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Gold Rush-Era Site in S.F. : Excavation Sheds Light on Chinese Immigrants

Times Staff Writer

Excavation at a downtown construction site has unearthed the contents of one of Chinatown’s original buildings, a Gold Rush-Era general store full of dishware and jugs of eggs and vegetables, which archeologists said Tuesday will finally shed light on the early history of California’s Chinese immigrants.

The contents of the red-brick general store, built on the first block of old Chinatown that is now part of the glass-and-granite financial district, are in remarkably good shape, said Allen Pastron, a Berkeley archeologist who discovered the store two weeks ago.

Pastron is helping the property owner--the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco--comply with city laws protecting historic sites. He said the store still had a considerable inventory, including items he has identified as the remains of eggs and vegetables in ceramic vessels and a rare glass wine cup.

Those items and uncounted dishes, pipes, bottles and other goods--perhaps 100,000 pieces--were frozen in place by more than a century’s accumulation of mud, giving historians and archeologists what they said is a rare insight into the daily life of the unsung Chinese pioneers who helped build California.

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“We hope to be able eventually to reconstruct social and economic patterns of the Chinese community--and of San Francisco as a whole--from the evidence we find here,” Pastron explained Tuesday while displaying various artifacts alongside the 8-foot-deep dig.

Clarence Shangraw, chief curator at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, said the discovery may be equally important to Chinese archeologists for what it reveals about the workmanship and painting styles of goods made in Canton circa 1850, as well as the names of the factories that produced them.

Pastron and Chinatown historian Philip Choy said the circumstances in which the store was destroyed were responsible for the exceptional condition of its contents. They believe that the building was dynamited for a firebreak to stop one of six major blazes that tore through San Francisco in an 18-month span at the height of the California Gold Rush in 1850-51.

This theory is supported by ash found on the store’s soggy but recognizable redwood plank floors and by the absence of fire damage to the building or its contents. Pastron said the building was in the path of a blaze on May 3-4, 1851, the same fire that consumed a nearby chandler’s shop. That shop’s contents were unearthed nearly intact by archeologists in 1986.

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European Settlers

Equally interesting to archeologists is evidence that the same site was used by European immigrants not long before the Chinese store was established. Pastron said his crew has found artifacts associated with European settlers under the store’s floors. He speculated that an earlier fire had destroyed that original structure and it was replaced by the Chinese store. Additional excavation will shed more light on the site’s initial structure.

The 20-foot-square portion of the store already unearthed is probably about half of the entire structure, Pastron said. Over the next two weeks, he added, the rest should be excavated, and all artifacts removed for study and eventual display in the Asian Art Museum.

Pastron estimated that there are perhaps 9 cubic yards--the equivalent of three large dumpsters--of artifacts to be had at the site at 600 California St. He said a pickup truck full of items is removed every evening and many more artifacts still poke up through the dirt and decaying redwood of the store floor, some looking new enough to have been deposited there last week.

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About 95% of the artifacts are fragments, but Pastron said many of them are so well preserved they can easily be reconstructed.

‘Very Spectacular”

San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, during a visit to the site Tuesday, called the discovery “very spectacular” and “an important reminder” of the contributions Chinese immigrants played in California’s development.

“Due to the prejudice and lack of understanding (at the time), the customs of those early Chinese immigrants were not well recorded,” said Agnos, the son of Greek immigrants and a champion of newcomers’ contributions to America.

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Agnos, who toured the site after assisting in a naturalization ceremony for 600 new Chinese-American citizens, added that the discovery “unlocks clues as to how the earliest Chinese immigrants contributed to California history.”

Choy added that the building, its location and probable date of destruction also corroborate written histories that show Chinese laborers and merchants as being among the original residents of San Francisco.

Records are incomplete, but historians now believe that there were 5,000 Chinese men, women and children among the 34,000 San Franciscans counted in the census of 1850.

Shangraw said that, in terms of the early history of Chinese immigration to America, this discovery is second in importance only to the discovery of Asian artifacts in the 1596 shipwreck of the Spanish ship St. Augusta in Drake’s Bay just north of the Golden Gate.

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“A very important specimen,” he said excitedly while gingerly examining a tiny glass wine cup. An unremarkable artifact to casual bystanders, the cup is the earliest evidence of the use of Chinese glassware in California, he said.

“Historically, we knew Chinese people were here from the very beginning of San Francisco,” Pastron said, “but archeologically, this is the first chance we’ve had to study them in this detail.”

The significance of the site was recognized early on by the Federal Home Loan Bank. The bank, which had razed its old nine-story headquarters on the site, delayed construction of a new, 20-story building until the site could be fully explored.


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