San Lorenzo Valley Chinese 1850-1920


This 2011 exhibition examined the history of the Chinese population in the San Lorenzo Valley though interpretative text, photographs, documents, and artifacts.


Chinese Exhibition

Download the exhibiton catalog HERE.

Exhibition Fabrication

This exhibition featured a custom redwood case to symbolize the type of structure that was used to house the Chinese Railroad workers; roughly constructed, with a dirt floor and few, if any, openings.

In 1880 in Felton, White railroad employees were housed in the Cunningham House, a hotel run by James F. Cunningham, and a hotel run by George Ball; the Chinese laborers were housed in the inhospitable railroad freight house.

In Ben Lomond, a small cottage was believed to have built by and housed Chinese railroad workers, probably in the late 1890s early 1900s. The cottage, which is still occupied today, exhibits diminutive architectural features such as ceiling height and door openings. A Chinese Wing Lee Wai liquor bottle, which was on display in this case, was found at this location.

Reproduction clothing, typical of that worn by a Chinese railroad laborer, was also displayed in the case, along with vintage Chinese hats. The clothing was fabricated by Aggie DeLucchi.


Chinese Liquor Bottle
Circa early 1900s Wing Lee Wai Chinese liquor bottle found in Ben Lomond. San Lorenzo Valley Museum.

Reproduction Clothing


Map of China 1865

1865 map of China with Kuangtung Province highlighted.

Early Migration

While there was Chinese migration to California during the Spanish and Mexican Eras, the discovery of gold spurred a rise in immigration, not only of Chinese immigrants but of gold seekers from around the world. Most of the Chinese migrated from the Kuangtung Province in Southern China. The region had seen war, famine, droughts, and floods, and earning a living was difficult. California offered a golden opportunity. However, these men faced racial discrimination in the mining industry, and when in 1852 a law was passed that barred them from owing a claim and requiring them to leave, they sought employment in other markets such as road and rail construction, agriculture, domestic service, camp cooks, and laundrymen.

At the same time as they faced mounting aggressive discrimination, Chinese laborers were praised for their back breaking, treacherous and often deadly, hard work. On the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869,  E. B. Croker, Officer of the Central Pacific Railroad acknowledged: 

“I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown.”

With the transcontinental railroad came a flood of manufactured goods from the East, as well as an influx of European immigrants. Without using cheap Chinese labor, California manufacturers could not compete. A recession ensued, and the Chinese workers were blamed for the lack of jobs for the white population.


In 1850, only white immigrants could become naturalized, and since the Chinese were neither white nor black, the only two recognized racial colors, they were designated as “aliens ineligible for citizenship”.

The term “coolie”originally referred to laborers under contract. Often these contracts were little more than servitude or slavery. The term was used heavily in the 1880s to deride all Chinese immigrants and it became a racial slur.

When they migrated from China these men often banded in groups from the same village, sometimes using the same surname. Once here they were often given an alias by their employer, with subsequent employers assigning a different alias. Also with a growing fear of immigration authorities, they would often not reveal their real name. The use of these alternate names makes tracing individuals very difficult

Anti-Chinese Legislation

1862. Chinese Police Tax

Passed in April of 1862, this act, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California,” enabled the legislation to levy a tax of $2.50 per month on all Chinese residing in the state, except those employed in production or manufacture of sugar, rice, coffee, and tea.

1875. The Page Act

Passed in March of 1875 the Immigration Act of 1875 is the first immigration law to exclude groups of people from the United States, including women. The legislation prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers who do not voluntarily consent to come to work in America and Chinese women for the purposes of prostitution. Although the law was enacted to limit the trafficking in women for prostitution, it was used to prevent single women who were unemployed from entering the United States when they do not appear to have a means of support.

1879. California Constitution

In California’s second constitution the legislature was given authority to protect state, counties, and cities from the presence of undesirable aliens. Corporations and municipalities were forbidden to hire Chinese workers. Also in 1879 the California legislature passed a law forcing all incorporated towns and cities to expel all of their Chinese residents. The law was deemed unconstitutional.

1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur in May of 1882. The act prohibited the immigration of “skilled and un-skilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining”. It required Chinese non-laborers to obtain a certificate from the Chinese government stating that they were qualified to emigrate. Since the act referred to “skilled and unskilled laborers” few Chinese could enter the country under this law.

The act also required that Chinese who had already entered the country but returned home would have to obtain a certificate in order to re-enter. The courts were also barred from granting citizenship to Chinese resident aliens.

When the act expired in 1892, Congress extended it by 10 years in the form of the Geary Act. The extension was made permanent in 1902 and added further restrictions. Now each Chinese resident was required to obtain a certificate of residence. Without such a certificate they would be deported.

The act wasn’t repealed until 1943 when the Chinese in the United Sates were given the right to become naturalized citizens and the quota for Chinese immigration was set at 105 people per year.

1888. The Scott Act

The Scott Act prohibited the re-entry of a Chinese laborer to the country unless he had property worth $1,000 or family in the country. The act reclassified all persons of Chinese ancestry, regardless of citizenship or nationality, as Chinese and therefore subject to exclusion.


Certificate of Residence 1892
Certificate of residence, 1892. History San Jose.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882. National Archives.


Pacific Chivalry
Portion of a California Powder Works map showing the China House, 1863. UCSC Special Collections.

Pacific Chivalry

Pacific Chivalry by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper’s Weekly, 1869.

The “Chinese-Must-Go” Movement

The first Chinese to live and work in the San Lorenzo Valley arrived in 1864. Ten Chinamen arrived in Santa Cruz to work for the Powder Works. At the Powder Works they were segregated from the other employees living in the “China House.” Very quickly anti-Chinese sentiments arose. In October of 1864, a letter was written to the Powder Works proprietors urging them to dismiss the Chinese and employ American workmen “in their stead.”

Only a few days later there was an attempt to “run off” the ten Chinamen working at the mills. Several Santa Cruz anti-Celestials, armed and disguised, went to the mill, captured the watchman, and rounded up the Chinese forcing them to the San Francisco stage road to wait for a wagon. The watchman was able to escape and inform the sheriff, who found the men about a half a mile from town, the anti-Celestials having abandoned them. He returned them to the Powder Works and the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported “and all is now quiet on the San Lorenzo.”

Local Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper editor, Duncan McPherson, was prolific in his anti-Chinese writings. In 1879 he wrote, “The Sentinel has been against the Chinamen first, last and all the time, as its columns emphatically prove.” McPherson boasted of being the first to join the Caucasian Society of Santa Cruz which has as its sole objective the expulsion of the "hated Celestials."

All but a few of the voting base in the San Lorenzo Valley supported the 1879 constitutional change. One noted exception was Boulder Creek’s R. E. Wood. Wood, while anti-Chinese, understood the greater implications of the new constitution. In his column in the Sentinel he wrote satirically of a fictitious company, the Western Development Company, which was to construct a railroad from San Mateo to Santa Cruz, digging a tunnel 25 miles “through the bowels of the earth” under the Santa Cruz Mountains. All the Chinese in the state would be needed to work on this tunnel and when completed it was to be plugged at both ends and the Chinese would suffocate thus eliminating the necessity to change the constitution.

Anti-Chinese sentiments in the Valley peaked in late 1885. The Lorenzo Anti-Coolie Club was described as being “on the War Path.” The club, which consisted of 82 citizens, used their “powers of persuasion” on local Chinese employers. They succeeded in encouraging the expulsion of all employed Chinese in the local vicinity, after which they turned their attention to other employers in the Valley such as the Dougherty Mill, which employed about 60 Chinamen, and Pacific Mills. At an anti-Chinese meeting Felton, held on November 25, 1885, Henry Baxter of Lorenzo stated that at present there were only six Chinamen employed in the vicinity of Boulder Creek and that they “intended to get rid of them.” Baxter is described as making an impassioned speech exhorting the people to “boycott the Chinese and all who patronized them.”


- We deny that we ever hinted that the S.C.R.R. Co. hire Chinamen to whistle, instead of using a steam shrieker. Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 26, 1875, Local Brevities.

Building the Loma Prieta Railroad
Chinese Railroad Workers Building the Loma Prieta Lumber Company's Railroad, circa 1885. Pajaro Valley Historical Association.

Alta Newspaper Clipping 1885
The Daily Alta California, November 19, 1885.

The term Celestials originated from an awkward translation of Tian Chao, an ancient Chinese term roughly meaning “Empire of Heaven.”


Sarmento's Bar
Charlie Wing and his dog in Sarmento’s Bar, Boulder Creek, circa 1900. Owner Manuel C. Sarmento stands behind the bar. San Lorenzo Valley Museum.


John Dong's oral history describing life at the Cowell Ranch cookhouse can be found HERE.

A History of Chinese Americans in California 1859-1900 can be found HERE.

Chinese Gold the Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region by Sandy Lydon can be found at the Santa Cruz Public Library.

A Fraction of the Population – What the Census Tells Us

In 1850, the population of Santa Cruz County was only 643, at this time there were no Chinese immigrants. Of the 93171 California residents only 0.6% were of Chinese birth even though as far back as the early 1820s, John Floyd, who was then a Representative from the State of Virginia, offered a bill favoring emigration to the country west of the Rocky Mountains, “Men with their wives and families stood ready to follow such leadership, and it could rely, moreover, upon the Chinese to supply a laboring population.”

By the 1860s, California had seen a large influx of immigrants; almost 9% of the population were Chinese. In Santa Cruz County, however, less than 0.2% were Chinese, just 7 individuals, none of whom lived in the Valley.

While the State percentage of the Chinese population remained at about 9% for over thirty years, the population in Santa Cruz County increased. By 1870 it was just under 2% and in 1880 it was a little over 4%. At this time the Chinese population in Felton was 21% of the 271 residents. The majority of these individuals were laborers for the South Pacific Coast Railroad.

Anti-Chinese sentiments within the State and then the country grew culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the Valley the Chinese were “encouraged” to leave and by 1885 there were none remaining in the upper San Lorenzo Valley.

By 1900, the Chinese population in the Valley rebounded again though this time occupational opportunities seemed to be limited to cooks, dish-washers and laundrymen. Only three of the 27 individual had jobs other than service positions, they were woodsmen.

In 1910, the Chinese population in the Valley had again declined to just 15. None lived in Ben Lomond, just one in Brookdale, a cook at the hotel and only one in Boulder Creek; Henry Middleton’s 19 year old cook, Leet Jin (probable transcription error). Leet had immigrated just three years earlier. The Chinese population was scattered and isolated. There were two enterprises though in Felton. One was a laundry business owned an operated by Hu Pong, which employed two men. These three men all lived together under one roof. There were also three garden laborers living at the same abode in Felton. The remainder of the population were cooks and dishwashers at hotels, the lime kilns and Newell Creek Mill.

By 1920, there were just two residents in the Valley that were Chinese, Jim Lee, a cook at a [Railroad] Tie Camp in Zayante and Chin Tin, a cook at the Lime Kilns.

Census Data


What the Census Does Not Tell Us

While the census gives us an idea about the Chinese who called the San Lorenzo Valley their home, such as the laundrymen and domestic servants, it is just a snapshot in time. It does not tell us about the hundreds of migrant laborers that were brought in to the Valley for specific, short term projects such as infrastructure projects; building or maintaining roads and railroads.

Madrone Villa
Building the Loma Prieta Railroad, circa 1880, California Historical Society.

Only Chinese men, no women, lived and worked in the San Lorenzo Valley, the married men left their wives and families at home.


Madrone Villa
Chinese Lanterns hang in the garden of Henry L. Middleton’s Madrone Villa, Boulder Creek. Perhaps the influence of his Chinese domestic servant. San Lorenzo Valley Museum.

Chinese Laundry San Francisco
Using a silk iron in a San Francisco laundry, circa 1880.

Chinese Silk Iron
Chinese silk iron. San Lorenzo Valley Museum.

Cultural Interaction

There was very little cultural exchange between the Chinese and the “Americans” living in the Valley. Indeed many Chinese practices were scorned. 

The locals tolerated the market gardeners, such as Lam Kee in Felton and they turned a blind eye as to how laundry was pressed at Chinese establishments, such as Wan Gee’s laundry in Boulder Creek. Chinese New Year was invariably reported in the local press and in later years many residents enjoyed the revelry, and the fire crackers.

Not every one however.

When in 1875, the Chinese in Santa Cruz traveled to meet their brethren at the Powder Mills, for a New Year celebration the Sentinel reported, “Many a poor man ran distracted about the streets in search of that ‘heathen that washes clothes’.”

As in most articles referring to Chinese spirituality, the derogatory term “Josh” is repeatedly used (from Joss – meaning a Chinese deity worshiped in the form of an idol, derived from the Portuguese deos meaning god).

In a 1955 Santa Cruz Sentinel article, local historian and writer Ernest Otto recalled Santa Cruz China Town and how the twelve Santa Cruz Chinese launderies operated. "At the side of each engaged in ironing was a sauce bowl filled with water, on top of a starch box. The Chinese, wearing a cotton blouse, would bend over to fill his mouth with water then spurt a spray over the clothes to dampen them... "
You can read the entire article by clicking HERE.


Chinese New Year 1901
Chinese New Year Feast, Mountain Echo, February 23, 1901.

Hakka is one of the main language subdivisions of Chinese and is spoken predominantly in southern China, including the Kuangtung Province. Kung Hii Fatt Choi, the greeting refered to above, loosely translates to "Congratulations and be Prosperous."

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