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  • Kalyn McCall

January 01 - When Push Comes to Shove

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Japanese fishing village located at the foot of Santa Monica Canyon across from Long Wharf, Santa Monica, Calif
Japanese Fishing Village near Santa Monica (1917) - Courtesy of Santa Monica Public Library

January 1, 1920. At the start of a new year, readers of the Anaheim Gazette opened their papers to a bit of local goings-on. The second page of the day’s edition included a brief mention of some fishing trouble in Newport Beach entitled, “Bad Day For Fish.”

“Japanese fishermen are taboo at Newport Beach and because of this fact a bunch of the little brown men who arrived at the port a few days ago expecting to engage in fishing there, Friday morning folded their nets and quietly went on their way - whence no one at the beach knows.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, first-generation Japanese immigrants, the Issei, settled in California, including Orange and Los Angeles counties. Around 1900, Orange County Issei arrived, followed by various religious leaders, and founded Historic Wintersburg Mission. Orange County’s Japanese community thrived in various pursuits that became essential to the county’s economy: from cultivating celery in the peatlands of Talbert and Wintersburg to harvesting chilies in Garden Grove or sugar beets and strawberries in Santa Ana. These farmers and their families served as pioneers and formed the foundation of many of Orange County’s communities.

North of the county in Los Angeles, many Japanese crews of fishermen, both Japanese-born Issei and American-born Nisei, made their mark in the fishing industry around the Port of Los Angeles. Many Japanese fishermen were recruited by West Coast canneries given their skills in catching albacore tuna, sardines, and the like. Over time, fishing communities like Furusato, a Japanese village on Terminal Island, took root.

However, during the first decades of the twentieth century, white Californians rallied against Asian communities, often focusing their ire on the landowning Japanese. White supremacist organizations, politicians, farmers, and labor unions sought to cut off Japanese immigration and prevent landownership on the belief that the Japanese posed economic, political, and cultural threats. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-1908 worked to cut off the flow of immigrant laborers from Japan. Around the same time, the Los Angeles Times reported that Orange County’s supervisors, facing complaints from locals regarding Japanese fishermen collecting too many shellfish in Laguna Beach, considered passing an ordinance prohibiting further shipping of abalone. Successively, anti-Japanese bills were introduced in California every year leading to World War II, with the Alien Land Law of 1913 becoming the first to pass. The law limited land leases by “aliens ineligible to citizenship” to three years, prevented the purchasing of additional land, and had its restrictions increased with amendments passed in 1919 and 1920. The bulk of Orange County’s Wintersburg community was developed in this short window.

At the same time, Southern California had transformed thanks to the growth of Los Angeles, whose port eventually overtook San Francisco’s at the busiest port on the West Coast. Southerners drawn West by the oil booms, Mexican immigration driven by the Mexican Revolution, Black migrations out the South, and the growth of various industries during World War I caused Los Angeles to multiply with the harbor following suit. Between the years 1917 and 1930, new warehouses, sheds, and wharves were constructed to allow millions of tons of cargo to pass through Southern California’s busiest port.

Which leads to January 1, 1920. The kerfuffle in Newport Beach had occurred due to the closing of the Port of Los Angeles near Santa Monica, home of a vibrant Japanese community. The demolition of the wharf had led the fishermen working for J.P. Horseman to head south to Orange County to ply “their vocation there.” However, the locals made sure to let them know they were not welcome. The paper that day also included an article titled, “Startling Evidence of Jap Expansion - Gradually Possessing the Land Wherever They Get a Foothold.” White Orange Countians were in no frame of mind to welcome these visitors and instead retreated to paranoia and aggression.

The Gazette continued, “While there was no violent demonstration by Newport fishermen against the Japs, the latter were made to understand that their location at Orange county harbor might lead to unpleasant conditions for them.”

This was not the first time white Orange Countians had let people know that trouble might follow Asian laborers in the region. Prior to the passage of Chinese Exclusion in 1882, white residents often turned to regional paperers to provide warnings to local farmhouses and businesses thinking of employing Chinese workers, even those hired through Anaheim’s Chinatown. In 1877, when news spread that J.R. Raine was considering Asian labor in his fields hop fields, residents of Gospel Swamp - who had been unable to find work in the previous year - anonymously wrote to the Gazette, signing the missive “Many Citizens:”

“In consequence of the fearful riots which are taking place in the East at the present time. . . if people persist in giving employment to Mongolians instead of to the hard-working white population. . . the consequences will be disastrous to yourself and to the Chinese.”

After this letter, an arrangement was temporarily successful, at least until the arrangement broke down and the Chinese were more forcefully removed from the area. Sometimes, Orange County did get violent, whether it be driving Chinese workers out of the fields of Gospel Swamp in the 19th century or fighting striking Mexican citrus laborers in the 20th. Many communities burned down, either “mysteriously” as with the Black-owned Pacific Beach Club in 1926 or due to health concerns as with Santa Ana’s Chinatown in 1906. But more often than not, Orange County avoided out-and-out violence, instead opting for more subtle approaches to exclusion. Working through the law, custom, and tradition, at times Orange Countians made their visitors and hopeful residents very aware that settlement “might lead to unpleasant conditions.” Extralegal and extrajudicial forms of discrimination do not typify racial animosity in Orange County given that the legal and judicial systems typically shared the same ideals.

Later in 1920, Orange County assessor James Sleeper declared that the “Japanese will lose control of 8,000 fertile acres in this county as a result of the passing of the alien land law.” When push came to shove, white Orange Countians successively stripped many of their Japanese neighbors, including those who were American-born, of their rights. Thankfully though, for us all, the Japanese did not give up. Instead, they resisted and persisted.

For more information on Orange County's Historic Wintersburg Community, please consider visiting the Historic Wintersburg website, checking out the book Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach, and following local preservation efforts and the work of Mary Adams Urashima.

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