Part of what makes Kern County so wonderful is the way that people from different unique cultures have come here and made it their home.
Together, we’ve shaped the face of our cities and neighborhoods, while changing history. One such group of people are the Chinese, who have played an integral role in building and shaping the “Golden Empire” while putting Bakersfield on the map. Interestingly enough, Colonel Baker himself played a major part in bringing eager Chinese workers to Kern County.
In exchange for contracted labor he offered plots of land as payment, a proposal that proved too tempting to pass up. Using the land to plant gardens, “The Chinese were praised by the editor of the Kern County Courier for clearing and cultivating land, which otherwise would have been ‘unproductive and useless,’ ” revealed The Chinese of Kern County 1865-1960.
From miners to workers and those hopeful of striking the “mother lode,” the gold rush also brought an influx of many to our area during the mid 1800s, including some from China. With it came the need for reliable transportation, in the way of rail. Chinese workers yet again filled the ranks, their labor helping to transform our area as they built many of our long-standing rail lines, including the world famous Tehachapi Loop. Built by up to 3,000 laborers from China’s Canton region (also known as Guangdong) and completed in 1876, several plaques at the site commemorate the remarkable achievement. It was constructed in an impressively brief two years and remains in use almost 150 years later.
After the railroad’s completion many Chinese decided to stay in the Bakersfield area, explained Galen Chow, whose family emigrated from China around the turn of the century. From China Lake to Mojave, and Havilah’s Chinatown, our beloved County bears witness to this history. The June 1880 census found that almost a third of the Bakersfield district’s population was of Chinese descent. Naturally, two Chinatowns developed in what is now downtown Bakersfield. “Old Chinatown” was made up of several blocks between 20th and 23rd streets, and “New Chinatown” which was smaller and to the southeast.
“Old Chinatown comprised of cigar stores, some gambling, at that time in the old days. New Chinatown was little sleeping areas for families…and they had basements there, that in the summer time they went down there to cool off and they had vegetables,” Chow detailed. He also cleared up the longstanding rumors of tunnels in the area, stating that they were more root cellars that did not necessarily connect from one property to the other. Norman Lum, whose grandfather emigrated from China in the 1880s concurred, “There’s always been a lot of thoughts that there might have been Chinese underground tunnels, but back in the late 1800s and early 1900s everybody had a root cellar, they didn’t have refrigeration and such, so they stored things down in the cellars. And not just the Chinese, but a lot of people.” He went on to say, “this is just hearsay, [but] a few people that had homes next to each other may have interconnected their cellars because that’s where they spent a lot of time. They either slept down there or played cards because that was the coolest place.”
In the 1920s, the population of Chinese-Americans living in Kern County had dropped, and by the mid 1930s, not much remained of Bakersfield’s Chinatowns. But even after all this time, downtown still bears the unmistakable marks.
Longstanding Chinese restaurants can be found on 18th St., and you’ve probably seen the Ying On Association on the corner of 21st and L, as well as other landmarks that dot the area.
Ying On “was composed of members of the labor force, like merchants, grocery store, cooks, and the owners were also there,” began Chow. It was formed for those that came over from China or did not speak English. Officers and older members that spoke the language helped these new residents learn the ins and outs of living in Bakersfield. “There were Chinese newspapers that came to the association, and you were able to go in there and sit down and read and socialize and talk about everyday things.” This provided a great environment for those new to the area to learn and enjoy community, half a world away from home.
The building was also a focal point for celebrations like New Years. “They used to have roasted pig and they had the kids there and after the celebration everyone wanted to grab the plate with the pig on it. There’d be fighting over it or they would run away so the other kids don’t get it,” he added humorously. With opera singers and a dragon dance outside in the street, the event also attracted a lot of dignitaries through the years.
Some Chinese New Year customs included parents giving red paper with money in it, called “lai see,” or good luck money. This was also given for birthdays, births, and other happy occasions. Traditionally families would clean their homes to prepare for the New Year and eat special meals with no meat. “During that time you could fast for a day or two and then when you start the New Year, you can eat meat,” Chow said.
Other New Year practices involved setting off firecrackers at the front and back doors to ward off evil and bad luck. Chow, who is also a retired Bakersfield Police Department lieutenant remembered calling the station in the early 60s, “because my folks were going to fire off a package of firecrackers and I wanted to advise them that these are not gunshots, these are just a custom for Chinese New Year. They knew what was going on then and didn’t have to send a patrolman to come and check it out.” He laughed, “We don’t do that anymore.”
Chinese herb doctors are another feature of the times that have gone the way of the New Year’s firecracker. “There were a couple of stores that if you had the flu or a fever or something, you or your parents would go to the herb doctor and he would make up three or four portions of herbs and they’d wrap it up and you would take it home, boil it in water, and just strain all the other herbs out, and drink the broth from there.” He admitted, “Sometimes it’s hard to swallow and sometimes it smells but the next day, either your fever is gone or you feel like you got rid of whatever was aching…” He went on to describe a few traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as using the edge of a silver coin to rub salt water on achy joints.
His parents also had a special recipe to heal aches and pains, one which we don’t recommend copying at home. His mother would take a gallon pickle jar and fill it with herbs “and a rattlesnake (dead, naturally) and a little liquor or whiskey.” The liquid would then be applied to the site of the pain or sore to heal it.
By 1955, the remaining herb shops had closed and it was common for Chinese-Americans to go to physicians and pharmacies. Traditions like this continued to lose popularity over time, especially as the older generation passed away. But preserving Chinese culture continues to be very important for Norman Lum, whose family for many years were caretakers of the Let Sing Gong Temple. The temple, which acted as a focal point for important community gatherings has now been donated to Kern Pioneer Village, where he hopes it will be restored and enjoyed for generations to come.
He shared that the building was traditionally used to “celebrate the four seasons and the lunar New Year which is part of the seasons. But, primarily the temple is used for events like a birth, weddings, funerals, or our ancestor’s birthday. We would go down there and light incense and such and light offering to them.” He continued, “We didn’t have services per se, families went down and visited on their own. Certain times of year they might have a bigger group of gatherings for the seasons but the gatherings were more individual.” Practices like this helped to bind the community together, especially for Lum’s family who lived further out in the countryside. He noted, “a lot of people we only saw once or twice a year or we saw them at the temple during different celebrations.
But even though all those people didn’t see each other very often, because of the old traditions they were still close. The temple actually brought some of that together.”
While offerings for ancestors are no longer made there, some families continue the tradition at home; and the essence of the practice remains in the way of a deep, abiding respect for elders. Lum added that this connection to his ancestors helps guide him in life, and ties everything together: “This is the way our ancestors did it and I think it’s important to preserve.”
There are many other annual events that continue to unite the Chinese community. Genny Toy described Ching Ming, or “Tomb-Sweeping Day,” an early April festival where she said, “We go to the cemetery with flowers and we pay our respects and go out and have dinner afterwards with the family members.” Autumn brings the annual full moon festival, which locally is celebrated at Confucius Church. Though not an actual church, it functions as a gathering hall and Chinese school for local kids. The festival involves a children’s program with dancing, and food donated by local restaurants.
Toy’s own grandfather, K.C. Choy helped found the “church” in July of 1949, but this wasn’t the only major contribution her family had to Bakersfield; they also owned the first Chinese store to sell American clothing locally. “They used to own a department store called Choy’s Department Store, it was on 19th and L St., and we sold a lot of Levi’s, cigarettes, and blue chambray shirts…We all took turns working at the store when we were growing up,” she recalled. At one point they sold the most Levi pants in Bakersfield, which she boasted was their claim to fame.
She’s also a member of the Chinese Women’s Club of Bakersfield, which was founded in 1946. Toy started attending when she and her sister would take their mother, who couldn’t drive at the time. She has now been a member for more than half a century. The club meets for banquets and annual events and continues to celebrate their unique culture and heritage. With how big Bakersfield has become, it can be difficult for new residents with Chinese ancestry to connect, but Toy expressed that she regularly sees new faces at gatherings. Now as one of the most longstanding members of the group, she finished, “In the past we used to look to the elders, [but] they’re no longer there, and we’re looked up to now as the senior members of the community.”
Since first arriving in Kern County in the mid 1800s, our Chinese residents have continuously forged a way for themselves, experiencing many huge successes along the way. As just one of the many cultures that played an essential role in making our city what it is today, it remains paramount to preserve this significant history as we move into our next chapter.
Much of the background of this piece came from The Chinese of Kern County 1857-1960 by William Harland Boyd. This tome is filled with wonderful history and stories, painting a vivid picture of the lives of many of Kern County’s earliest Chinese families, and is available at many of our local libraries.
Vintage photos courtesy of Kern County Local History Photograph Collection