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Whatever Happened To Riverside's - And Other Inland Communities' - Chinatowns? Here's The Story.

Chinese workers came to Riverside after the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, having a large impact on the local citrus industry.  But many people may not realize that what developed from that was not one, but two Chinatowns in Riverside, in additon to Chinatowns in other inland communities. What was that early Chinese experience like, and what exactly happened to those Chinatowns? KVCR's Shareen Awad has the story.

Judy Lee is a supporter and Co-founder of the Save Our Chinatown Committee. When she mentions Riverside Chinatown, people are always surprised to hear one even existed, let alone two.

Lee said that Chinese migrant workers were coming to Riverside before it was established as a city, many working as pickers in the orange groves as well as providing labor for a lot of different businesses. This eventually led to a Chinese quarter developing. “The first Chinatown was located inside the city proper, what they called the downtown mile square. There were about 10 buildings and that included Chinese stores, a boarding house, carpenter's shop, some laundries, general stores, and a labor contractor.”

Eventually, Chinese businesses were forced out of the downtown area due to editorial campaigns launched against them. On top of that, a fire destroyed most of the structures.


The site of Chinatown moved to the base of Mt. Rubidoux around 1885 where it played a large part in Riverside for about 40 years. Now that site is an overgrown field surrounded by a fence and closed to the public.

Janlee Wong is the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter. He grew up in Riverside. He said there were actually little Chinatowns throughout California. “All of those disappeared largely because of the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Wong explained.

Wong’s family was one of the first Chinese families in the city. Their journey from a small village in China to Riverside was shaped largely by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law that stated only the eldest son of US citizens who were of Chinese descent could immigrate to the United States.

“Since my uncle was already here, my father could not go via that route,” Wong said. “However, there was a flourishing business in what's called “Paper Sons”. If you paid a certain amount of money, you could be claimed as a firstborn son and you could immigrate to the United States. So that's how my father got here in the mid-1930s.”

After Congress repealed the Exclusion Act in 1943, Wong’s mother was finally able to come to the United States and start a family, but there were still challenges to overcome. A provision in the California State Constitution said that counties could set rules on where Chinese people could live.


This affected Wong’s parents when they purchased a home. “The realtor had to ask the neighbors if it was okay for a Chinese family to move into this area, to move into this house.”

Despite years of setbacks brought on by US laws, Wong’s family ran a thriving restaurant business in Downtown Riverside. “With Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. My father heard that there was a Japanese who owned a restaurant in Riverside on Market St. He and three of his buddies scraped up some money and decided to buy the restaurant from this Japanese who was sent to camp.”

Wong remembered working in the restaurant as a child, but at that point, Riverside Chinatown had long been uninhabited. Because the Exclusion Act had barred Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, it had created a bachelor society. That greatly impacted the Chinese population.

“The peak in the Riverside Chinatown with regard to population was in the 1890s where there were about 400 or 500 permanent inhabitants,” Lee said. “It developed into a tight-knit community, but they saw dwindling population in the 1920s.”


Eventually, population was down to one: Chinatown’s last resident, George Wong. George Wong, of no relation to Janlee Wong, would often visit families and tell stories of the old Chinatown. Janlee Wong recalled spending time with George Wong. “We had good talks with George. He was sort of a relic from the old, old Chinese experience in California.”

George Wong stayed in Chinatown well after the last business closed, living among the remains of the old buildings, protecting the site that held so much history.

“He had a lifelong dream of seeing Chinatown restored, somehow getting people moved back in, making it commercially viable, building a pavilion,” Lee said. “The Chinese Pavilion that was constructed over by Riverside Public Library, some of the ideas for that came from drawings he did, sketching things out as part of his dream of what would happen to revitalize Chinatown and bring it back.”

Following an archaeological excavation of the Chinatown site which unearthed about 3 tons of materials, the Save Our Chinatown Committee formed to preserve the site which still contain both the artifacts and the stories of the Chinese American experience and all of their contributions to Inland Southern California.  

Like George Wong, the Committee wanted to protect the site. They took legal action after the city made multiple attempts to build on the property and disrupt the archaeology of the land.

While none of Janlee Wong’s family lives in Riverside anymore, they are enthusiastic to support the Committee for all of their efforts raising money, going to court, and working with the city council. “We would've needed people like that. George Wong couldn't have done that or none of the old Chinese people would know how to do that, but this group was pretty savvy.”

Wong said that if not for efforts put forth by organizations like Save Our Chinatown or those of his mother’s, who donated their family home to UCR to fund Asian American research, stories of the Chinese immigrant experience could be lost.

“Because of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a veil of secrecy. Not only from outsiders but also within Chinese families because the fewer people, especially American born children, that knew about these secrets the less likely that they would be revealed and then the immigration authorities would come. Therefore, growing up, we never really got a lot of stories about the immigrant experience from that vantage point, from that perspective.”

While the physical Riverside Chinatown may be gone, Chinese families in Southern California formed the Gom-Benn Village Society, named after the tiny village in China where many of the residents of Riverside Chinatown came from. They still meet for an annual dinner to share memories.

The Chinese Pavilion in Downtown Riverside remains standing, serving as a memorial for all Chinese pioneers who contributed to the development of Riverside and who resided in its very own Chinatown.

And the Save Our Chinatown’s current goal? They’ve sketched plans and raised money to convert the site into a Riverside Chinatown Heritage Park, but plans fell through. Still, they haven’t given up. The site of the Riverside Chinatown is just too important.



Credit Wong Family
Janlee Wong's Family Portrait, 1955

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