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Remembering San Jose's lost Chinatown

Remembering San Jose's lost Chinatown
Remembering San Jose's lost Chinatown 04:30

SAN JOSE - In this final week of the Lunar New Year, we wanted to shed light on Chinese Americans in the South Bay and their deep roots in San Jose.

When we think of Bay Area Chinatowns, we often think of San Francisco and Oakland. But at one time, San Jose's Chinatown was the second largest Chinatown in California. In fact, the City of San Jose was once home to five Chinatowns, dating all the way back to the 1860s.

But the anti-Chinese movement in the 1880s led to a devastating arson fire that burned the Market Street Chinatown to the ground.

In Downtown San Jose, at what once was the Fairmont and is now Signia by Hilton Hotel, it's easy to walk by and to miss this small placard. It's right on the corner of the building. It's a reminder of San Jose's past. It reads, "In Memory of the Burning of San Jose Chinatown."

"This is a picture of my grandmother, and there's my father," said Connie Young Yu. She is a third-generation Chinese-American whose roots are in San Jose.

San Jose's lost Chinatown used to be located just a few miles away from here. The City of San Jose was once home to five Chinatowns. The most well known was the Market Street Chinatown and Heinlenville.

"This building is a replica of the Ng Shing Gung temple that was in the Chinatown called Heinlenville," she explained.

Yu and her family donated most of the artifacts inside San Jose's Chinese American Historical Museum in History Park.

"I'm going to show you the archaeology case because the roots of the Chinese community were really in the Market Street Chinatown which was destroyed by arson fire during the anti-Chinese movement," said Yu. "It was burned to the ground."

Yu's grandfather was there the day the devastating arson fire destroyed San Jose's Market Street Chinatown. He was just a teenager when he saw it happen.

"He could see the smoke rising from his homebase," said Yu. "His Chinatown was burning, so we have that oral history in my family. He always said you know, it was an arson fire, but we did not want to leave San Jose. We would not be driven out."

Brenda Wong is the Director for the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project. She gave KPIX cameras a tour of the second floor of the museum.

"This is a very special, "Ooh and ahh!" section of our museum. Because when people come to the top of the steps and they turn to their left, they see all this glistening gold," said Wong.

It is the original 1892 golden altar from San Jose's last Chinatown called Heinlenville.

"They need to realize that the people before them worked really hard and the temple artifacts that you see in the altar area, they had to pull their money together to purchase such high-quality items. And they wanted to have something as a legacy for generations after them to be proud of and to remember who came before them," said Wong. "I think that's a great story of triumph."

"Resilience. The children had a heritage of resilience from their parents and they always said you have to endure" said Yu. "You have to really work hard, but you can excel. You can do what you want to do, and no one's going to keep you down."

Yu said her father's generation was proud to be Chinese and proud to be an American, striving to live the American dream in their hometown of Chinatown, San Jose.

In 2021, the City of San Jose formally apologized for its role in acts of discrimination against the Chinese immigrant community and its descendants.

Connie Young Yu accepted the apology with members of the Chinese American community.

The City of San Jose is now building a new neighborhood park called Heinlenville Park. It's located in Japantown on North 6th Street, between Taylor and Jackson Streets on the site where the original Heinlenville Chinatown once stood. 

It's named after John Heinlen, who set aside part of his land to help Chinese immigrants after the burning of Market Street Chinatown.

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