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Underground Treasure : Archeologists Digging Up Remains of Old Chinatown District in Riverside

Times Staff Writer

Firecrackers exploding inside burning wood-frame buildings added to the confusion as residents fought the wind-whipped blaze that engulfed Riverside’s Chinatown district on July 31, 1893.

When it was over, the charred remains of 18 buildings were shoveled into the basements of gutted homes and businesses. New structures of brick and stone were later built on top of the trash heaps.

Even those buildings are gone now, along with the people who once lived and worked among them. The entombed debris, however, has become a treasure trove for investigators of Riverside’s Chinatown Archaeological Project, one of the most extensive Chinese historical digs ever conducted in California.

“Oh, what trash it is!” exclaimed archeologist Paul G. Chace, standing beside a pit at the 4.2-acre site about a mile north of downtown Riverside. The walls of the hole were studded with pieces of ceramic vases, medicine bottles, opium pipes, wine flasks and the bone-filled leftovers of countless meals.

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There are no Ming Dynasty vases to be found here. But for Chace, an investigator for the project, the four tons of material unearthed since digging began last October is far more interesting.

“This is utilitarian stuff,” Chace said. “It is about ordinary people and how they lived.”

At most other Chinese historical sites, archeologists have been able to excavate only a fragment of the community, project director Clark W. Brott said, spreading his arms and adding, “Here we’ve got the whole town.” Below the hill where he was standing, 45 volunteers probed ever deeper into the ground that was yielding buckets full of whole and broken objects.

“Wow. Here’s somebody’s dinner,” said volunteer John Goodman, brushing the dirt off pig and turtle bones that had apparently been broken by a meat cleaver more than 90 years ago. “It’s kind of like digging in another country,” he said, placing the bones in a small pile to be collected and catalogued.

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In another pit a few yards away, others were trawling through the buried remains of a two-story building that contained a Taoist temple on the top floor. The first floor was used for social events and gambling, according to historical records.

Brott, director of the Great Basin Foundation, a research affiliate of the San Diego Museum of Man, which was hired to manage the project, said the community was established in 1885 and flourished until the late 1930s. At that point the population began dying off, and some residents returned to China or moved on to better prospects elsewhere.

In its heyday, there were about 250 permanent residents--nearly all of them men drawn by the prospect of work in the labor-intensive citrus industry of the late 1800s. During peak season, the population exceeded 3,000, Brott said.

Many of the male workers who flocked here, Brott said, left families in China, perhaps explaining why investigators found “so many brandy bottles and opium pipes.”

The effort to save the area for study was initiated more than a year ago by a citizens’ committee organized after it was learned that a parking lot was to be constructed on part of the property.

About $20,000 for the project was provided by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and another $20,000 was given by the city of Riverside. The Great Basin Foundation put up $50,000.

Most of the objects uncovered at what is now called the Wong Ho Luen Site, in honor of the last person to live on the property, will wind up at the Riverside Municipal Museum.

William Crawford, 76, of Hemet has seen it all before. He was born and raised on the edge of Chinatown and used to shop and eat in its stores and restaurants.

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“We used to light firecrackers with them as kids on the Fourth of July,” said Crawford, strolling among the dusty trenches and pits at the site.

It has been years, Crawford added, since he drove by one day and discovered, “My God, they tore Chinatown down.”


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