A Look at a Historical Chinatown Nestled in California’s Central Valley
By Susie Ling, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California
California’s Central Valley, “the greatest garden in the world,” produces about a quarter of the food that America eats. In between the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, nestled at the foot of Sierra Nevada range, is the small town of Hanford.
According to Frank Howe, in 1875, there was nothing in Hanford but “a Chinaman, a band of sheep, and his sheep dog”. By 1876, newspapers reported Chinese working on the Southern Pacific Railroad line from Goshen to Huron. By 1877 – prior to California’s Alien Land Act – Chinese bought lots in what is today referred to as Hanford’s China Alley.
Hanford became quite a sizable early Chinese American community with herb shops, gambling dens, businesses, and a Chinese temple for the early agricultural workers and railroad workers. Around 1920, there were 600 Chinese settled in Hanford and about 20 businesses. Here, brick buildings went up and children played on the streets. Bessie Sue remembered “umbrella trees lined the Alley and when their purple blossoms would bloom, the fragrant smell would waft into the businesses that lined the unpaved street.” Bessie’s father, Sue Chung Kee, opened a general merchandise store and kept fifty canaries. Once, the birds escaped and people up and down the Alley were trying to capture the excited birds.
Sue Chung Kee immigrated to Hanford in 1886 at the age of sixteen. He had an arranged marriage with a woman born in San Francisco. Together, they built their home and business on No. 10 China Alley. The “very first” Chinese girl from Hanford to attend college, Bessie met and married Richard Loo. Richard Loo became an actor and the Bessie Loo Agency became the first and most successful Asian American casting agency in Hollywood history. Today, Bessie’s baby carriage is proudly displayed at the Taoist Temple Museum at No. 12 China Alley.
The first judge of Chinese American descent, Delbert Wong, was also born in Hanford. His father and grandfather both emigrated from Hoiping District in Guangdong, China. One of Delbert’s grandmothers, known as G. Mar, was a Chinese woman who knew nothing of her own origins. In 1942, Delbert and his brother Ervin joined the Army Air Corps; the Marines and Navy were less eager to accept Chinese volunteers. Delbert had a distinguished military career but Ervin never came home. Delbert used his G.I. Bill to attend Stanford Law School and in 1959, Delbert was appointed judge by Governor Pat Brown.
Richard Wing’s grandfather emigrated to Hanford from Fa Yuen in Sam Yup District of Guangdong. Grandfather Gong had been active in China’s Taiping Rebellion and escaped from political persecution around 1883. Grandfather Gong opened a restaurant, Man Jen Low, at No. 6 ½ China Alley. Four generations of the family would continue in the Chinese restaurant business. For unknown reasons, the family name became Wing. Richard was the fifth of seven children.
In 1944, Richard got called into the Army. He couldn’t finish basic training for health reasons, so he got assigned to temporary KP duty. In the mess hall, Richard got into a friendly wager. One of the other cooks boasted he could cut 60 slices of bread from a stale loaf. Richard – who had worked in his family’s kitchen since he was about six – cut 144 slices. That story went around!
Richard got a surprise assignment soon after: he was to be personal cook for General George Marshall in Washington D. C. Richard says the General and his wife were not fancy eaters and very pleasant people. Richard stayed with now Secretary of State Marshall after the war. As personal cook and food taster, Richard traveled to Shanghai, Chungking, London, Moscow, Warsaw, Paris, etc. While Marshall discussed our nation’s important diplomatic concerns, Richard studied in kitchens around the world.
In 1956, the Wing family asked Richard to come home to Hanford to help with the family restaurant business. Richard built the legendary Imperial Dynasty Restaurant on China Alley. From its inception, the restaurant won accolades from the American Academy of Chefs, the Chefs de Cuisine Association of California, and the Black Hat Chefs Society. Richard’s Escargots a la Bourguignonne won two Cordon Bleu Awards from the Wine and Food Society. The Wing family built chinoise food before fusion cuisine became vogue.
Despite its long legacy of ethnic diversity, only three percent of Hanford’s population today is Asian American. But Hanford has one of the richest Chinese American museums on the National Register. The Hanford Taoist Temple was probably built before 1886 by the Sam Yup Association. For decades, single men were temporarily housed on the first floor and basement. The second floor housed the actual temple as well as a temporary Chinese language school. Hanford has also restored a Chinese school and its segregated cemetery.
Daniel Chin is mayor of Hanford. His great-great-grandfather came to Hanford in 1889. His grandfather opened a laundry in Hanford and his father was one of the best Chinese bowlers in the 1950-60s. Daniel’s mother came to Hanford with her family from Kennett, Missouri after World War II. Mom and Dad had hoped to marry in Reno but interracial marriage was illegal in Nevada at that time. Daniel Chin said, “It is important for Hanford – like all other communities – to remember what the community was. Hanford residents have embraced its Chinese side and taken pride in the contributions of all its pioneers.”
Susie Ling is Co-editor of Gum Saan Journal, a semi-academic magazine of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. For more information on Hanford’s China Alley, see the 2007 issue of Gum Saan Journal at www.chssc.org.