[COMMUNITY] Oakland's Rich Chinese American History
- Oakland rich in Chinese-American history
IN CONJUNCTION with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, the Asian Branch
of the Oakland Public Library is sponsoring an appearance by noted
Chinese-American author Iris Chang this Saturday, starting at 10:30
a.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.
Both the Asian Branch Library and the Cultural Center are located in
the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a mixed-use complex developed in the
early 1990s by the City's Redevelopment Agency as a revitalization
catalyst for the Chinatown district of downtown.
The plaza is on 9th Street between Franklin and Webster streets. An
underground garage in the complex provides convenient parking.
The author will speak about her newly released book, "Chinese in
America: A Narrative History," published by Viking-Penguin Press.
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"This is the first in a series of presentations by Asian-American
writers to be hosted by the library," says librarian Marjorie
Li. "The event is free of charge and a book autographing session and
reception will follow."
The author's history outlines a pattern of social activism on the
part of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans that challenges some
commonly held notions, such as striking Chinese railroad workers in
the 1800s, or the joint efforts of the Bay Area's Red Guard Party
and the Black Panthers in the 1960s. "Their long struggle for civil
liberties in the U.S. is comparable to what other ethnic groups who
settled here have experienced," says library spokesperson Kathleen
According to Oakland History Room Librarian Steven LaVoie, Oakland's
Chinatown was once known as Tong Yan Fow, and is one of the oldest
Chinese-American neighborhoods in California. Fewer than 1,000
Chinese Americans lived in the East Bay before the 1906 earthquake
and fire, files show. Most had come fleeing a wave of anti-Chinese
violence that swept San Francisco in the 1870s. Discrimination
forced Oakland's earliest Chinese Americans to keep moving, first to
14th and Washington streets -- where Oakland's first Chinatown began
in the early 1860s -- then to the east side of Telegraph Avenue at
Once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, thousands
of Chinese laborers sought work on new projects, such as building
the dams that formed Lake Temescal and Lake Chabot, and dredging the
Tidal Canal from the Estuary to San Leandro Bay -- making the city
of Alameda an island.
In 1882 restrictive laws were passed to force Chinese to live in
segregated areas; by this time "Chinatown" had moved to 8th and
The four-square-block area surrounding this historic center,
containing some 30 medium-sized commercial buildings dating from the
teens and twenties, with stucco, brick, glazed tile and terra cotta-
detailed facades, has been studied by Cultural Heritage Survey
researchers, and appears potentially eligible for listing on the
National Register of Historic Places as a district. At least three
of these appear to be individually eligible for listing.
The survey files compare Oakland's Chinatown to other cities such as
Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Stockton and Chicago, and point
out that while most other American "Chinatowns" have been destroyed
through urban renewal, "Oakland's is a unique survivor." On 7th
Street, also known as Railroad Avenue, were at least five Protestant
churches dedicated to spreading the faith among the either unmarried
men or men with families back in China. They lived in nearby rooming
houses, and became established.
"These Christian Churches played a vital role in the community. They
taught the Chinese English, and sometimes acted as their spokesmen,
protected them against violence, and established rescue homes for
women forced to live as prostitutes or concubines," say the survey
While many early Chinatown district buildings remain, the
redevelopment project that resulted in the construction of the
Pacific Renaissance Plaza did transform the blocks between Broadway
and Webster, and Ninth and Tenth streets. First to open in 1982 was
the $75 million Transpacific Centre, and next came the new East Bay
Municipal Utilities District headquarters, built at a cost of $35
million. Groundbreaking for the Plaza got under way in 1990, and
construction was completed in July, 1993. In addition to the
underground, 850-car parking garage, there are 250 residential
units, 100,000 square feet of retail outlets, including restaurants,
shops, and other businesses, and the street level branch library,
considered to be the busiest of the city branches, as well as the
upper level Cultural Center, with a 300-seat auditorium, classroom,
dance studio, gallery hall, and commercial kitchen facilities.
Earlier this year the Cultural Center, which had been operating
under the City's jurisdiction for most of its tenure, underwent a
reorganization and is now a separate nonprofit organization.
Executive Director Anne Huang and her staff are working to maximize
the facility's rental revenue potential, while building up program
offerings, such as the Iris Chang book signing.
For more information on Saturday's event, call (510)238-3400.
There also will be a walking tour of Chinatown on Saturday,
sponsored by the Oakland Tours Program, starting at 10 a.m. The free
tour starts at the fountain in the center of the Pacific Renaissance
Plaza. For more information, call 238-3234, or log on to