A discussion detailing and celebrating the contributions of Chinese immigrants locally took place earlier this week – days before Sunday’s celebrations for the Year of the Rabbit.
As part of the Napa County Historical Society lecture series, author John McCormick presented his new book, “Chinese in Napa Valley: The Forgotten Community that Built Wine Country.”
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The hybrid event Thursday, which took place over Zoom and at the Native Sons Hall in Napa for the Lunar New Year, served as a reminder of the rich history of Chinese immigrants and workers in the US.
The California Gold Rush brought the first wave of Chinese immigrants to California in the mid-1880s. In the following decades, many Chinese workers traveled to California in search of work. In the Napa Valley, many Chinese laborers worked on farms and vineyards, tanneries and laundries, and at one time Napa Valley had Chinatowns in Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga.
As more Chinese immigrants came to the US and accepted work at a fraction of the cost of white men, resentment against the immigrants rose and anti-Chinese leagues formed and restrictive federal immigration policies targeting Chinese immigration were implemented.
The Paige Act of 1875 prohibited the migration of Chinese women and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all new immigration of Chinese workers for a decade. This was even expanded by the Geary Act, which led to the decline of the Chinese population.
At Thursday’s event, Napa Mayor Scott Sedgley honored former Sonoma Mayor and current City Councilman Jack Ding, and winemaker Dr. Paul Gee – both first generation Chinese-Americans – with certificates of recognition for their contributions to the community.
McCormick then sat down for a chat with Dr. Jack Jue, Jr., a retired family physician and author of the blog “Jue Joe Clan History,” to discuss the book, which explores the contributions of Chinese workers, and the hardships that t they made. faced, in the Napa Valley from 1870-1900.
A fifth-generation Napan, McCormick worked in tech in Silicon Valley before pursuing a master’s degree in history from Harvard University. When McCormick was taking a class on US-China relations, he came across an article from the St. Helena Historical Society on Chinese Vineyard Workers in Napa Valley.
“As I dug further and further, I realized it’s not just work in the vineyards, but they were working up and down the valley,” McCormick said. “This has all been completely erased from history, I mean, whitewashed.”
At the time, COVID-19 and anti-Asian rhetoric were on the rise. Frustrated by racism and injustice, he began to write.
“It’s a very positive, unknown story about what the Chinese did here. They were the fundamental backbone of labor in the 1870s to 1900. Napa would look a lot different if they weren’t here,” McCormick said.
As he researched, he ran into a problem—there was little to no written record of the Chinese workers who came to the Napa Valley in the 1870s. Due to the lack of information, McCormick relied on oral accounts that had been passed down through the generations. One such history was that of Jue Joe, a Chinese immigrant born in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province China, who came to the US as a teenager in the 1870s.
The story of Jue Joe was compiled by Jue, the moderator of the event and the granddaughter of Jue Joe. For the last decade, he has worked with relatives to document and publish his family’s rich oral history online. After McCormick’s discovery of the blog, Jue Joe’s story became integral to the book.
“Because I have children and grandchildren, everyone forgets where we come from. We take what we have for granted, and a lot of people just forget their immigrant roots.” said Jue. “These are really illiterate people who came to a foreign country, didn’t speak the language and were able to become successful, you know, that’s amazing to me.”
Also essential to McCormick’s research were the Napa Valley Register and St. Helena Star archives, which the author combed through with the help of Napa County Historical Society research librarian Kelly O’Connor.
“That’s the record we have, and if (the newspapers) didn’t do their job — and a lot of it was shoddy — at least they were documenting what was going on … we wouldn’t know what we know,” McCormick said while noting of the heavy bias. “It wasn’t necessarily good reporting.”
Using the papers as source material proved challenging.
“Everything I read, I had to realize they were writing with (prejudice),” he said.
It wasn’t just reported.
An advertisement for a white-owned laundry service published in the Napa Valley Register on June 14, 1880 read, “WASHING AND IRONING neatly done on the most reasonable terms. Give your laundry to a deserving white woman in preference to Chinese.”
This disdain for Chinese immigrants and the various laws prohibiting Chinese migration in the latter part of the 19th century put an end to the vibrant Chinatowns that had existed throughout Napa Valley. The Chinese laundries, opium dens, shops and markets are long gone, and there is little trace of the Chinese community that was instrumental in the prosperity of the region.
Many of the workers moved to different cities, returned to China, or stayed in the Valley until they died. Since then, the valley has relied on immigrants from other parts of the world.
“We should have moved on from this 19th-century discrimination against ethnic minorities, and yet it’s just been repeated. Especially with the Hispanic immigration,” Jue said. “These are people leaving poverty who are coming in… many Chinese came in illegally… I think it’s really unfortunate that history (is) repeating itself.”
Moving forward, McCormick hopes that the history and contributions of Chinese immigrants will be added to the local school curriculum so that their work and presence in Napa Valley will no longer be overlooked.
PHOTOS: “Chinese in Napa Valley: The Forgotten Community that Built Wine Country” book event at Native Sons Hall in Napa
You can reach Danielle Wilde at 707-256-2212 or [email protected]