Last updated: June 5, 2018
The Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District is located in Walnut Grove, California, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a large agricultural area in Sacramento County, California. Almost completely rebuilt after a devastating fire in the 1930s, the Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District is the last Chinese American commercial district built in an agricultural community in the Delta.
Before the 1800s, immigration from Asia to the United States was minimal. During the 19th century, however, the U.S. experienced mass migrations of immigrants from several Asian countries, particularly China. Multiple factors triggered these large-scale waves of immigration. In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and throughout the 1850s Chinese immigrants were recruited as a major source of labor for the gold mines. Many Chinese immigrants also came to the U.S. during this period to escape the Taiping Rebellion, a large-scale civil war that encompassed most of southern China. In the 1860s, Chinese laborers were recruited in large numbers from both China and the U.S. western mining industry to help build the Central Pacific Railroad's portion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
When the railroad was completed in 1869, thousands of Chinese laborers, primarily from Guangdong (Canton) Province, were hired to work on an extensive levee project in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Their knowledge of how to develop farmland in river valleys, learned from farming the Pearl River Delta region in southern China, was used to construct a large network of earthen levees that eventually turned 500,000 acres of swamp into some of California's most valuable farm land. The reclaimed land was able to support large farms, and the expansion of the pear and asparagus industries, along with other crops, created a demand for cheap manual labor. Many of the Chinese workers stayed in the area and made a living as farm workers and sharecroppers, settling in towns in the region such as Walnut Grove, Isleton, Rio Vista, and Courtland.
The town of Walnut Grove was founded in 1851, by John Wesley Sharp as a steamer stop on the Sacramento River. By 1865, Walnut Grove had become an important port for agricultural produce, primarily Bartlett pears. Sharp built a boat landing and hotel for travelers along the river and the town eventually grew in to a thriving community. After Sharp’s death in 1880, his heirs sold Walnut Grove to Alex Brown and his mother Agnes. Brown was a highly successful entrepreneur and a staunch supporter of the Chinese and Japanese communities in Walnut Grove. He provided financial backing to several Asian businessmen and rented land to others at reasonable rates.
The Chinese community in Walnut Grove may have started as early as 1875. The community was made up of residents from two different areas of Guangdong Province in southern China - Heungshan County (modern day Zhongshan) on the east side of the Pearl River and Sze Yup made up of four districts - Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping and Enping – on the west side of the Pearl River. Besides being from different areas in China the residents also spoke different dialects and could not communicate easily with one another. Walnut Grove’s Chinese community was primarily from Heungshan and outnumbered those from Sze Yup by almost ten to one. As was common in Chinese immigrant communities in the U.S., the community in Walnut Grove organized tongs (voluntary associations) formed around shared interests such as a home district in China, family names, and native dialects. The various tongs provided support and protection to newly arriving Chinese immigrants and were in constant competition for influence within Walnut Grove’s Chinatown.
During the 1880 and 1890s, Chinese businessmen in Walnut Grove developed a thriving commercial and social center for the hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino agricultural laborers who worked throughout the Delta region. Businesses operating in Chinatown included dry goods and grocery stores, restaurants, laundries, shoe stores, fish and meat markets, saloons, gambling halls, boarding houses, herbal shops, temples, and baths. Of particular importance to the Chinese communities throughout the region was Walnut Grove's Bing Kong Tong Society, a branch of the San Francisco Bing Kong Tong Society. The Society established the branch in Walnut Grove before World War I to manage labor relationships, regulate gambling, provide mail and bank services, and help laborers find work. It also sent the bones of the deceased back to China for burial and helped Chinese immigrants return to their native land. At its height, the Bing Kong Tong Society branch in Walnut Grove was the most important social organization in the region’s Chinese community with over 400 active members from throughout the Delta.
In 1915, a fire broke out in both the Heungshan and Sze Yup sections of Chinatown, destroying 80 buildings in a three-block area. This resulted in changes in the makeup of Walnut Grove’s Chinese community. Several Chinese businessmen who had originally come from Heungshan County moved one mile north, helping to establish the Chinese town of Locke. They were soon followed by a majority of Walnut Grove’s Heungshan residents. The Chinese residents from the Sze Yup area, however, chose to remain in Walnut Grove and rebuild. In addition, Japanese immigrants who had been living in Chinatown took the opportunity to build their own "Japantown" one block north of the Chinese district.
Walnut Grove continued to thrive after the fire and during the 1920s its Chinatown had a reputation as being "wide open," with gambling, opium, dens, and brothels frequented by non-Chinese from nearby cities. A second fire broke out in Chinatown in 1937, again destroying a majority of the buildings within the three-block area. Rebuilding efforts began immediately and were finished in the early 1940s. The buildings were designed by Mitch Landis, an architect employed by William Schauer, owner of the local Noah Adams lumber yard. Schauer acted as general contractor for the rebuilding of the Chinese community.
The new buildings were constructed using stucco as opposed to wood and were done in the popular Art Moderne and Modernist architectural styles with additional Chinese elements such as colorful tiles and outdoor lighting. Many of the businesses were reestablished on their old sites with the Bing Kong Tong Society building being one of the first structures to be rebuilt, an important step in maintaining the continuity of Chinese American social life in the Delta.
Today there are 21 original buildings in the Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District, 19 of which date from the post-1937 rebuilding of Chinatown. The remaining two buildings survived the fire and are the oldest buildings in the district. One is a residence constructed in the 1920s and the other is Ike's Cafe/Stage Depot (14132 Market Street), constructed in 1916. When the fire broke out in 1937, Ike Hanlon, the cafe owner, moved everything out of the building and dismantled his entire restaurant. He reassembled the cafe in its original location after the fire had ended.
Other notable buildings in the district include the Bing Kong Tong Society Building (14136 Market Street), a Modernist stucco, flat roofed structure which is the most reflective of the Chinese influence in the district; the Pumphouse (14134 Market Street), which housed a gambling establishment on the first floor and has significantly more decorative stucco work and colored tiles on its exterior than the other buildings in the district; the Lim Kee Store/Suen Building (14138 Market Street), a two-story stucco building which is actually two structures, one built shortly after the other in the late 1930s; the Mar Grocery Store (14147 Market Street), a Modernist/Art Moderne two-story stucco commercial building, which is one of the few buildings in the district with electric light bulbs outlining its facade; the Gambling Parlor (14135 Market Street), which retains features unique to gambling establishments of the 1930s and 1940s such as a double-door entry, a lack of windows on the lower stories, and barred windows on the doors; and the Lee Market/Weiss Bookkeeping Building (14133 Market Street), which contains Modernist and Art Moderne architectural elements on two sides.
Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District is roughly bounded by River Road, C Street, Tyler Street, and Bridge Street in Walnut Grove, California. Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District is the subject of an online lesson plan, Locke and Walnut Grove: Havens for Early Asian Immigrants in California. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places website.