper, written by a barely literate agitator.
The St. Helena Star contributed to the hysteria by writing things like “tallow colored rat eaters of the celestial kingdom are buying many guns in Napa” and “the filthy den of disease breeding Chinamen”. A group of St. Helenans attended a speech by Denis Kearney, the labor rabble rouser, in Napa in 1878, riding there in a rail car decorated with a banner declaring “Chinese must go!”
Editorials often espoused hiring white men and boys for farm labor instead of Chinese. In December 1885 300 locals met at city hall and formed an Anti-Coolie league. Vintners cautioned that the grape harvest would not happen without Chinese labor. The Knights of Labor passed around a petition in 1886 in support of restricting Chinese immigration.
By February 1886 the Anti-Coolie league decided the best way to remove Chinatown was to buy it. Four members, Sciaroni, Simmons, Logan and Davis, pooled funds and obtained title from John Gillam. The Chinese Six companies almost beat them with a higher price. The four had acquired another property elsewhere and requested all Chinese to move there within 30 days, offering free rent for 99 years. Merchants proved they had valid leases, hired a Napa lawyer, and refused to move. The case went to US District Court, was drawn out for several years, during which time no rent was paid and the tenants stayed.
The Chinese were very willing to share their culture. Ginger organized the Chinese New Year festivities for several years, providing fireworks and inviting the whole town with an ad in the newspaper. Local residents often attended the elaborate funerals. When Lee Hau, a prominent St. Helena resident, was killed by a falling tree at Niebaum’s farm in 1894, his extraordinary funeral was attended by many locals. After a long service in Chinatown, the body was conveyed to the cemetery with a procession consisting of a wagon filled with foods for the afterlife, a hearse accompanied by six Chinese men and 50 men wearing bands of red and white. There were about 10 vehicles and another band at the end. A Chinese section at the cemetery had a large number of plots near the creek. It was important to every Chinese man to be buried with his ancestors. The bodies of those who could afford it were exhumed later and sent home.
There are several reasons the large Chinese population of St. Helena disappeared. The violence and discrimination throughout the state made many feel vulnerable and they moved to larger cities.
About the time Chinese were demanding higher wages, Italian immigrants began to arrive in the early 1880s. They replaced the Chinese for another reason too: grape vines began to be planted with the trunks pruned to waist height to protect delicate vines from frost and heat. A taller man could harvest the crop without stoop labor. (Heintz p176).
A series of fires damaged Chinatown and finally destroyed it completely. The 1884 fire started in the upper floor of Quon Loong High China Store, which was a sleeping quarter. The big fire lit up the whole night sky and was in a line of “four old rookeries sitting back from the street”. Three Chinese stores and lodging houses with their contents were destroyed. The landlord was uninsured, but quickly rebuilt the stores at the tenants’ urging. The 1898 fire was caused by a resident who, after cooking his dinner over an open fire, left the fire burning unattended. Half of the ghetto, 8 buildings, was completely destroyed.
Four stores lost everything, including cash on hand. The responsible party was ejected by his angry neighbors. Finally in 1911 the last fire burned the eight remaining buildings, causing $7000 loss. The landlords who bought the property with the intent of evicting the residents in 1886, finally got their wish 25 years later.
- St. Helena Star newspaper microfilm-viewed at St. Helena Library
- St. Helena Cemetery records-viewed at www.sainthelenacemetery.com
- California's Napa Valley : one hundred sixty years of wine making / William F. Heintz San Francisco : Scottwall Associates, c1999.
- Napa Valley Heyday / Richard H. Dillon ; with historical photographs by Charles B. Turrill. San Francisco : Book Club of California, 2004.
- A History of Chinese in California, A syllabus; Thomas W. Chinn, Editor; H. Mark Lai & Phillip P. Choy, associate editors, 1969 Chinese Historical Society of America
- Napa County: An Historical Overview by Norton L. King, 1967; Napa County Sup of Schools Office
- Beasts of the Field: a narrative history of California farm workers, 1769-1913 / Richard Steven Street. Publisher Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 2004.
- Overland Monthly Jan 1872
- Harper’s Weekly Oct 5,1878