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S.J. County Historical Museum celebrates Stockton’s Chinese history

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Posted: Friday, January 27, 2017 7:30 pm

At noon on Sunday, visitors to the San Joaquin County Historical Museum will be in for a treat.

The museum will open a window into the history of Stockton’s Chinatown, the vibrant business district that once stood along Washington Street.

Museum guests will be able to watch a lion dance, meet local Chinese-American authors and cooks, learn to use chopsticks, snap selfies in a costume photo booth, learn about mah jong, tai chi and the Chinese zodiac, and visit the new exhibit inside the museum.

“We will have menus from some of the businesses, we have a sign on loan to us from the Haggin Museum from the Bow On society, we have some Gold Rush-era objects to introduce how the Chinese came to Stockton,” Collections and Exhibits Manager Julie Blood said.

The exhibit is a tribute to Stockton’s Chinese-American settlers and modern residents. Chinese immigrants began settling in California in the mid-1800s, drawn by the Gold Rush.

Stockton soon held the third largest Chinese-American population in the U.S., and became known as “Sam Fow,” or “third city,” in Cantonese. (San Francisco and Sacramento were Dai Fow and Yee Fow, first and second city, respectively.)

“The heart of Stockton’s Chinatown was Washington Street,” Blood said. “It was essentially the main business street of Chinatown.”

The San Joaquin County museum has worked with the Chinese Benevolent Association of Stockton to create the Washington Street exhibit.

They held show-and-tell meetings with members of the Chinese-American community who remembered Washington Street in its heyday, as well as the Chinese residential neighborhoods on Channel Street.

Gong Lee, who owned Gong’s Restaurant, contributed some of the items. So did the daughter of Tommy Lee, who owned the Islander restaurant and nightclub.

There will be a traditional Chinese worker’s hat and jacket, family heirlooms, lots of photos and other items loaned by area residents and the Chinese Benevolent Society.

While there was a large Chinese-American neighborhood on Channel Street, the focus will be the shops and businesses that once lined Washington Street.

The exhibit is centered on 1915 to 1970.

That’s when the Washington Street Chinatown — along with Little Manila and Japantown in downtown Stockton — were evicted to build the Crosstown Freeway.

“What essentially caused the death of Chinatown was the Crosstown Freeway,” Blood said.

Many of the Chinese businesses that remained open moved to Harding Way, but the neighborhood was gone.

The exhibit was the brainchild of Blood and Dr. Janwyn Funamora, who serves on the county museum’s board. They wanted to help the Chinese Benevolent Association get its own museum off the ground. When the exhibit at the county museum closes in May, many of the artifacts will be transferred to the CBA museum.

The exhibit was timed to open at the beginning of the Lunar New Year, a major holiday in Chinese and many other Asian cultures.

The last exhibit focusing on Chinese-American history at the museum was in 1981, and shared the role of Chinese immigrants in the California Gold Rush.

Blood hopes the new exhibit will shine a light on an often-forgotten group of Stockton’s early settlers, and create more dialogue among the county’s residents.

“What I’m most excited about is seeing the reaction from the community, because they’ve all worked so hard in helping me to tell this story,” she said.

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