Before demolition: Anna Naruta and Kelly Fong near a storefront remnant of Oakland's early Chinatown. A few months later, it was gone, along with its neighbors.
Before demolition: Anna Naruta and Kelly Fong near a storefront remnant of Oakland’s early Chinatown. A few months later, it was gone, along with its neighbors.

Berkeley’s neighbor to the south, Oakland, has a Chinatown that’s well known to city residents and others who go there to shop, dine, and renew cultural ties. What most don’t know is that a previous Chinatown existed “uptown” in Oakland, farther north and west of the present site, until the 1870s, when most occupants were forced to vacate.

Clues to their life there still existed in 2003, though, and to then Berkeley graduate student Anna Naruta, an urban archaeologist, the chase was on.

The problem was, much of the area the early Chinatown covered was slated for redevelopment, which meant traces of the old settlement would be torn apart by bulldozer and backhoe. According to early census records, the people who lived there were fishermen, woodcutters, tinkers, farmhands, laundry workers, cooks, waiters, barbers, nurses, and storekeepers. Evidence of how they lived could well have been contained in covered-over cisterns, wells, refuse pits, even latrines.

To help the current Chinese community connect with the historic one, Naruta became an “information clearinghouse” for UptownChinatown.org and webmaster for its online presence, which contains items from historical documents, maps, redevelopment projects, links to community resources, government agencies, and oral histories. “This gave people interested in writing letters and showing up at city council meetings the tools they needed,” says Naruta.

The venerable wedge of land beneath the early Chinatown was also the focus of two private redevelopment projects that involve public funding. (The wedge sits on an acute triangle of land bordered by Telegraph and San Pablo avenues. Coincidentally, the sharp end of this triangle points almost directly to the site of the old College of California, where this university was born — before it moved to Berkeley and grew nine more campuses — and even more directly at the current headquarters of the UC system in downtown Oakland.)

The two projects are designed to augment the area by adding hundreds of residential units and off-street parking spaces, a park, and thousands of square feet of retail space.
In her junior year at Cal, anthro major Kelly Fong received critical training in research by working (with Anna Naruta as her mentor) in archives and libraries, combing through maps, tax rolls, directories, and oral histories. Her goal was to prove the archaeological value of one storefront site in the old Chinatown, which might have persuaded the City of Oakland to nominate it for the National Register of Historic Places. Fong went on to write a groundbreaking honors thesis on the experience of Asian Americans in Oakland and was a finalist for the 2005 University Medal. (She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in historical archaeology at UCLA.)

One of the sources that influenced Fong and Naruta was the 1974 dissertation of a Berkeley geography grad student, Willard T. Chow, which quoted a Chinese minister whose family was part of the post-earthquake influx to Oakland from San Francisco. Says Naruta, “They had to have a European-American friend buy their house. That was the law then.”

Postcard showing San Pablo Avenue Chinatown scene, circa 1877. Photo courtesy of California Historical Society, Online Archive of California.

Despite its various, and somewhat involuntary, locations, Oakland’s Chinatown, with a century and a half under its belt, is one of North America’s oldest. Its citizens, faced at the start with racial hatred and segregation, nonetheless built a cohesive culture, adapting, blending, yet retaining traditions. Banned for many years from owning land or entering the middle-class work force, they worked as laborers (building, among other things, dams that supplied water for the East Bay), gardeners, cooks, vegetable peddlers, on farms, in explosive factories, cotton mills, and canneries.

The physical evidence that’s been found of what life was like for those who lived in the transitional “uptown Chinatown” is scant. The few remaining buildings have been demolished and whatever remained underground has been uprooted and trucked off to dumps. The objects found before that are in the hands of two archaeological consulting groups, hired by the developers of the two projects, for scholarly examination. (Both groups are headed, in another coincidence, by consultants with Berkeley anthropology Ph.D.s.)

The last-ditch grassroots effort to save what was left, though it failed to halt the bulldozers, nonetheless unearthed and organized at least some vestiges of bygone days, traces in print and people’s memories, that were scattered and might have vanished. The effort itself facilitated an increased sense of community among descendants of the original denizens of the historic section of town and those in the surrounding area who value continuity as well as progress.

To Naruta, the battle lost was still worth the battle fought. “There’s an increased recognition that Chinese Californians were in Oakland from its beginning and have always played important roles. As others point out, while they’re frequently portrayed as outsiders, Chinese Americans are as American as anyone else.”

Similar episodes have happened of late with Chinese-American sites in Los Angeles and in Deadwood, South Dakota. But, Naruta says, “there are success stories, too. In Alameda, community action saved the last remaining building — the city’s oldest commercial structure — in the otherwise-gone Chinatown there. And the redevelopment of San Jose’s Japantown, which is built on a previous Chinatown site, will include considered, community-driven archaeological study.”

“Overall,” says Naruta, “I see people galvanizing around the losses, educating themselves about historic preservation laws, and looking to act and study what might be long-forgotten resources in their communities before it comes down to the threat of demolition.”
In 2004, Naruta’s website, UptownChinatown.org, was honored with a “Partners in Preservation” award from the Oakland Heritage Alliance. Naruta received her Ph.D. in 2005. She has since been elected second vice president of the San Francisco-based Chinese Historical Society of America, for which she is also doing contract work in developing and managing the society’s archival collections.

Naruta’s interest in the past was piqued when she was a kid in Port Huron, Michigan. “Some archaeologists from Wayne State University came up to my home town to excavate the site of an old French fort and then the boyhood home of Thomas Edison. Before he went east to make his fame and fortune, he was busy getting kicked out of our school system. A newspaper story on the archaeologists said they were looking for volunteers. They were a little surprised when a grammar school kid showed up, but they let me stay for a couple of hours, and then for four summers. It was cool to learn all this forgotten stuff about our local history, and enticing to find things like pieces of printer’s type in the ruins of the Edison family basement.”

Photos: San Francisco Chronicle/Michael Maloney, California Historical Society, Online Archive of California


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