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Flood bypass eradicates last vestige of Napa's Chinatown

Flood bypass eradicates last vestige of Napa's Chinatown

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The last vestige of Napa's long-gone Chinatown -- a spit of land at the juncture of the Napa River and Napa Creek in downtown -- is about to unceremoniously disappear.

As construction of downtown's flood bypass channel continues, the earth beneath the former Chinatown will be hauled away and the site converted into wetlands and a floodway.

In its 19th-century heyday, the property on the south side of First Street, across Napa Creek from the new BurgerFi restaurant, was considerably larger and the home to more than 300 densely packed Chinese who provided manual labor for the local economy.During its peak occupancy, from the 1880s to early 1900s, Chinatown expanded to the north side of First Street.

Established in the mid-1800s by Chan family members, Chinatown and its wooden shanties provide sanctuary for more than 70 years for immigrants who were precariously perched between two waterways and two cultures.

The Chans’ family history is intertwined with that of Napa’s Chinatown, especially brothers Wah Jack and Kay Toy, who ran the general store and was Napa’s labor lord.

Toy had the advantage of speaking English when negotiating labor contracts with local employers. This ability helped to foster a good relationship with the dominant culture, recalled his grand-nephew, Ging Chan.

Chan's grandfather, Wah Jack, eventually owned the Lai Hing, a Chinese herbal medicine dispensary, and provided banking services. His third Chinatown business was the community’s restaurant.

These Chan family businesses were included in two Napa Register stories in the 1880s. They described not only Napa’s Chinatown, but also life in this riverfront community.

An 1884 article said, “A stranger in this delectable suburb would, on passing through the labyrinth of torturous alleys, think that there were but a few rooms, comparatively, in the tumble-down shanties, and would wonder where all the blue-bloused denizens always seen here lived. Had he a pilot (guide), he would be shown a multitude of dark, smoke be-grimmed nooks where, on narrow bunks, the lodgers slept.”

Napa’s Chinatown was relatively quiet during the day with the exception of hearing the Chinese laboring with great effort in the laundries, according to the Register's account.

“In the wash-houses the ironers are busy, clad in flowing white garments, until midnight and often later. In the rear of the ironing rooms the slap, slap, slap of the white man’s clothes, as they are beaten on wide wash-boards, is as regular as the ticking of a clock ...”

Also, the “wordy wars” of merchants and customers bartering frequently resounded from Chinatown’s two large stores. Small retail shops also dotted Napa’s Chinatown.

With sunset came a change to Chinatown’s demeanor. Within darkened rooms men smoked opium or slept off its effects. Also within secluded spaces men visited “Gaai Nueys,” or prostitutes, from San Francisco. The ratio of Chinese men to women was 20 to 1.

In stark contrast to those bedrooms and the smoky silence of the opium dens, many Chinatown inhabitants and visitors gambled with loud enthusiasm. Adding to that din “... comes the sound of the highly enjoyable native fiddle and, floating on the sweet scented air, the echoes of the deep bass voices of the singers ...”

In closing , the 1884 story noted every room in Napa’s Chinatown contained private altars with inscriptions “... to propitiate evil spirits or bring good luck.”

An 1889 Register story told of the Napa Chinatown temple, completed in 1886. “... the public Joss House (is) nicely fitted up and with the front open ... rugs on the floor and the walls are papered. It is by far the best building in Chinatown.”

This temple, a gift from the Chan family, instilled an even greater sense of stability within Napa’s Chinatown. Its altar still exists and is exhibited at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco.

Negotiating one’s way to the temple was far from easy, the Register noted. “(Chinatown’s) main street is about 15 feet wide at its opening on First street, but narrows gradually until, when near the river (and Joss House), there is hardly enough room for two persons to walk abreast.”

While exploring Napa’s Chinatown, the Register was fascinated by its restaurant. The space contained two table with stools and boxes serving as seats plus two woks atop brick stoves. The patrons were “called to their meals by the banging together of an immense pair of cymbals,” stated the Register.

Life in Napa’s Chinatown had its challenges. The community was damaged by two non-arson fires. The 1887 blaze started in a laundry and caused moderate damage. However, the 1902 inferno devastated Chinatown.

The howling early winter morning north winds whipped a stovepipe spark from Toy’s store into an inferno. In just three hours, it consumed most of Napa’s Chinatown.

Four Napa fire crews fought the blaze. One crew scaled the shanties to attack the flames from the rooftops. While another crew defended the Joss House by running their fire hose through Main Street’s Shwarz Hardware store, out its back window and across Napa creek.

In the fire's aftermath, only a few buildings remained, including the temple. The uninsured residents of Napa’s Chinatown estimated their losses at $4,000 forcing many to move, primarily to San Francisco. Others rebuilt their riverfront homes, but the community's decline had begun.

The battling of this fire contained some irony. When the firefighters ran their fire-hose through Shwarz Hardware, little did anyone know the Shwarz family would ultimately destroy Napa’s Chinatown.

Apparently, the Shwarz Hardware Co. owned the land occupied by Napa’s Chinatown. In 1929, they evicted the Chinese residents to make way for a yacht harbor that was never built. Some long-time Napans believed the river’s stench killed that project.

In a way, Napa Chinatown continued on for about another 30 years. “My father (Shuck Chan) bought the old Martini warehouse on First and Edmondston streets about a block east of old Chinatown and about where Chanterelle’s restaurant use to be near First and Soscol,” said Ging Chan.

 "My father converted it into our home and the new ‘Lai Hing.’ The shop occupied the front quarter of the building. The rest of the building was our home because there were so many of us.”

At the back of the building were two boarding rooms and the Joss House altar. “There weren’t many Chinese left in Napa Valley and county by then.” Chan continued, “But father wanted them to have a public altar.” He added, “We had our private altar upstairs.”

Ging Chan retains fond memories of his childhood home in a converted warehouse. “I found some fun discoveries like a box of ‘torpedo bombs’ -- firecrackers -- and a case of unlabeled red wine.” He added, “I wish I had kept those bottles.”

He also has some less than pleasant memories. "In the 1950s, we flooded every winter. It was so frequent we drilled holes in the floor to speed up the draining. And, having no sheet-rocked walls then, we just hosed the place down.”

In the 1960s, this last vestige of Napa’s Chinatown was seized by eminent domain. It was razed to make way for the eventual northward extension of Soscol Avenue over the Napa River.

Chinatown and Shuck Chan are today memorialized with plaques on the south side of the First Street bridge, overlooking the former Chinatown site.

With the completion of the bypass channel, the city of Napa has plans for China Point Overlook, a pocket park at the southwest corner of Soscol Avenue and First.

Visitors will be able to step through a traditional Chinese "moon gate" and look down on what is no more.  

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