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  • 02/24/22 Smithsonian Magazine: "Fish Bones Found in Razed California Chinatown Reveal Complex 19th-Century Trade Network"

02/24/22 Smithsonian Magazine: "Fish Bones Found in Razed California Chinatown Reveal Complex 19th-Century Trade Network"

March 03, 2022 4:14 PM | Elyse Wong (Administrator)

Researchers identified that these vertebrae belonged to giant snakeheads, freshwater fish native to Southeast Asia (Credit: Ryan Kennedy).


The following is an excerpt from the 02/24/22 Smithsonian Magazine:

By Bridget Alex, Contributing Writer

About 135 years ago, in a Chinatown in San Jose, California, the leftover bones from a luxurious fish landed in a communal trash pit. Perhaps a farmworker treated himself to the delicacy sold in a shop with specialty imports. Or a merchant may have savored the dried fish, after catching an opera in the local theater. What we know for sure: The bones remained in that trash pit, some months or years later, when an 1887 arson fire destroyed the immigrant enclave known as Market Street Chinatown.

More than a century after the fire, archaeologist Ryan Kennedy spotted the bones as he examined nearly 6,000 fish remains salvaged from the razed Chinatown. Distinct from the collection’s plentiful perch and other North American seafood, the specimens that caught Kennedy’s eye—pinky-sized discs with protruding spines—resembled the vertebrae of Asian fish.

DNA analysis narrowed the suspects to one species: The bitty backbones belonged to giant snakeheads, carnivorous fish that prowl the freshwaters of Southeast Asia. Fishers and traders likely dried, then ferried this catch from its native waters to Hong Kong, across the Pacific to the major port of San Francisco, and finally another 50 miles southeast to San Jose’s Market Street Chinatown. Kennedy and colleagues’ genetic detective work, published last month in American Antiquity, delivers the first material proof that prized food traveled all the way from Southeast Asia to the U.S. in the late 1800s. The fish’s multi-nation journey reveals the strength and complexity of trade ties, which connected the Chinese diaspora.

For more information:  Read the full Smithsonian Magazine article, which also mentions contributions by CHCP, History San Jose, and CHCP Advisory Board Members Connie Young Yu and Dr. Barbara Voss.

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