(first in a series)
It’s a relatively well-known fact that near the end of the 19th century St. Helena had a vibrant Chinese community. But its fate isn’t as widely understood.
This is the story of one remarkable young man who came from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. His story is also a story of individual resilience and ingenuity, of St. Helena itself, of the state of California, and of the U.S. during a time of massive immigration and discriminatory public policy. Perhaps his story is emblematic of the struggles, the uncertainty, and the resourcefulness of a branch of the St. Helena community that might be called the missing faces of St. Helena’s heritage.
Jue Joe left in 1874 from Guangzhou, in China’s Guangdong Province, as a cabin boy on a ship bound for San Francisco. He was, by some family accounts, 14 years of age, but — according to immigration documents — he told immigration officials in San Francisco that he was 18. By then his bag of rice had shrunk to just 8 ounces. He had no money and was certainly destitute.
According to family lore, written by his granddaughter, Soo-Yin Jue, and recorded by descendant Jack Jue, “Jue Joe was born and raised in a chicken coop, in 1860. He grew up dirt poor and vowed that his descendants would never suffer as he had.”
China was in turmoil in the 1870s. Economic and civil unrest — started in part by the Western favoritism given by the Qing Dynasty — had placed China on the brink of civil war while Western gun boats plied the rivers and bays. This turmoil may have been another factor in Jue’s determination to try his luck in America.
When Jue arrived in San Francisco his name was anglicized “Jew” — a spelling that was later changed to Jue. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, he sought help from the Chinese Six Cos. They, in turn, sent him to St. Helena where, according to granddaughter Soo-Yin, he found work in the vineyards.
St. Helena’s Chinatown was probably the first sight young Jue saw as he trudged north into town in 1874. It was located, according to records researched by Mariam Hansen of the St. Helena Historical Society, kitty-corner to what is now Tra Vigne Restaurant and across from Long Meadow Ranch on Charter Oak Avenue.
Situated at the edge of the gravel pit now owned by Harold Smith & Sons, Chinatown consisted — according to an insurance map of the time — of about 20 interconnected buildings, called “shacks” by local townspeople. It was a male labor camp from which Chinese laborers hauled gravel from that site to lay the foundations of the railroad tracks to Napa. The labor enclave had minimal amenities but eventually included a small Shen temple or “Joss House” where workers could worship. At its height, Chinatown was home to about 400 men, according to Hansen.
The 1870s census of the Napa Valley estimated that the Chinese represented about 10 percent of the valley’s labor force. The Chinese worked in fields, hopyards and mines, according to Hansen. Some were household servants, cooks, laundrymen, merchants and clerks.
They dug the wine caves at Beringer in St. Helena and at Schramsberg in Calistoga. About 100 Chinese worked on the railroad between Napa and St. Helena in 1880. Sage Canyon Road was graded by 125 Chinese in 1886. Many of the stone walls that line vineyards today were built with the help of their labor. And although a few Chinese were previously living in Napa, it was that need for a large labor force that brought Jue and the first large groups of Chinese immigrants to the upper Napa Valley.
Jue found ample employment when he arrived in 1874. He and hundreds of fellow countrymen were valued for their ability to work hard and to do the “squat labor” of pruning and harvesting grapes. They were paid about 10 cents per hour for 10 hours a day, Hansen said. It was just the resource that enabled the vineyards to thrive and the wine business to prosper.
But anti-Chinese opinion was fomenting — not only in St. Helena but in the nation as a whole. A Star editorial from November 1874 — the year Jue arrived and the first year of publication of the Star — reported the “outrage” of citizens when Chinese residents requested the use of public schools in the evening for classes even though they paid no taxes.
One month later, the Star published an off-color opinion piece that started a rumor that the “tallow colored rat eaters of the celestial empire in Napa are buying guns, perhaps to shoot their way to the flowery kingdom.”
In 1875, when 300 Chinese arrived to pick grapes, the Star reported, “There are so many Chinese in Chinatown waiting to pick grapes that all three wells have gone dry.”
It isn’t clear whether Jue left the Napa Valley due to this atmosphere of hostility. There was certainly ample cause for him to believe he would never be welcome, according to historical records.
In 1879 Californians had drawn up a new constitution specifically restricting Chinese civil rights and stating that “No Chinese shall be employed on any State, county, municipal, or other public work, except in punishment for crime.” It also called on the state Legislature to “delegate all necessary power ... for the removal of Chinese.”
Harsher laws were soon to follow. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade immigration of Chinese, eventually made it illegal for Chinese to own property, forbade Chinese from marrying Caucasians, restricted the rights of Chinese to serve on a jury, and eliminated any rights for Chinese to obtain citizenship. It also prevented a Chinese person from re-entering the country upon leaving. The law remained on the books until its repeal in 1943.
Other events were also at work in St. Helena, according to Hansen. In December 1885, 300 locals met at City Hall and formed an Anti-Coolie league. Vintners cautioned that the grape harvest would not happen without Chinese labor, but the sentiments of town folk were clear.
By February 1886, the Anti-Coolie league had bought the land where Chinatown stood. Members told the residents to move within 30 days, according to Hansen. But the Chinese merchants in Chinatown hired a lawyer and refused to move. Their case was sent to the U.S. District Court and eventually thrown out.
These events corresponded precisely to Jue Joe’s decision to leave his home in St. Helena around this time, after nearly 13 years. He had spent nearly half his life in the little town, had been regularly sending money back to China, according to family records, and even funded his older brother’s immigration to Alaska. Jue family records offer no clues to Jue’s feelings when he left his home in St. Helena, although one might easily speculate.
Here, Jue Joe’s story in the Napa Valley ends, leaving behind cleared fields, planted vineyards, and the wineries and deeply dug wine caves that are today’s Napa Valley attractions. But his incredible journey was only beginning.