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Explore California’s Asian American History at These Key Sites

By Heather Kathryn Ross

May 17, 2022

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San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden is 'an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama.'

Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden is 'an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama.'

From San Francisco to San Diego, California offers several opportunities to learn more about Asian American history.

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In 1918, Cirilo Juanitas arrived from the Philippines in Stockton, California’s Little Manila, soon to be home to the largest number of Filipinos outside the islands. In the years that followed, he ran grocery stores, gambling halls, a hotel—and, to the delight of his eight children, a candy counter.

Today, his granddaughter Terri Torres helps lead the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) museum in the same neighborhood, where visitors can learn lesser-known stories of how Filipinos like Juanitas have shaped California—and the United States. “The museum tells the whole history that doesn’t get told in textbooks,” Torres says.

The U.S. claimed the Philippines as a colony after the Spanish-American War in 1898, recruiting Filipinos to work on the farms of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Many found lodging in Stockton in the off-season in hotels like Juanitas’s. “It was the closest place they could go and be welcomed,” says Torres.

Filipinos in the valley were instrumental in the farmworkers’ rights movement, led by Little Manila resident Larry Itliong, who cofounded the United Farm Workers union with renowned organizer Cesar Chavez. “Everyone hears about Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but no one hears about Larry Itliong,” Torres says.

But in the early 1970s, Stockton tore down Juanitas’s businesses, along with most of the neighborhood, for the Crosstown Freeway that connects the parallel 99 and 5 highways. “It went right through Chinatown and Little Manila,” Torres recalls. “The old-timers—we call them Manongs—who had spent their lives in the fields were thrown out on the street.” 

The FANHS museum sheds light on the Manongs and other Filipino Americans throughout the U.S. through photos and artifacts such as farmworkers’ furniture made from produce crates, a uniform from the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in WWII, and illustrations by Marvel and DC Comics artist Tony DeZuniga. 

“We’ve lost a lot of our elders” to age and COVID-19, Torres says. “How do you get young people wanting to learn their parents’ or grandparents’ history so they can pass it down? If it doesn’t get told, it’s going to be forgotten.”

This May, visit the FANHS museum (on weekends, by appointment) and other noteworthy places across the Golden State for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The Tule Lake Internment Camp offers a sobering reminder of the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Tule Lake

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Tule Lake, near the Oregon border, was the largest of 10 camps where the U.S. imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII and the center of internee resistance. It held nearly 30,000 internees who answered “no” on a government loyalty questionnaire, including Tatsuo Ryusei Inouye, who kept a diary. On a ranger-guided tour, you can enter the camp prison and see the site of a makeshift stockade where authorities locked Inouye and others after a series of demonstrations. “This afternoon we ate a portion of rice too small to even feed a cat,” Inouye wrote in November 1943. Also tour the Civilian Conservation Corps barracks that housed internees and later German POWs made to work in the surrounding fields. Tule Lake was the last camp to close—seven months after WWII ended. Tours run Memorial Day through Labor Day. 

Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, San Francisco

Housed in a Julia Morgan–designed former YWCA, this museum is the country’s oldest devoted to Chinese American history. A new exhibit, We Are Bruce Lee, which opened in April and is scheduled to run for three years, spotlights the martial arts film legend, born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1940. It presents rare on-set photos, Lee’s yellow tracksuit from his final film, Game of Death, his handwritten notes on life and community, and a documentary about his influence on hip-hop. “Over the pandemic, with a lot of racial attacks, particularly in the Bay Area, it made sense to showcase a Chinese American hero who was a unifier,” says communications manager Nathaniel Jue. “In his movies, he brought in actors of all different backgrounds. That was uncommon in the ’60s—to see protagonists of different backgrounds working together.”

Little Saigon, San Jose

The city of San Jose is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, numbering some 180,000 people. Sample broken rice dishes at Com Tam Thien Huong or beef pho at Pho Pasteur—or peruse the food court at the Grand Century Mall. At the Museum of the Boat People & the Republic of Vietnam, trace the journey of south Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Out front rests one of the small wooden boats that carried families abroad to escape persecution. “If we aren’t collecting these [artifacts] and creating new art about this now, the history and experience of millions of people will disappear,” museum founder Loc Vu told San Jose Spotlight.

Locke

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After completing the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, immigrants from China’s Pearl Delta constructed the sprawling levees that tamed the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Their descendants settled in nearby towns, including Locke—but xenophobic laws barred them from owning land or bringing over their families. “A lot don’t know about the struggles of the previous two or three generations,” says Darwin Kan, grandson of Lee Bing, the man credited with founding Locke in 1915. “They need to know—you’re where you are because of them.” A four-block stretch of wood-frame buildings includes the schoolhouse, boardinghouse, and Lee’s Dai Loy gambling hall—now a museum with original Pai Gow and Fan-tan tables. Stop in for a drink at Al’s Place saloon or Cantonese fare at Locke Garden restaurant. At the Asian Pacific Spring Festival on May 21, enjoy lion dancing, cooking demonstrations, and a tea ceremony.

Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, Long Beach 

Painted on all sides with a mural of blue skies, palm trees, and a thatched meetinghouse from the Yap Islands, the museum is as intriguing outside as it is inside. View artifacts and textiles from across Oceania, including Samoan kava bowls, Fijian bark cloth, and the gaw—a traditional currency from Yap made of shells and whale teeth. A new art exhibit tells stories of Pacific Islanders impacted by COVID-19.

China Camp State Park tells the stories of Chinese shrimp fisherman.

China Camp State Park, San Rafael 

At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese shrimp fishermen on the San Pablo Bay, just north of San Francisco, were so successful that California outlawed their traditional nets and barred them from exporting their catch. Hike and picnic among preserved wooden fishermen’s cottages and, at a small museum, learn how China Camp residents harvested and dried millions of pounds of shrimp a year. On weekends, grab a shrimp cocktail and a Coke at a ’50s-style beach-side café. Until 2016, it was run by Frank Quan, the last Chinese shrimper in the area. China Camp served as the setting for the Red-scare-era John Wayne film Blood Alley—and appeared in the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why.

Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego

Spanning 12 acres of historic Balboa Park near downtown, the garden features ornate bonsai, kaleidoscopic koi, and a grove of more than 200 cherry trees. In 1957, San Diego established one of the first Sister City relationships on the West Coast with Yokohama, Japan—the garden commemorates their exchange of culture and ideas. Stroll the garden on your own, take a docent-guided tour, or attend events like origami classes, Reiki sessions, or the World Bee Day celebration on May 21.

>> Next: Road-Trip Through California’s Asian American Women’s History

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