Woolen Mills Chinatown

Overview of Archaeological Project

Background from Archaeological Survey Report

Historical Summary of Woolen Mills Chinatown

Related Presentations: Chinese American Conference, U. of San Diego

A Woolen Mills Chinatown Archaeologist’s Journal -1

A Woolen Mills Chinatown Archaeologist’s Journal -2

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Project Overview

Several years ago, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had contacted CHCP, expressing an interest in exploring cooperative programs in connection with excavation of the historic Woolen Mills Chinatown site in San Jose, CA. In May 1997, test trenches uncovered extensive archaeological deposits associated with the Woolen Mills Chinese community. Work on the Woolen Mills site began in the Spring of 1999 as part of construction of the final segment of the Guadalupe Freeway (Route 87).

In addition to the known presence of the Woolen Mills Chinatown site, it is possible that other cultural resources may be encountered as well. Features representing both the prehistoric and historic Native American and early Spanish Colonial Periods may also exist. Consequently, the Department of Transportation’s archaeologist coordinated and monitored archaeological excavation in connection with road construction.

The result of the excavation was organized and published recently in a book by Rebecca Allen and Mark Hylkema, entitled Life Along the Guadalupe River – an Archaeological and Historical Journey. You can view the introduction for the book and order it here.

Background of Woolen Mills Chinatown, San Jose

Based on
Positive Archaeological Survey Report: Addendum No. 1, pp.13-15 
Prepared by Basin Research Associates, Inc.
for David J. Powers & Associates

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the City of San Jose had the second largest number of Chinese residents in California after San Francisco. However, the Chinese population fluctuated.

Population Year
22 1860
1,525 1871
2,695 1880
2,723 1890
*1,738 1900

* This decline has been attributed to general anti-Chinese agitation and the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Woolen Mills Chinatown is one of six San Jose Chinatowns in this era, including:

  • the pre-1870 Chinatown
  • the 1870 Vine Street Chinatown
  • the Market Street Chinatown at Market and San Fernando (destroyed by fire May 4, 1887)
  • the temporary Chinatown at San Fernando and Vine, which was later replaced by:
  • the “Heinlenville” Chinatown at Fifth and Jackson (1887-1931)
  • and the “Woolen Mills” Chinatown (also known as Big Jim’s Chinatown, Taylor Street Chinatown, or Phillipsville) east of Guadalupe Creek (1887-1902)

The Woolen Mills Chinatown was located two blocks north of the San Jose Woolen Manufacturing Company, where Chinese workers were employed. This three-story landmark opened in 1870 and was popularly known as the San Jose Woolen Mills. The factory grew from 43 employees in 1871 to almost 200 by 1884, according to one source. In 1896, the mill was one of the largest in California, producing “cassimere,” flannel, blankets, knitted underwear and cloth for men’s clothing.

The Woolen Mills Chinatown and the Heinlenville Chinatown were successors to the Market Street Chinatown, which was destroyed by fire in May 4, 1887. One story of the Woolen Mills Chinatown credits its existence to Ah Fung, who purchased property from Judge R.F. Peckman, owner of the San Jose Woolen Mills. In another explanation, Mitchell Phillips and other businessmen convinced “Big Jim” (Chin Shin or Ching Shing) to purchase some Woolen Mills property. Recent research indicates that the land for the Woolen Mills Chinatown was leased by Chin Shin and Ug Fook for ten years.

Chin Shin was one of the wealthiest and most influential Chinese on the Pacific Coast with interest in agriculture and horticulture. He built the Garden City Cannery at the Woolen Mills Chinatown and employed hundreds of Chinese. The cannery was closed after several years and by 1901 most of the Woolen Mills Chinatown residents had moved to Heinlenville leaving empty buildings which were destroyed by fire in 1902.
Selected References

  • Positive Archaeological Survey Report: Addendum No. 1 pp. 20-44
    Prepared by Basin Research Associates, Inc.
    for David J. Powers & Associates
  • Chan, Sucheng. The Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986.
  • Chinn, Thomas W., Jim Mark Lai and Philip P. Choy. A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (5th printing), Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco, 1969.
  • Chow, Kenneth. “The History of the Chinese in Santa Clara County.” In: Chinese Argonauts, edited by Gloria Hom, Foothill Community College, Los Altos, 1971.
  • Laffey, Glory Anne. The Chinatowns of San Jose. 1979 MS on file: San Jose Historical Museum Association (now History San José).
  • The Early Chinatowns of San Jose. 1993 MS on file: History San José.
  • Ma, Eve Armentrout. “The Big Business Ventures of Chinese in North America, 1850-1930.” In The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second National Conference on Chinese American Studies (1980), edited by Genny Lim. The Chinese Historical Society of America and The Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco. China Translation & Printing, Inc.


Historical Summary of Woolen Mills Chinatown

When San Jose’s Market Street Chinatown had burned in May 1887, Chinese merchants made immediate plans to rebuild. Politics within the Chinese community and San Jose at large resulted in establishment of two Chinatowns. One came to be commonly known as the Woolen Mills Chinatown, and the other community was named Heinlenville.

The Woolen Mills Chinatown earned its name from the nearby San Jose Woolen Mills factory that employed many Chinese. Other nearby industries that employed Chinese included a glove manufacturing factory and a cannery. Chinese living in the Woolen Mills Chinatown were generally laborers, with some merchants, and at least one barber. As far as the documentary record shows, the Woolen Mills Chinatown was the home base for single men. In contrast to the Heinlenville Chinatown, no evidence of families or wives has emerged to date. Most of what is known of the other residents of the Woolen Mills Chinatown comes from immigration documents mandated by 1anti-Chinese exclusion laws.

Sanborn Insurance maps depict primarily wood-frame residences in the Woolen Mills Chinatown. Dupont Street was the commercial center of the community while Stockton Street was largely residential. Merchants generally lived in their stores as well, frequently on the top floor if one existed, or at the back of the store. A barbershop is also shown, as well as two restaurants, a laundry, a warehouse, “gaming and sleeping rooms,” “roasting kettles” (probably wok ovens) along the river bank, a Chinese theater, two 2joss houses, a compound with Chinese quarters and cookhouse, and the Garden City Cannery. It is possible that the Woolen Mills Chinatown also had at least one brothel.

The Woolen Mills Chinatown existed during one of the most difficult periods of Chinese immigration, a time of exclusion and continued Chinese agitation. It was created out of urgency after the arson fire of the Plaza (Market Street) Chinatown, and following a vociferous citizens’ campaign against the Chinese presence in San Jose. The Woolen Mills Chinatown was destroyed in 1902 by another arson fire, although it had been in decline for several years after its main protector, Chin Shin, left for China. 3Documentation on the Woolen Mills Chinatown is sparse, and many questions remain unanswered. Existing documents generally portray a community made up of single men working in the Woolen Mills, Cannery, or nearby agricultural fields. Documents also suggest a strong sense of Chinese community and the internal cooperation of a community that tried its best to protect its own from outside hostility.

Chinese theaters provided entertainment for the community as well as a gathering place. Theaters housed traveling actors, and provided them with the necessary dressing rooms. Performances were generally long and very elaborate. Full admission of 25-50¢ was charged to those who came early. After about 10 p.m., the entrance price was only 10¢. The Woolen Mills theater was likely of wood and relatively simple construction. 4Chinese theaters generally had a large stage area, but without the curtains of the European-style theater. Signs and abstract paintings on boards signified the nature of the scene, such as woods or homes. The attraction was mainly provided by actors wearing colorful and elaborate costumes imported from China, and a small orchestra of four to six musicians in the stage background. Battle scenes were favorites, and were done with swirling banners, staffs, circular marching and acrobatics, accompanied with the clashing of gongs. Similar to “groundlings,” in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the audience gathered in front of the stage, and were allowed to talk and eat throughout the performances. Following an evening’s show, the floor was usually littered with discarded food, wrappings, and dried plum pits.

1880 Angell Treaty between the United States and China
1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
1892 10 Year Extension
1902 Indefinite Extension
1943 Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act

2 JOSS HOUSE: The Portuguese controlled commercial links between China and Japan for almost a century (1543-1639), leaving signs of their influence. The term “Joss” is a Pidgin English word derived from the Portuguese “deos” – derived in turn from the Latin “deus”. (“Deity” and other English words are also derived from “deus”.) “Joss” refers to a deity or an image in a temple. Hence a temple is a “joss house” and a stick of incense is a “joss stick.” The presence of two joss houses in such a small community is unusual – a subject Caltrans hopes to explore further in the interpretive report. In addition, it also appears the only other place in California where a theater and joss house were in close proximity was in Oroville, a Gold Rush town which had a much larger 19th century Chinese community.

124K Graphic: Chin Wee and Partners, Quong Yee Chong & Co., General Chinese Merchandise
73K Graphic: Toy Yeung and Partners, Mee Nam & Co., General Merchandise

4 78K GraphicChinese Theater in San Francisco, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1883, Vol. LXVI


Woolen Mills Presentations

From Gold Mountain to the New Millennium
The Sixth Chinese American Conference
July 9-11, 1999
University of San Diego
San Diego, California

A Tale of Two Chinatowns, San Jose, California (20-minute presentation with slides)
Presenter: Connie Young Yu
Affiliation: KEA Environmental, Inc.

The proposed expansion of State Route 87 in San Jose, California by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) resulted in the identification of the former location of the Woolen Mills Chinatown. On May 4, 1887, a fire of suspicious origin had burned down the large Chinatown in downtown San Jose, known as the “Plaza Chinatown.” It was generally believed that arsonists set the fire. City officials expressed great relief over the perceived end of the Chinese presence in San Jose. “Chinatown is dead. It is dead forever,” rejoiced the San Jose Daily Herald of May 5, 1887. The Chinese were not to be driven out, despite vocal protests by local citizenry, and Chinese merchants made immediate plans to rebuild. Internal rivalries amongst Chinese leaders, and the politics of the larger Euroamerican community, led to the creation in 1888 of two Chinatowns in San Jose: Heinlenville and the Woolen Mills Chinatown. These communities were created during a time of cultural prejudice against the Chinese, demonstrated most notably by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Local contemporary newspapers frequently played up the notion of a rivalry between the two co-existing Chinatowns, flip-flopping in their advocacy of one area over another. The general prevailing sentiment was that if the Chinese could not be evicted, burned out, or otherwise forcibly removed, they should be as far out of sight of the main portion of San Jose as possible. The Woolen Mills community did not survive the hardship of economic times and anti-Chinese sentiment, and was abandoned in 1902. Heinlenville was occupied until 1931. The Chinese of both Chinatowns made major contributions to the industries of Santa Clara Valley, and their struggle against the prevailing prejudice raised legal and moral issues that impacted the entire society.

Connie Young Yu is a third generation Californian. Her maternal great-grandfather worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and her paternal grandfather came to San Jose’s Chinatown as a child in 1881. Connie was educated at Mills College in Oakland and has long been involved in historical projects, including California’s restoration of the Angel Island immigration barracks. She is the author of Profiles in Excellence: Peninsula Chinese Americans published by the Stanford Area Chinese Club, and Chinatown, San Jose, USA published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association (now History San José).
Investigations at the Woolen Mills Chinatown, San Jose, California (20-minute presention with slides)

Presenters: Rebecca Allen, Past Forward, Inc., with Scott Baxter, KEA archaeologist

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is sponsoring archaeological excavations at the former location of the Woolen Mills Chinatown in San Jose. Created as one of two rival Chinatowns in San Jose in 1887, the community was occupied until 1902 when arson burned the town. Residents of the Chinatown were employed at the nearby Woolen Mills, as well as by the Garden City Cannery, Angora Glove Factory, and nearby farms. Other residents included merchants and other shop owners. A historic map of the area shows a community of substantial buildings, many constructed in brick. Listed on the map are “tenements,” likely wood-frame houses, merchandise stores, a barbershop, two restaurants, a laundry, a warehouse, gaming and sleeping rooms, and roasting kettles. A “Chinese Theatre” and two Joss Houses are also noted in the northwest corner of the Chinatown. Besides finding the structural remains of the Woolen Mills Chinatown, archaeology has the potential to answer questions about many Chinese lifeways and activities within that locale. Preliminary results of the excavations will be presented. The local Chinese American community, including the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, has made many efforts to preserve the Chinese historic past in San Jose. Working in conjunction with Caltrans, plans are underway to incorporate archaeology as a forum for interpreting the historic past.

Dr. Rebecca Allen is a consulting historical archaeologist and historian. She is currently working with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) on a large excavation project of a Chinatown in San Jose. Trained at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Allen has more than 15 years of archaeological and museum experience. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Historical Archaeology and a Board Member of the California Mission Studies Association. Her most recent publication is Native Americans at Mission Santa Cruz 1791-1834, published by UCLA press.

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