- Kalyn McCall
In 1941, a year after the last Chinese dwelling in Anaheim was torn down, Knott's Berry Place in Buena Park received a new resident in its Ghost Town: a Chinese laundryman named Wing Lee. When Walter Knott set about building his theme park, his goal was not to recreate the pioneer history of Orange County or reflect the goings-on of the area. For Knott, his Ghost Town (and eventual amusement park) was an ode to the Old West and the pioneer days of California as a whole, focusing on the Gold Rush and the pioneers it brought with it. Interestingly, not only was Southern California not shaped by the Gold Rush as the rest of the state was, but Knott's own pioneer relatives were post-Civil War Southern migrants - meaning they completely missed the Gold Rush.
Nevertheless, Knott embraced the pioneer spirit and, as a result, created what could be understood as a living monument to California's past. Even for Knott, Chinese immigration and labor were an essential part of that past. On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Northern California. By 1849, migrants from across the nation and immigrants from around the world came searching for "Gold Mountain." Many Chinese laborers settled in the state mining gold, working in the fields, and establishing communities as the rush died down. After the Civil War, many turned to construction on the railroad until the transcontinental lines were complete. As a result, many Chinese enclaves established restaurants, laundries, and vegetable gardens across the state. Given tensions with white miners and farmers who accused them of stealing their labor, Chinese workers were able to use these other industries, especially laundries, to create alternative sources of income and establish financial footholds in America.
From 1877 (around the end of Reconstruction back East) to about 1887, anti-Chinese protests, labor contests, and even violence erupted across California. Throughout this period, whites clashed with Chinese laborers in various Orange County communities. In 1871, violence turned into a Chinese Massacre in the city of Los Angeles.
In addition to these outbursts, Californians also rallied politically to enforce discrimination. Denis Kearney organized the Workingmen's Party in 1878, driving anti-Chinese sentiments and legislation across California. One of their most successful campaigns resulted in added provisions to the California constitution denying Chinese residents property protections as well as making it difficult for companies to hire Chinese laborers. On the "Chinese Issue," California drove the nation, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act by Congress in 1882.
Laundries became a centerpiece in debates over Chinese rights as seen through the 1886 Supreme Court Case Yick Wo v. Hopkins. San Francisco Supervisors had passed numerous ordinances in the 1870s and 1880s targeting laundries through zoning laws, specific taxes, and prohibiting various practices associated with the Chinese. Although the laws were on the surface race-neutral, they were easily recognized as being intended to target Chinese communities. Yick Wo v. Hopkins became the first Supreme Court case testing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, passed in 1868 after the Civil War, and established that race-neutral laws enforced in a discriminatory manner violate the US Constitution.
Chinese labor built Orange County. While the Germans of Anaheim receive credit for creating the Anaheim colony, Chinese laborers constructed it before the Germans' arrival. Over the years, Chinese workers laid out towns, dug out irrigation ditches providing essential resources to the agricultural community, became vegetable vendors, labored in the fields, opened restaurants, provided Chinese medical remedies, and, of course, opened laundries. In Orange County's early years, major cities such as Anaheim, Orange, Tustin, and Santa Ana had sizeable Chinatown districts.
The oldest and largest Chinese community in Orange County was in Anaheim, located along Chartres Street. By 1876, the Chinese community made up about 1/6th of the city's population. Orange's settlement began in the 1870s with the establishment of the first Chinese laundries along North Orange Street. Tustin's Chinese community was more agricultural than their urban counterparts, working on local ranches and taking up truck farming. In the seat of Orange County's government, Santa Ana's Chinatown stood along 3rd Street, touching both Bush and Main streets. Some Chinese laborers moved throughout Orange County working in the fields and staying in work camps in Irvine, Los Alamitos, Talbert, Gospel Swamp, Westminister, and the like. Other residents were more temporary, fluctuating between Los Angeles and Orange County.
After the completion of the railroads and land boom of the 1880s, tides turned decisively against these Chinese communities. While Chinese labor continued to be used from time to time well into the 20th century, as more white Americans moved in, Chinese residents were expected to move out. 19th and 20th century Orange County favored temporary, nonwhite labor over the establishment of permanent communities when possible. Added to Chinese Exclusion were various town ordinances aimed at Chinese enclaves, from placing restrictions on fishing and other industries to outlawing cesspools and targeting practices associated with Chinese laundries. Thanks to such laws, businesses closed, residents moved out, and Chinatowns disappeared. Immigration restrictions not only prevented an increase in new migrants but also restricted the movement of women and the ability to have children. Coupled with anti-miscegenations laws (interracial relationships were forbidden in America until Loving v. Virginia), immigration restrictions meant Chinese populations slowly dwindled as families ceased. Santa Ana's Chinatown faced the most dramatic demise in 1906 when the city was finally able to rid itself of the blight on the town. After finding an alleged case of leprosy, city officials moved to burn down Chinatown post-haste. Some Chinese resettled to neighboring towns, but eventually, they moved or passed on.
Although Chinese communities have often been overlooked in Orange County histories and their imprints on the built environment have been wiped away, Sanborn Maps serve as great resources to help imagine the county's pioneer landscape. Created for fire insurance adjustors to assess the risks of insuring various buildings and homes, these maps preserved detailed records of 19th and century communities. While they focused exclusively on downtown areas with the greatest concentration of buildings and the population, their focus enabled them to capture Chinatowns and barrios located near city centers.
Thus, Chinese laundries were a big deal in California and later American history, serving as the economic foundation of many migrants, becoming a site of tension concerning Chinese rights, and eventually the focal point of communities throughouy the state. Walter Knott most likely did not concern himself with all these things when moving Wing Lee to Buena Park. Moreover, given his focus on California's Gold Rush history, he was most likely not thinking about the role Chinese migrants - including laundrymen - played in the OC's pioneer days. Yet taking into account the gradual destruction and erasure of Orange County's Chinese communities - from the burning of Santa Ana's Chinatown in 1906 to the various workers who were threatened to leave the area, to the eventual deaths of these communities in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to Chinese Exclusion - Walter Knott unintentionally created the most lasting landmark acknowledging the presence of Chinese communities in Orange County. As with indigenous people, the Chinese were not celebrated until they no longer posed a threat and could be utilized for mythology-driven tourism. But in a way, Wing Lee serves as a silent testament to the presence of pioneer Chinese communities across California, including Orange County itself. It was only in 1943, two years after Wing Lee's installation, that Chinese Exclusion was officially overturned.