Karana Hattersley-Drayton was leading a team of archaeologists through one of the slew of boarded-up buildings in Chinatown, an enclave long abandoned by the people who gave the area its name more than a century ago.
They were there to recover antique ceramics left behind by the former owners of what had been a restaurant and home. Wearing masks to shield against the stench of human waste from squatters and a sewage break, the team descended into the basement.
They soon found a cache of rare bowls and plates under the wooden staircase.
Then came the unexpected discovery. The group spotted a dark crawl space obscured by boards on the basement’s east wall. Was this evidence of one of Fresno’s most enduring urban legends?
Tunnels in Fresno’s Chinatown were rumored to have been so extensive that denizens could traverse the neighborhood without ever seeing daylight. One tunnel was said to have extended under the dividing railway tracks so that men from the white side of town could reach Chinatown speak-easies undetected.
“It’s part of our lore,” said Hattersley-Drayton, Fresno’s historic-preservation officer.
Since her team reported its find in August, interest in the “underground Chinatown” has exploded. The city is now using ground-penetrating radar in the adjacent streets, trying to find underground connections between basements with walled-off passageways.
Local groups have led tours, guiding visitors to the basement of a barbershop where mysterious doorways are sealed with concrete. An opportunistic shop owner raised the price of flashlights that day from $1 to $15 each.
But the newfound excitement has sparked a backlash. Experts on Chinese American history say Chinatowns across the nation -- including in many California cities -- have always been rumored to have tunnels, but no proof exists that they were anything more than connected basements. They say the hype surrounding the legends revives misconceptions that fanned xenophobia in earlier times.
Oral histories and newspaper accounts from the early 20th century include clues that Los Angeles’ original Chinatown (where Union Station now stands) was connected by a web of tunnels leading to brothels, speak-easies and other illicit businesses. But when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority dug up the area in 1990 for subway construction, it found artifacts but no tunnels.
Some historians say the tunnel tales originated from a misunderstanding of Chinese culture, and overt prejudice.
“The 19th century was an extremely racist climate,” said Phil Choy, past president of the Chinese Historical Society of America and a skeptic of tunnel lore. “There had always been an attempt to remove the Chinese. You had this population of undesirables. The more mysterious they make us, the better.”
When Suellen Cheng, a senior curator at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, first read a report about the Fresno search, she said to herself, “Here we go again.”
Cheng used to give guided tours of L.A.'s Chinatown and was peppered with questions about tunnels. She took the tourists down a dark and dusty corridor, allowing the onlookers to envision all sorts of illicit activities. Then Cheng would reveal the truth: The structure had been built by the state in the 1970s to hold utility lines.
“They’d tell me I had ruined their day after saying that,” Cheng said.
But Fresno is different because the tunnel tales are more than just rumors. Over the last few months, a handful of old-timers have stepped forward to say they saw the tunnels in action. Their oral histories have given a sense of urgency to the city’s archaeological effort.
When Fresno’s Chinatown was founded in 1872, it housed many of the workers who helped build California’s railroads. By the turn of the 20th century, the community had expanded to several city blocks and myriad storefronts housing social associations, farm contractors, general goods stores, tailors and druggists. Chinese accounted for nearly 10% of the city’s 12,000 residents.
But by World War II, Chinatown’s population began to wane significantly as residents moved to growing suburbs. Many of the buildings that remained were boarded up and have the look of an Edward Hopper painting. The old Chinese social halls have broken windows. The oral history of the area diminished as older residents died.
Interest in the district was sparked a few years ago when workers replacing water pipes in the area came across an old underground passage containing a table and some chairs.
But the town really started talking after Hattersley-Drayton’s team started using the radar. Residents with stories of underground Chinatown came forward.
One of the first was Rick Lew, who grew up in Chinatown in the 1950s. Lew said his grandfather was a well-known figure in Chinatown’s early history, running gambling operations and selling liquor.
In early August, Lew saw a newspaper picture of a man pushing what looked like a lawn mower over a Chinatown alley. It was one of the archaeologists using the ground-penetrating radar. He soon called the newspaper and Chinatown Revitalization Inc., a nonprofit agency assisting in the search. He wanted them to know where to look.
He said he remembered descending into a roughly 8-foot-wide walkway under Chinatown as a child. “I was probably 2 or 3 years old,” said Lew, now 57. “My dad was carrying me. We went to the back room of my grandfather’s liquor store. They moved a carpet and there was a trap door. It took us down to the basement and on the east wall was the entrance to the tunnel.”
Lew said the floor was dirty, and it was illuminated by dangling lightbulbs. He recognized people from the neighborhood. Then he saw two women in Chinese dresses, known as cheongsams. One was light blue and the other red.
“Now I can only assume they were prostitutes,” Lew said. “You couldn’t buy a cheongsam in Fresno then. You needed to go to San Francisco.”
Lew said the tunnel was a few dozen feet long and connected to the next building.
Lew believes tunnels were created as entertainment venues for many of the men that made up the early Chinese communities. The Chinese were barred from white businesses, and they mistrusted authorities after years of violent mistreatment.
“It’s how people survived racism and discrimination,” said Lew, who builds midget race cars. “They weren’t wanted on the other side of the tracks. So what did you do for fun? You’d go to the tunnels.”
Gene Sue, whose grandfather came to Fresno in the early 1900s, said he was about 7 in the late 1950s when he had his tunnel experience. He said he was visiting a family friend who was the owner of a Chinatown dry-goods store. The friend offered to buy him a snow cone, but instead of walking out of the store and around the block, he and Sue went down to his basement and into a tunnel that led to the basement of the snow cone store.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it was this big secret,” said Sue, 56.
Like Lew, Sue said the tunnel had red brick walls, was about 8 feet wide and had dangling lightbulbs. “It was too narrow to just be a basement,” said Sue, a building contractor.
Jack Enos, a retired Fresno police officer, has never been in a Chinatown tunnel. But when he walked the neighborhood beat in the 1950s, he would often enter basements and see doorways guarded by metal doors. He often asked the owners where they led and was told they connected to other buildings across the main alley known as China Alley.
“I was told you could go underground for four blocks,” said Enos, 73. “They told me you could run all over Chinatown and never have to run to the surface.”
Enos said a friend who sold beer used a tunnel to make deliveries. “He could service two businesses from one cellar,” Enos said.
Hattersley-Drayton is collecting the stories and using them to help collect radar data. She said the radar has shown so-called anomalies under China Alley -- hollow sections too wide to be a sewer or water line. But she stresses that it’s too early to tell whether passageways of the kind described by witnesses still exist.
But that hasn’t stopped the curious from coming to see what little evidence there is.
In October, Kathy Omachi, vice president of Chinatown Revitalization Inc., led a tour of one of the neighborhood’s largest basements. Forty people had signed up but 60 attended, some giving donations of up to $20.
She guided them down a wooden staircase under a barbershop to a sparse, pitch-black basement large enough to extend under several businesses. Fire department maps from the turn of the last century showed that “cribs,” or beds for prostitutes, used to be housed in the basement.
Exposed nails and low-hanging pipes slowed the curiosity-seekers, some of whom expected to see long, narrow tunnels. The only clues that there may be tunnels were the sealed brick archways facing the street and neighboring buildings. Some have been sealed with concrete, others by wooden boards. One can only assume they lead to something, be it another basement, a tunnel or a sidewalk vault.
“Basically, we don’t know,” Omachi said.