Photo by Michelle Evans
By Visit Ventura
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, paying tribute and honor to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and, in this moment, are making history. For starters, a heartfelt thank you — and debt of gratitude — to the more than 300,000 living Asian-American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander American veterans who served this country.
Ventura takes pride in its diversity. Our residents represent myriad cultures, and they’re deeply proud of their heritage. Many have been here for generations, building our town into the rich kaleidoscope we know and love. And, regardless of heritage, each of us is a square in a unified patchwork.
Why is May Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? For one, to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843. And to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 (the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants).
But facts like these, well they are often lifeless and dry. Unless you put a story to them.
That first official immigrant to the United States, his arrival was anything but conventional. A fisherman named Manjiro, age 14, he officially stepped onto United States soil from a whaling vessel on May 7, 1843. His was not an easy voyage; Manjiro had spent the previous five months stranded on a remote island with his crew after a storm swept their fishing vessel off course. When the American whaling ship visited the island to collect sea turtles, its captain, William Whitfield, invited Manjiro aboard. Whitfield later brought Manjiro home to Massachusetts, where Manjiro lived until he returned to Japan in 1852 as an adult.
Here in Ventura, the tales are no less riveting — or personal.
Though records are understandably spotty, it’s believed that Chinese immigrants first began arriving in Ventura in the mid 1860s. Their community grew quickly, a hard-working enclave of laborers, farmers, cooks, laundrymen, gardeners, servants, and fishermen passing life as we all do; conducting business, raising families, and enjoying rare leisure time with perhaps a little gambling. Soon enough Ventura’s China Alley grew into a bustling, and tightly spaced, cluster of wooden shanty buildings lining Figueroa Street below the mission.
Note the words “tightly spaced” and “wooden.” And so the Chinese Fire Company was established in the 1870s, and they provided help not just to the Chinese community, but to the rest of the equally flammable wooden-structured town. A small accident (a toppled lantern) could turn quickly to disaster. In December 1890 a fire nearly burned all of China Alley to the ground.
Understandably, response time was essential. Couched in the framework of the time, the Chinese Fire Company were indeed rapid responders. When a fire was discovered, a gong was sounded and the firemen leapt into action, pulling a fire hose cart to wherever it was needed. These were real people, men like Soo Hoo How, one of the early Chinese Fire Company chiefs, who ran a hand laundry on Main Street (that business continued on until 1938 in the hands of his son). And “Charley” Hay Yee, who lived near the shed that housed the fire hose cart at the east end of China Alley. Designated keeper of the key, Mr. Yee opened the shed when the gong sounded. Apparently he and the rest of his fellow fighters (somewhere around a dozen) were fast to their feet. In a March 1903 article, the Ventura Free Press acknowledged their quickness (and their need for new equipment)… “The Chinese Fire Company is peculiar to Ventura and a valuable adjunct. By its promptness always, it has saved 1000’s of dollars worth of property and it would not be a bad idea to give it a benefit so it could have a new complete outfit. Its maintenance has never cost the town a cent.” Another article in the same issue reported that the Chinese Fire Company had arrived ahead of city firefighters, perhaps helping save the Ayers Hotel.
Take a moment to find your way to the China Alley Memorial Mural. Enjoy the beautiful scene created by artists (and husband and wife ) Qi Pang and Guo Song Yun.
In the sunny quiet, close your eyes and listen to the past breathe.