THE PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES OF THE 19TH CENTURY CENTRAL VALLEY - Chinese Immigrants
The Chinese were among the first immigrants in California and the Central Valley area, brought here to build railroads, the irrigation canals and the levees. They also were among the first to head for the gold fields following the discovery of gold in 1848. Their reward for their industriousness, more often than not, was discrimination to a degree which had confronted few other minority groups in California history.
The Chinese were often simply misunderstood because of language barriers, appearance and custom. They were often understood to be an industrious people who posed an economic threat to other immigrants.
The first settlers at Millerton were Chinese gold miners and merchants. For a time their presence was tolerated in the village, and the merchants were allowed to conduct their businesses which, by law, they could have been forbidden to own. They even sold miners' and other supplies to the white population at good prices. After the county's formation, though, the Chinese were banished to some level land adjacent to the San Joaquin River, between Millerton and Fort Miller. Local whites suddenly objected to their odd language, shaved heads, long braids, eating with bowls and chopsticks, their daily bathing and refusal to drink river water.
One pioneer, Ah Kitt established a thriving blacksmith business financed by a fellow Millerton blacksmith and later county deputy sheriff, Jefferson Shannon. Ah Kitt honored his business partnership and subsequent friendship with Jefferson Shannon by naming his son after him.
In December of 1867, a group of prominent Millerton citizens convened two meetings that resulted in a Chinese Exclusion law. The citizens included Dr. Lewis Leach, James Savage’s friend and business partner, and Jefferson Shannon, Ah Kit’s friend and business partner.
Six days after the Christmas Eve flood in 1867, the Millerton townsfolk banished the Chinese-who seem to have crept into their midst again-a mere six days after the flood. The act seems strange; townsfolk should have been more concerned with rebuilding than airing prejudices.
When Fresno was established at Fresno Station on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1872, it attracted many from Millerton seeking to avoid the regular floods along the San Joaquin River. In 1874, the county seat was moved to Fresno and the celebration included 200 Chinese residents, a full third of the total population of 600 at the time.
Many of them began to establish new businesses and residences on the west side of the railroad tracks. In the early days, the community was limited to China Alley and G Street between Kern and Mariposa Streets. Fresno’s Chinatown during the early twentieth-century was a vibrant and resilient community. Its few square blocks offered everything that a Chinese person could want; work, food, benevolent associations, entertainment, education, and religious houses.
Although they were often described as centers of gambling, prostitution, and opium by the American public, Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York and Fresno served as a comfortingly familiar place in an alien and often hostile land. Even though they lived in an ethnic enclave, the Chinese worked hard to learn to read and write English to better integrate into American society.