In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any community of any size in Orange County had at least a small Chinese population. The largest (and oldest) Chinatown was in Anaheim. Santa Ana also had a Chinatown downtown until 1906, when it was destroyed on fears of leprosy.
The Chinese immigrant population here was not only a valuable labor force but also a source of continuing fascination for their Anglo neighbors, with their different culture, dress, and diet. In Orange County the early Chinese population was mostly male, with few women or children. The men had come here seeking work, and many sent money home to wives and families in China.
Orange’s earliest Chinese settlement began in the mid-1870s, when the first Chinese laundrymen set up shop in town. The first local settlement, with a laundry, store, and employment office, was on North Orange Street, near the Presbyterian Church. The old timer’s like to joke that with the laundry, cleanliness was indeed close to Godliness in Orange; but the church took the situation seriously, offering evening Sunday School classes for their Chinese neighbors and bringing in bi-lingual evangelists when they could.
As in other communities, most of Orange’s earliest Chinese residents worked as ranch hands, picking raisins or packing oranges, or as vegetable farmers, picking and marketing their own crops. A few others worked as domestic servants (cooks, primarily) in the homes of some of the wealthier residents.
Outside Chinese labor was also sometimes hired for larger projects, usually arranged through labor contractors from Los Angeles, who would negotiate the terms and salaries. The railroads famously used Chinese labor in 19th century California, including on the construction of the Southern Pacific line past Orange in 1877 and the Santa Fe line, which reached town in 1887. Another important local project was the construction of the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company tunnels through the hill at Olive in 1877-78. A crew of about fifty Chinese workmen were hired for that job.
As in Santa Ana, as Orange grew in the 1880s, the Chinese settlement downtown came to be seen as a problem. After the city incorporated in 1888, an ordinance was passed outlawing open cesspools in town – an inevitable part of any Chinese laundry in the days before sewers. By 1890, the Chinese on Orange Street had sold their property and moved out of town.
But not very far. Henri F. Gardner, an Orange pioneer and one of her original city councilmen, owned a ranch on the south side of town, along the west side of Glassell Street between La Veta Avenue and the Santiago Creek; and as it happened, it was split by the city limits, with most of it within the city and rest in unincorporated county territory. So it was there, just above the Santiago Creek (and just outside the city’s no-cesspools ordinance) that Orange’s Chinatown took shape in the early 1890s. The Gardners rented several buildings to the Chinese, and always considered them good tenants. The rents were small, but always paid on time.
The laundry was on the south end. It was run for many years by Hung Kee (also called Goon Gay). The 1900 census shows him with four employees, including a bookkeeper, and he was still in business as late as 1916. He had left a wife behind in China to come work in America. One of the Gardner girls recalled that he “always wore American clothes with a gold watch chain and a black felt hat. The others wore pigtails and Chinese clothes.”
Moving north, the next building was a store, run in the early 1900s by Wing Wor. His stock included Chinese silk and art items, ginger candy, lychee nuts, and firecrackers (which made it an especially popular place with the local children around the Fourth of July). He also kept a safety deposit box at the Bank of Orange where he attended to the finances of some of the local Chinese.
The third building was a two-story bunkhouse which served as the residence for most of the men. A few other men lived out in the country, closer to the ranches where they worked. Behind the buildings was a fenced area that served as drying yard for the laundry, a vegetable garden, and a chicken pen.
Finally, closest to the Gardner residence, Yick Sing lived in his own little shack. He previously had a store in Santa Ana before their downtown Chinatown was condemned and burned in 1906. He was “the dominating character of the group” there, recalled Santa Ana old timer Merle Ramsey. “He was accepted as a sort of governor, his word was law and he kept order in Chinatown.” He also was a key figure in Orange’s little Chinatown, and was well remembered by many of the old timers. Justus Craemer, co-owner of the Orange Daily News, said he was “a genial old soul,” and liked to tell of the time he offered Yick a ride home in his car after he had walked downtown to go shopping. When Craemer dropped him off at Chinatown, Yick turned around and went right back on foot, returning a little while later with a cigar he’d bought for Craemer as a thank you. “The Chinese,” Craemer recalled, “when you get to know them, are very fine folks, and have a wonderful philosophy of life.” Yick Sing lived in Orange until his death in 1919.
Besides the laundry and the store, many local residents relied on the Chinese vegetable peddlers who worked the streets of Orange until the 1920s. They would lease a little plot of land to farm, and sell their crop from horse-drawn wagons. Their vegetables were always fresh, and they grew some different crops and varieties. By the 1890s, some of them had regular customers – housewives who counted on them stopping by a couple times a week.
People’s reactions to the Chinese varied. Some did not care for these “foreign” immigrants; some even taught their children to be afraid of them. But the people who knew them personally – their customers, their employers – usually had a good opinion of them, and the children who ventured into Chinatown as friends found they could be quite kind. Presumably, more than a few of the Chinese had left their own children behind in China, and so welcomed smiling young faces.
But the general trend in the United States was against Chinese immigration, which was all but stopped in 1882. Thus Orange County’s Chinese population grew smaller – and older – with every passing year. The 1900 census counted 136 Chinese residents here (54 in Anaheim, 25 in Santa Ana, 16 in Orange). The 1910 census shows only 83 Chinese, and by 1920 the number had dropped to just 26, with only five men still living in Orange.
The end for Orange’s Chinatown finally came in 1924, when Sing Lee closed up the laundry, “having been given notice to vacate the premises” (apparently by the county). Sing had been on the job since 1912. “Others before him have left, one by one,” the Orange Daily News (6/11/24) reported “some locating in the Mexican settlement, others going to nearby cities.” The Gardner family, in fact, bought a home in Orange’s Cypress Street barrio, and offered it for rent to the last of their Chinese tenants, but there were no takers.
The last of Santa Ana’s old Chinese vegetable peddlers, Lee You, had already left the China Gardens along the river the year before. A few old men stayed on in Anaheim until about 1935, when Orange County’s pioneer Chinese era finally came to an end.
In more than 30 years of searching, I have yet to find a photo of Orange’s Chinatown. In 1985 I asked longtime resident (and amateur artist) Al Eisenbraun (1899-1988) if he would make a sketch for me of what he remembered. Here is what he called “an imaginary view from my memory of 1910-15 of Orange’s China-town.”
Many of the old timers I knew had stories about Chinatown. When it was announced that I would be giving a talk on Chinatown for the Orange Community Historical Society in 1985, Lester Rohrs (1906-1994), who grew up across the creek, wrote out some of his memories for me without my even asking. They are typical of many of the stories I heard:
“Orange China Town, which was closely tied to Santa Ana China Town (4th and Bush and 1st and 3rd) was located on the Gardner property on S. Glassell near Santiago Creek. It consisted of four buildings, a laundry, a rooming house, a store and a house in which lived one man. All the buildings had a front porch where the Chinese sat after work and conversed in Chinese.
“In the laundry yard which was behind a fence and gate which was always closed were lots of chickens, ducks and one or two dogs. A group of men who worked in the laundry washed the clothes by hand, [and] hung the snow white linens on clothes lines in the yard. They drove a horse drawn wagon to collect and deliver the clothes which were pressed with irons heated over wood stoves located inside the laundry. I never get very near as I was told to stay away from them so of course I was afraid of them.
“Next to the laundry which was just north of the creek and near the wooden bridge over Santiago Creek on Glassell was the store which was well patronized on the Fourth of July as it had a good supply of fire crackers. The store also [had] tea and Chinese silk to sell. I went to the store with my Dad to buy litchi [sic] nuts which I enjoyed.
“Another building was the two story dormitory for the men who worked on the farms or ranches in the vicinity of Orange and those who worked in the store and laundry. There were from nine to twelve men who lived in China Town but there were never any women. The Chinese using a horse driven wagon and ringing a hand bell drove up and down the streets in Orange and Santa Ana selling fruits and vegetables. The produce was fresh and some different than people had in their own gardens.
“The fourth building which was at the north end of the property, next to Gardner’s home, was where one Chinese lived. He worked for farmers helping harvest walnuts, oranges, apricots, and beans and did garden work. ‘Yick’ as he was called was a good worker and the farmers trusted him, but we kids were afraid of him as he had a long que [sic] and a bad scar on his cheek.
“Living near Orange China Town was an experience for a kid.”