By Nicholas R. Cataldo
(Photographs provided by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)
When most Californians think of "Chinatown", visions of these popular Asian communities in Los Angeles or San Francisco usually come to mind. Once upon a time, however, there were a few of them here in the Inland Empire. The very first one sprang up in San Bernardino.
According to author/historian Richard Thompson, in his article, The Founding of San Bernardino's Chinatown, published in 1978, the first Chinese arrived in this area in August of 1867. The U.S. census records for 1870 indicated there were 16 young males. The oldest was Ah Wing at age 31 and the youngest was Jim Kang at 19. Their occupations were listed as laundry men, cooks, and houseboys.
As more Chinese moved in, the newcomers proved to be excellent workers. They put in long hours and at cheap rates.
The predominantly Anglo residents of town weren't too fond of these new "intruders", but they tolerated them. That is until a depression devastated the entire state in 1875.
San Bernardino residents criticized the Chinese for working at lower rates, thus undercutting the whites. Most of their wages were believed to be sent back to China, thereby hurting the local economy. Tension got so bad that an Anti-Chinese Movement was enforced which resulted in all of their businesses moving out of the city limits.
So in 1878, the Chinese moved a couple blocks east, lining both sides of Third Street between Arrowhead Avenue and Sierra Way and set up their own little community.
(Chinatown along 3rd Street in the late 1800's)
(Chinatown along 3rd Street in the late 1800's)
Wong Nim and Kwan Yin
Around this time, an immigrant from Canton, China by the name of Wong Nim came to the United States and eventually settled in San Bernardino. (Or he was born in Alameda County--and as an American citizen, could and did own land). One of the treasured items that he brought with him was one of the emblems of his Buddhist faith, a statue of Kwan Yin, the Goddess Of Compassion and Mercy.
Soon after arriving in San Bernardino, Nim became a civic leader for the Chinese. In 1891, he erected a brick building on the corner of Third Street and Mountain View Avenue and several rental units just west of it.
The eventual "mayor" of San Bernardino's Chinatown--a position he faithfully held until his death in December of 1941 at the age of 87-- also built a temple which proudly displayed the statue of Kwan Yin. Chinese immigrants from throughout Southern California came to this celebrated temple for festivals and pilgrimages.
(Inside Chinese Temple, built by Wong Nim)
In its heyday during the late 1890's, San Bernardino's Chinatown boasted between 400 and 600 residents. In addition to rather crudely constructed wooden "shack" homes, there were a number of business establishments as well. These included groceries, restaurants, and mercantile shops.
Some of the residents were farmers who raised vegetables east of Waterman Avenue. From "Chinese Gardens" they peddled their produce in carts.
Janet Miles reminisced about the Chinese farmers in The Memoirs of Janet Miles: San Bernardino 1901-1994, written in 1994. She recalled:
"The area of San Bernardino northeast of the city, now know as Base Line Gardens was where I remember seeing Chinese people wearing huge hats working in the fields planting vegetables. These vegetables were brought into town by horse drawn wagons with canopies to protect the produce from the sun. Housewives knew the days these wagons would come by and went out to select their vegetables and fruits.
The man who came to our block (from Chinese Gardens) was called Charlie. One year, at Chinese New Year, he gave the little girls porcelain bracelets, one section white, one green or pink. I may still have mine."
Chinatown was a peaceful community and visitors were welcome. In fact, children from other parts of town were often treated on Chinese New Year with leechee nuts and other small gifts. But rumors seemed to always surface regarding mysterious darkened rooms filled with men smoking opium. But these rumors were for the most part just that.
Janet Miles reminisced in her book: "One Chinese New Year, when I was 13 or 14, a group of us went there and were shown around. It was beautiful -- colorful and with some gold. There was a smell of incense."
Chinatown is No More
By the mid 1920's, fires and other agents had wiped out most of the homes. And when San Bernardino County purchased the few remaining brick structures for offices, Chinatown was no more.
Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy
The revered statue of Kwan Yin was presented by Wong Nim's grandson, Lin, to Bing Wong, who had arrived in Chinatown as a young boy in 1923.
In 1956, Kwan Yin was placed in Bing's Cathay Inn on Highland Avenue, where she resided until her move to the city of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society in September of 1991.
She is still there today.
(Kwan Yin as she resides in the Herritage house of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)