Thoughts on a tour of underground Chinatown

Posted by George Hostetter on April 9, 2014 

The state’s bullet-train project gave me a good look at Fresno’s past.

It all began on the afternoon of Thursday, April 3. I walked from The Bee newsroom to Chinatown. I met Karana Hattersley-Drayton, the city’s historic preservation project manager, on the northeast corner of F and Kern streets.

We were joined by Stacy Bumback and James Mayer, archeologists with AECOM; Toby Baker, construction expert with Baker Backhoe; Jeremy Brownstein, board chairman of Chinatown Revitalization Inc.; and Elizabeth Jonasson, spokeswoman for the state High-Speed Rail Authority.

Stacy, James and Toby were there on behalf of HSR. Our agenda: Explore a piece of Chinatown’s underground.

According to urban lore, Chinatown was once a maze of underground tunnels and rooms. The Bee has been writing about this for decades. The Bee published a story by Tim Sheehan on Oct. 22, 2013:

“Archaeologists tore up the parking lot of an adult bookstore in downtown Fresno on Monday as they began investigating the city’s historic Chinatown district.

“The Wildcat Enterprises Adult Superstore remained open for business as researchers working for the California High-Speed Rail Authority started their digging. Archaeologists for AECOM, a consultant to the rail agency, hope to assess the potential for high-speed rail construction to affect any culturally or historically significant resources, if or when work on the rail line happens.”

The digging that day didn’t turn up a tunnel.

The Bee published a story by Diana Marcum on Oct. 31, 2007:

“Rumors — more than rumors, really — of a labyrinth under Chinatown, including a tunnel to downtown Fresno, have many who live or work in Chinatown taking a new look at their neighborhood. Some are exploring dark basements, wondering whether they could lure tourists. And some are scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss is about.

“Chinatown’s hidden tunnels haven’t been the most well-guarded of secrets. Business owners in Chinatown knew they had connecting basements with mysteriously walled-off doors and musty collections of old, old things. It’s not clear how much they knew about tunnels that may be behind those doors.

“It all matches up with local lore of a literal underworld beneath a turn-of-the-century Chinatown. Old newspaper clippings paint a picture of a thriving, well-visited community that included casinos, brothels and opium dens with iron doors and hidden escape routes. Those who know the neighborhood well say it isn’t a question of whether there were tunnels, it’s only a question of how many survive.”

But if there were lots of tunnels, where are they? They shouldn’t be that hard to find. Chinatown isn’t on the dark side of the moon.

Karana, Stacy, James, Toby, Jeremy, Elizabeth and I went below ground through a door in the Colima barbershop. We went down about 15 feet to small room with a single light — a storage area. Then we went exploring through holes in the wall. Among other things, we were looking for evidence of tunnels.

We had a handful of flashlights. Anywhere outside a flashlight beam was total darkness. It was hard for me to grasp where we were going and what we were stumbling upon. There were plenty of interior walls in varying degrees of disrepair. We came upon a locked door with a peephole. There seemed to be evidence of doorways that had been sealed with brick, but the experts couldn’t say for sure.

I’m guessing we went a hundred feet or so north on F Street and a hundred feet or so east on Kern Street. The feel of the basement would have been much different if the place had been flooded with light from portable lamps. In the darkness, the trek was an adventure.

Karana had a Sanborn map (maps of buildings used in the fire-insurance industry) of the basement from the early 1900s. Thanks to her and the map, there was a method to our wanderings.

Karana showed us one of the headings on the Sanborn map: “Japanese female boarding.” This term, she said, generally indicated prostitution. She said it was well-known in the early 20th century that young Japanese women would be brought (human trafficking, in today’s terminology) to West Coast cities and forced into prostitution.

The women would be housed in clusters of small rooms. These rooms were called “cribs,” she said.

Karana shined her flashlight on the spot where, according to the Sanborn map, several cribs were located a century ago. It was a sobering moment.

“Men!” Karana said. She said it with sadness in her voice.

That one-word comment made me think the big mystery that brought the seven of us to that spot and inspired generations of Fresno Bee reporters — was underground Chinatown once a network of tunnel-connected sin — was no mystery at all.

Of course it was, at least in part. How do you think male appetites work?

Think back to the way it was in the Fresno of 1908 (the year of Karana’s Sanborn map). The city’s population in 1900 was 12,470. The population in 1910 would be 24,892, nearly double. You’ve got to figure Fresno in 1908 had about 22,000 people.

Fresno in 2014 has 505,000 people living on 112 square miles. That’s 4,500 people per square mile — and we’re considered sprawl city. I’m guessing the 22,000 people of 1908 Fresno were packed together much more tightly. Let’s say the area of Fresno in 1908 was four square miles — 2,500 acres is a good, round number. That’s not much land, nor is 22,000 all that many people.

How did the society of Fresno in 1908 operate? It was a railroad town and an agriculture town. It was not a hick place nor a lawless place. For example, M. Theo Kearney had died just two years earlier. The University of California took over his estate and operated it as a commercial enterprise. Fresno was acquiring statewide stature.

Fresno in 1908 was a place with a firm hierarchy of political and social power. A select group of white men controlled City Hall, business and the police. The wives of these men controlled home and church.

There would be no secrets in the tiny world of Fresno 1908.

The men of that town would have been no different than the men of 1808 or the men of 2014. Sex was often on their minds. Many of them were not new to the temptations of alcohol. They were no strangers to the joys of male companionship and food and repose. They may not have taken drugs, but they knew of them and understood the human weakness that made others embrace drugs. A wager or two on occasion would not have been uncommon.

Those male appetites — sex, booze, drugs, food, gambling, companionship, sloth — were powerful appetites in 1908. The town was growing at breakneck speed. There was a whiff of instability in the air. A lot of new faces were seen on the streets.

How were the movers and shakers to keep a lid on all this? Underground Chinatown was almost certainly part of the answer.

This isn’t to suggest that Chinatown was the only district in Fresno 1908 to have its sin. Far from it.

And I don’t suggest that the people of Chinatown 1908 were less law-abiding or less moral than others in Fresno. Karana’s statement — “Men!” — speaks volumes about the fundamental nature of humans across the generations.

But I do suggest that it makes total sense for a complex business world (not all of it on the legal up-and-up) to grow beneath Chinatown’s streets, one that every important Fresnan knew all about and either condoned or pretended not to see precisely because it was literally underground and served a socially-useful purpose.

How could all of Fresno 1908 not know about underground Chinatown? The district would be bordered by Fresno Street, E Street, Inyo Street and G Street. At 250 acres, it was 10% of Fresno’s total area. That’s big enough to be on everyone’s radar screen and small enough to have it’s own culture.

The heart of Fresno was just to the east of Chinatown. Railroad tracks separated the two neighborhoods. The main train depot was in plain sight of everyone in Chinatown. That meant the happenings of Chinatown were in plain sight of everyone going through the train station.

Fresno in 1908 was about 30 years old as an incorporated city. The construction of Chinatown’s main buildings would be a relatively fresh memory for many Fresnans. That means many Fresnans watched as the Chinatown basements were built. Some of those Fresnans no doubt helped build them. The powers-that-be knew all about this underground world.

If some of the basements were secretly dug after the buildings were constructed, how did all the dirt get carted away without the beat cop (perhaps on the take) or the milkman or the paper boy noticing?

As for secret tunnels that served as escape routes — escape to where? Fresno 1908 is small and Chinatown is even smaller. Unless the escape tunnels went to Porterville, running down a dark passageway only to emerge at F and Kern streets doesn’t strike me as an effective dodge from rivals or cops.

What emerged was an underground array of potential business sites with endless options for connectivity or isolation, depending on whether the individual Chinatown entrepreneur was in the mood for allies (open that basement door to the neighbor’s basement containing a complementary business) or solitude (lock the door, perhaps after an argument over money).

I’ve already mentioned the conciseness of Chinatown as a spur to this connectivity. There also was institutional prejudice. People of Chinese and Japanese descent helped build California and Fresno, yet they (along with many other groups) faced terrible legal and social bias. However, this prejudice also gave them an opportunity in their own space to pursue ambitions deemed acceptable by city leaders.

I’m talking money, another of those strong male appetites.

Combine all this — male appetites, geography, politics, corruption (some at City Hall were surely bribed to look the other way), prejudice, common sense, business, community leaders’ sense of propriety (even if it held much hypocrisy), ambition — and it’s easy to see underground Chinatown of 1908 being to some degree exactly like the myth described by Diana Marcum. It certainly wouldn’t have been a pretty sight — sanitation must have been a constant challenge — but it would have amazing to behold. I can see someone walking into a Chinatown store on F Street and emerging hours later on E Street two blocks away. What he did while journeying among all those basements is best left to the imagination.

But the fact that the journey was made at all was certainly no secret to Fresnans of 1908.

I say Underground Fresno Chinatown still has a story to tell and tourism opportunities. Bullet train, bring us those wallets.

 

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