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Native Son Gives Life to Obscure Story of Oakland's Chinatown
By Rick DelVecchio   - 12/31/2004

SFGate

More Info on This Book: Oakland's Chinatown

"Oakland's Chinatown," a pictorial history by writer and journalist William Wong, places the author's old neighborhood firmly outside the shadow of San Francisco's fabled Chinese quarter and underlines its independent role in the development of the Bay Area and the West.

Wong confirms in the book's opening pages that Oakland was a destination all its own for Chinese immigrants after the Gold Rush. From the 1850s to the 1870s, Chinese established at least five communities on the east shore of the bay: at the foot of Castro Street in West Oakland, on San Pablo Avenue between 19th and 22nd streets, at Telegraph Avenue and 14th Street, at Washington and 14th streets and at Webster and Eighth streets.

The first of the more than 200 images Wong selected to include in the book, which is part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, is a line drawing depicting the Castro Street Chinatown in the mid- to late 1800s. It shows a cluster of shacks built over a marsh, with workers hefting goods at the shoreline and the masts of a tall ship rising in the background.

The scene looks peaceful, but Wong notes that the Castro Street Chinatown and its sister communities had tumultuous beginnings.

An economic downturn in the 1870s and a labor surplus after the transcontinental railroad was finished fueled anti-Chinese sentiment throughout California. The sentiment became national policy in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Of the Chinese settlements in Oakland, one burned down mysteriously and two others were forced to relocate, writes Wong, whose work reflects heightened interest in Oakland's Chinese heritage.

Anna Naruta, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, has found that the community at 19th and San Pablo was designated Oakland's official Chinatown by the city fathers. The neighborhood was on the outskirts of the city but later became more valuable as development spread uptown, and the Chinese were forced out.

Some Chinese moved to West Grand Avenue and settled with other newcomers along rail lines, but more put down roots at 8th and Webster, the spot that would become the hub of Oakland's Chinatown.

The neighborhood flourished as Chinese were attracted to the East Bay's climate, fertile soil and growing economy. Chinese built dams in the East Bay hills and took low-paying factory and railroad jobs. They grew fruits and vegetables and peddled their produce throughout the East Bay from pole baskets and later from trucks, writes Wong, 63, who was born in Chinatown and worked in his parents' Great China Restaurant in the 1940s and 1950s.

Oakland's Chinese began to assimilate into American life in the mid-20th century, with the growth of schools, social organizations and churches. The churches of Chinatown played an especially important role, as Wong highlights in a photo of Episcopal Deaconess Emma Drant watching her flock of children at the True Sunshine Mission in the early 1900s and a portrait of the Rev. Edward Lee, the first American-born Chinese to become a Methodist minister.

World War II accelerated the process of assimilation. With China an American ally during World War II, Congress lifted the Chinese Exclusion Act. A new Chinese middle class emerged, realizing the promise sought by early Cantonese-speaking immigrants who called California "Gum Saan," or Gold Mountain.

In a chapter titled "Working Hard," Wong introduces such enterprising figures as Lew Hing and Fong Wan. Hing created the Pacific Coast Canning Company in West Oakland, a business that employed 1,000 workers at its peak. Wan was an herbalist and nightclub owner with a flair for promotion.

"State and federal authorities investigated his advertising claims for his herbs, but he was never convicted of any crimes," Wong writes. "Many satisfied customers testified on his behalf. He parlayed his herbal profits into real estate, nightclubs and restaurants."

In his survey of Chinatown at work, Wong shows an image of a lottery ticket printed in Chinese characters and mentions the role of the lottery in the neighborhood's economy in the first half of the 20th century.

"The game, a precursor of today's California lottery, was illegal in its Chinatown heyday, and bribery of government officials was common," he writes. "About a dozen companies operated the Chinatown lottery. Players came from all over the city. Children worked as runners and counters. It was one way for struggling families to make ends meet."

Next to the image of the lottery ticket, Wong includes pages from a doctor's diary detailing injuries suffered by a shooting victim.

"The diary entry describes injuries suffered by Gee Seow Hong, father of the author of this book, as a result of being shot in an illicit gambling dispute," Wong writes. "Gee survived the shooting and lived another 21 years."

Wong devotes two photos to Fong Get Moo, the legendary lady barber of Chinatown. She is seen as a young mother cradling her infant son and as an old woman buzzing the back of a young man's head, an intense look on her face and a hairnet pulled tightly over her scalp.

She was born in a mining camp in Northern California and moved to Oakland to join the man who wanted to marry her.

"The story, briefly, is in dropping off her children to school she noticed Moler's Barber College on Broadway and peeked in and asked if she could train," Wong said in an interview.

She was renowned because she was the only female barber in the neighborhood, had a central location and always handed out candy after the cut, Wong said.

Wong also includes George Catambay, a Filipino immigrant, who owned George's Movieland Barber Shop on 7th Street from the early 1940s. He advertised an innovative razor cut, Wong writes, and drew a fashionable clientele.

"I remember my parents discouraging me from going to George," Wong said. He suspects the barber had a reputation for catering to a fast crowd.

"I decided to go back to George when my son was 4 years old," he said. "My son got his first professional haircut from George, and he was a great barber even into his late 80s and 90s."

Wong, who lives in Piedmont, interviewed several dozen people while researching the book and handled thousands of photos. The majority of the photos were from families, private collections and churches.

He is working on an oral history spinning off from the book and plans to interview a dozen elderly Oakland Chinese.

The book has nearly sold out its initial press run, Wong said.

"I've been out there hustling, but also the book has touched a nerve with this wide network of Chinese Americans that have some connection with Oakland Chinese life, and they're all over the place," Wong said.



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Book signing
"Oakland's Chinatown" (Arcadia Publishing; $19.99), by William Wong, is available at area bookstores, independent retailers and online bookstores. www.arcadiapublishing.com. (888) 313-2665.

Wong will sign books from noon to 2 p.m. Feb. 5 and 6 at the Chinese New Year Festival at Pacific Renaissance Plaza, 388 9th St., Oakland. E-mail the author at wongink@earthlink.net.



Buy It Now: Oakland's Chinatown $21.99




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