Site of the original Chinatown

 

By the early 1880s San Jose had a large and well-established Chinese population. Chinatown, at the corner of Market and San Fernando Streets, was home to at least 500 people, with established businesses and many homes. Unfortunately San Jose was not exempt from the wave of anti-Chinese activities that swept the West Coast during that decade. Residents were routinely verbally abused and subjected to rock throwing, and after earlier riots in other cities the Chinese in San Jose were understandably fearful of what could happen to them.

 

In 1886 the City began planning to modernize its downtown area, which by that time surrounded the Chinese community that was once on its perimeter. Speeches were made calling for the removal of Chinatown, along with calls for local businesses to only hire white labor or face a boycott.

 

After the Chinese made it clear that they did not want to move, local anti-Chinese forces took things into their own hands. On the night of May 4, 1887, a fast-moving fire destroyed most of San Jose's Chinatown, which, like many urban areas of that time, was built almost entirely out of wooden structures. There are no reports of any deaths or serious injuries from the fire, but arson was widely suspected as the cause of the multiple blazes that broke out.

 

The San Jose Daily Herald announced the next day that "Chinatown is dead. It is dead forever." Within ten days, however, local Chinese merchants, working with businessman John Heinlen, made plans to construct a new Chinatown a few blocks away. The new community, called Heinlenville by many in the city, was built almost entirely with brick buildings. It thrived until the 1920s, when the long-term effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act reduced the numbers of residents to no more than a few dozen.

Sources: McDannold, Pfaelzer, Sandmeyer

About this site: San Jose's large Chinatown is well documented on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of 1884. The street names have not changed since then. This area of this plaza, next to the current San Jose Museum of Art, would have been in the center of Chinatown in 1887.

San Jose

© 2020 Tim Greyhavens. All rights reserved.

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