Chinese Scions Take Root

Times Staff Writers

For more than a month, big rigs filled with crates of limestone mined from Lake Tai west of Shanghai have rumbled down the winding roads of San Marino and through the gates of the Huntington Library.

When the final shipment arrives at the end of the month, the library will have collected about 650 tons of loose rock, destined for the largest Chinese garden outside of China.

When the $80-million project is completed, it will become not only an ambitious new feature in the Huntington’s world-famous gardens, but an ironic capstone to a remarkable turn in history.


The Huntington, with its more than 150 acres of botanical gardens, 18th century British and French art, and rare books such as a manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” has virtually embodied the image and aspirations of California’s white ruling elite.

The money to build it originated from the vast fortune of Collis P. Huntington, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad. His nephew and heir, Henry E. Huntington, founded the library in 1919, supplementing the bequest with his own wealth from the Pacific Electric Railway, utilities and real estate deals around Southern California.

The Central Pacific Railroad, which connected Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, employed more than 10,000 Chinese immigrants to lay the most treacherous part of the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra in the 1860s. The Chinese laborers, who went on strike to get the same hourly wage as their white counterparts, hacked tunnels through the mountains and laid track in the bitter cold. Many died.

Those who survived were excluded from citizenship in the state and forbidden to purchase land. For decades, Chinese immigrants in California were a largely impoverished underclass.

“If you go back to the deeds of trust in San Marino, a long time before, they stated very clearly this land should not be sold to Jewish people, blacks, and it cannot be sold to the Chinese too,” said Dr. Matthew Lin, vice mayor of San Marino and a local developer.

“We’ve come a long way now.”

Indeed, San Marino now has an Asian majority, principally Chinese. And China’s booming economy is bringing in many more affluent immigrants.

Though members of the white establishment continue to be a main source of support, the Huntington Library realized that to secure its future it needed help from ethnic Chinese in ways never envisioned by Henry Huntington. The Chinese garden was a way to connect with the new residents, and donors.

“It was about serving a new community,” said Suzy Moser, the Huntington’s assistant vice president for advancement. “If our neighborhood changes, we need to change.”

“When you have an opportunity to serve a new constituency -- and an element of that is to invite them to support you -- you’d be fools not to do it,” she said.

To Lin, the Huntington’s interest in Chinese donors -- and the community’s enthusiastic response -- reflects a change in attitude of the area as a whole.

“Before this, not a lot of Chinese people belonged to the Huntington,” he said. “When people immigrated to this area in the ‘70s or ‘80s, they tried to raise their children and make ends meet. While they were very busy, they didn’t have time to look into the surrounding area.

“Now in the later stages the businesspeople look around and really appreciate it. They’ve started to give back.”


Collis and Henry Huntington’s attitude toward the Chinese was simple: “They thought of the Chinese as a labor source,” said Dan Lewis, the curator of American historical manuscripts at the Huntington.

Collis Huntington wrote admiringly to a colleague about their usefulness. “I like the idea of your getting over more Chinamen,” he wrote to a company official in 1867. “It would be all the better for us and the state if there should a half million come over in 1868.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in California, and by the time Henry Huntington was building his local rail lines, the clamor was so strident that he mostly used Mexican and white workers, historians said.

Collis and Henry Huntington would probably be extremely surprised that an institution started by their family was now asking Chinese Americans for money, said Selena Spurgeon, an 82-year-old Arcadia resident who has written a biography of Henry Huntington.

Though Henry Huntington would probably be delighted that people of all backgrounds appreciated his generosity, she said she would expect Collis to be entirely amazed at Chinese Americans’ change in social stature.

“He just considered the Chinese servants, not equal socially at all,” Spurgeon said. “I’m sure he didn’t have any social connection.”

Henry Huntington helped found San Marino before his death in 1927. The mansion-lined community of 13,000 became synonymous with old money and power, and a number of its wealthy residents served on the library’s board of trustees.

By the 1980s, the San Gabriel Valley was seeing a huge wave of immigration from Hong Kong, Taiwan and later mainland China that transformed once-white-majority cities to San Marino’s south such as Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel. San Marino’s prestigious address and highly regarded public schools made it a popular place for wealthy Chinese to settle.

Vivian Chan, who moved to San Marino in 1990, said she and her restaurateur husband initially focused their charitable work on programs related to their three children, such as volunteering at schools, and with educational programs for the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra.

Chan said she took visiting family to stroll around the Huntington back then -- but saw the imposing institution more as a place to visit than as a place to support with donations.

About four years ago, the Huntington recruited some prominent local Chinese Americans, including one of Chan’s closest friends, to help with its fundraising efforts. They started with two dinner parties.

Moser came on board about that time, and she said her experience raising money in Hong Kong for another organization was considered a plus in her application. Moser knew from her experience in Hong Kong that fundraising in the Chinese community relied heavily on guanxi, or the connections of the person asking for money.

“In Western culture, you make the case for support,” she said. “You pitch the project. Of course, always the better person to be pitching a project is the peer of the person you’re talking to. They know each other, belong to the same club. But our emphasis tends to be on the project. In Chinese culture, it tends to be on the person who’s asking. If the right person asks, it matters less what the project is.”

Chan and her husband eventually donated $10,000 for the garden. She didn’t give the Huntington family history a second thought, even though grand uncles worked on the railroad in the 19th century.

Although she remembers hearing stories about how her relatives had to cut their braided queues and wear the same work clothes every day, her grand uncles did manage to make a lot of money laying track. They enriched their villages in the Guangdong province when they came back.

Chan said the support of so many Chinese Americans to the Huntington’s new Chinese Garden will showcase their reversal of fortune. “I am quite proud as a Chinese descendant to say, ‘Now is our time,’ ” she said. “We want to make sure our generation and the next generation to come will not forget how far we’ve come.”

The Chinese “weren’t treated equally back then, but that is history,” added Rosa Zee, a 56-year-old San Marino resident who has also donated $10,000 for the garden.

“I don’t have any personal feelings against Henry Huntington’s uncle,” said Zee, who until recently worked as outreach director for the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. “It happened and you can’t go back and say you hate them.... This country has treated me well.”


One reason donors have responded so well to this Huntington project is the Huntington’s commitment to build the garden according to Chinese traditions -- right down to importing the rocks, Moser said.

That commitment was crucial, said Paul Zee, 55, a retired South Pasadena businessman (not related to Rosa Zee) who donated about $10,000. Zee last summer became one of the Huntington’s first Chinese American members of the board of overseers, the library’s advisory group.

“If I wanted to invite you over for a Chinese dinner, I’m not going to serve you chop suey,” a dish invented in America’s Chinatowns -- he said. “I’m going to give you an authentic Chinese dinner. It’s that simple.”

Many of the donors feel the same. The president of the Los Angeles branch of the China Ocean Shipping Co. donated 100 cargo containers so the garden would not have to bust its budget to bring over materials from China.

When completed in 2008, the first phase of the Chinese Garden will include a 1.3-acre lake, an ornate teahouse, a zigzag granite bridge, and lush landscaping with native Chinese plants such as bamboo, camellias and tree peonies. Eventually, if all $80 million can be raised, the garden will cover 12 acres of the Huntington’s grounds. The cost of the six-acre first phase is estimated at $16 million.

“It has to be authentic,” added Yee-Jen Shuai, a San Marino lawyer who has donated about $5,000 to the project. “In China, the stone workers and woodworkers have their own way of building. American laborers could do it with no problem, but they wouldn’t use the same techniques.”

One recent afternoon, in a woodsy area behind the nursery, about 40 wooden crates sat holding bone-white pieces of limestone webbed with peach-colored veins of sediment and embedded with gray pebbles. The surface of the Tai rocks was scarred and rough, but they all bore smooth holes as big as a pomelo or as small as a cherry. They are one of the distinctive features of a scholar’s garden typical of Suzhou, an ancient city near Shanghai.

“They don’t look like anything you see” in the United States, said Laurie Sowd, the operations director of the Huntington’s art collections and botanical gardens.

Library officials commissioned artisans in Suzhou to pick granite cladding for the bridges and carve traditional swirling patterns on select pieces of granite. Other artisans have carved the wood that will decorate windows, doors and beams.

But unlike Collis Huntington and his contractors, who could easily import boatloads of Chinese laborers, the library ran into modern-day visa problems trying to bring 13 of the artisans associated with the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architectural Design to supervise the placement of the limestone rocks and granite.

For a few months, the visa impasse caused a problem for the contractors. For one thing, they couldn’t read the Chinese writing on the crates, so they had difficulty figuring out which batch of granite went with what bridge.

The library sought the help of some of its well-placed friends, including Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. The visas cleared Thursday afternoon.



Reaching out

The Huntington Library is reaching out to the majority-Asian population of San Marino.

A look at San Marino

(2005 estimates)

Population 13,429


White: 39.5%

Chinese*: 33.5%

Other Asian/Pacific Islander: 20.6%

Latino: 4.1%

Other: 2.3%

* Except Taiwanese

Language spoken at home

(Ages 5 and older)

Only English: 50.6%

Asian/Pacific Island language: 41.6%

Other: 7.7%


(Ages 25 and older)

High school graduate or higher: 95.4%

Bachelor’s degree or higher: 69.7


Median household income: $131,227

Median price, owner-occupied house: $1,237,833

Source: Claritas