For every Chinatown still standing, there are dozens that have been bled dry and paved over.
We move on from this history, because we’ve been told it doesn’t do anyone much good to dwell on ghosts.
But the ghosts of Santa Cruz’s Chinatowns follow me wherever I go: to the mural on Locust and Pacific, to the bridge over the San Lorenzo River, all the way to the turn before the Evergreen Cemetery.
Local Chinese-American elder George Ow Jr., says that “if something is not settled during a lifetime, you have hungry ghosts, like angry spirits.”
Be it angry spirits or hungry ghosts, their presence begs to be acknowledged.
George Ow Jr., who lived in Chinatown as a young child, has been a longtime supporter of documenting Chinatown’s history here. The quote was displayed in the ‘Guided by Ghosts’ exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) from March to June 2019.
To tell a good ghost story, some things have to be realistic enough to believe.
But Santa Cruz’s Chinatown history is documented sparingly and by few — its stories are collected through oral history, faded photos, and newspaper clippings that piece together a complex puzzle. Many puzzle pieces remain lost or have been erased, by time or on purpose.
There is little left from these Chinatowns, except for the placards, flowers, and dragons left in their wake to prove they were here, so we tell the stories of Chinatown to whoever will listen as a way to feed hungry ghosts on the block.
A 17-foot Chinese memorial gate was installed at the Evergreen Cemetery in 2014 to honor the early Chinese community in Santa Cruz. Located at 261 Evergreen St., the cemetery is a resting place secluded by trees.
According to Tessa Hulls’ exhibit ‘Guided by Ghosts’ at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the first Chinatown was established in 1862 on what was then called Willow Street, now known as Pacific Avenue. For about eight years, the first Chinatown sat comfortably on the block between Walnut and Lincoln.
Then, rezoning laws in 1870 pushed the Chinese community to the floodplains of the San Lorenzo River.
However, before local historian Sandy Lydon’s ‘Chinese Gold: the Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region’ was published, Lydon believed the so-called first Chinatown was said to be established around 1870. The book is the most detailed account of the Chinese communities in the Monterey Bay Region to date.
The second Chinatown, established in 1870 right on Front Street, around where Trader Joe’s and the Galleria are today, lasted about 24 years. It was lost to fire in 1894.
These are Santa Cruz’s Chinatowns throughout history. Though Chinatown moved from place to place, it was always located close to downtown Santa Cruz.
After the fire, Chinatown was rebuilt in two places. One portion was built on property owned by Harriet Blackburn, and the other on the property of George Birkenseer. The Blackburn Chinatown housed the Chinese market gardens along the west side of Chestnut Street, just south of Laurel Street and right around where Depot Park is today.
But the gardens and the surrounding Chinatown were wiped out by Southern Pacific Railroad when the company turned the property into a trainyard in 1905.
So the people were forced to move, again.
Piece by piece, they disassembled the Blackburn joss house — or traditional Chinese temple — which served as a place of worship for the Chinese community in Santa Cruz. They rebuilt it on Front Street in the Birkenseer Chinatown, once again right along the San Lorenzo River.
And as the size of the river grew, Chinatown shrunk.
When the Chinese community was at its largest, Santa Cruz had multiple joss houses, where the community would gather for worship. The joss house pictured above was the last one remaining in Santa Cruz and was demolished in 1950.
By the end of February 1940, the high waters of the river started to reach the floorboards of the joss house. With nowhere else to go but up, the quartet of elderly Chinese men living there moved all of their belongings to the second floor. Hesitantly, they left the joss house through the second story, onto boats and then onto firm ground. The old joss house was demolished a decade later.
By the 1950s, a mix of historical factors led to population decline in Santa Cruz’s Chinatown: anti-Chinese racism and hostility drove families away from the area and into the much larger Chinatown in San Francisco, leaving Santa Cruz’s with an increasingly elderly population.
So when the historic ‘Christmas flood of 1955’ decimated the entire riverbank, Chinatown could move no further. There was no vibrant and thriving community left to survive its displacement. With that, the last families in Santa Cruz’s Chinatown simply moved elsewhere, either in Santa Cruz or even further over the hill.
The last standing location of Chinatown is marked by the golden dragon archway at the mouth of the Chinatown bridge.
If you stand under the archway with your back towards the river, facing the San Lorenzo Park Plaza, you can almost feel their presence — the restless, angry spirits.
And when you are hungry, they will eat with you too.
Birkenseer’s Chinatown was built in 1894, after the fire decimated the first Chinatown. In December 1955, the San Lorenzo River flooded the entirety of Birkenseer’s Chinatown, marking the so-called end of Chinatown history in Santa Cruz.