Unearthing links to a heritage ignored

Times Staff Writer

This wisp of a town owes its existence to Chinese laborers who panned gold in the mid-1800s and laid railroad tracks linking Utah and Sacramento. Yet the immigrants were mostly ostracized, made to live in a wood-shack Chinatown that later was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 80.

Now, their legacy is relegated to Larry De Leeuw's garage.

On a recent afternoon, De Leeuw squeezed into a cubbyhole walled off from his power tools and bottle cap collection. Strewed about him were brass opium containers, gambling tokens, a gong, rice bowl shards, turquoise ginger jars and a mirror with hand-carved dragons.

De Leeuw, 66, has cobbled together this collection of artifacts in the Frank Chang Museum, named after one of the last descendants of Lovelock's Chinese workers. Now, the only way to see this part of the town's past is through a large window in De Leeuw's garage, where a dedication -- typed on white paper -- describes Chang as an "avid hunter, fisherman, volunteer fireman." He was also a staff sergeant in the Army.

"It was the least I could do," De Leeuw said, to honor Chang and Lovelock's history.

His obsession took root about a decade ago, when he and his wife bought a brick fixer-upper in the Chinatown of Marysville, Calif., about 40 miles north of Sacramento. While renovating the two-story building, the now-retired construction worker -- who had also worked as a police officer and armored-car driver -- unearthed about 100 rice bowls and other relics beneath the ground floor.

De Leeuw became so enamored with Chinese laborer tales, amassing at least 40 books and pestering local mah-jongg players with questions, that one woman in Marysville nicknamed him Chinatown's mayor.

Then nearly four years ago, the De Leeuws discovered Lovelock -- a town about 90 miles northeast of Reno with mountain views, star-filled nights and few jobs beyond the nearby prison.

On a whim, they bought the 13-room Cadillac Inn. It's a short drive from downtown's Cowpoke Cafe, the Covered Wagon Motel and the Pershing County Courthouse, revered locally as "the nation's only working round courthouse."

De Leeuw quickly figured out that the town's immigrant past mirrored Marysville's -- all it took was asking a few old-timers in this 2,000-person outpost. But as in many northern Nevada towns, Lovelock's Chinese heritage was largely overlooked.

Virginia City, Reno, Carson City and Elko had Chinatowns, settled in the post-Gold Rush westward expansion. Their immigrants helped piece together the Central Pacific Railroad, and some opened restaurants and stores in depot towns, although their fellow frontiersmen were far from welcoming.

In Lovelock, the Chinese hung signs declaring their businesses "white-run" lest they be boycotted, said Sue Fawn Chung, an associate history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In the ensuing decades, hostility and economic hard times drove many to Northern California, and most Nevada Chinatowns crumbled.

Only in recent years has Nevada moved to acknowledge this slice of its history; a private group hopes to raise at least $50 million for a Chinese Workers Museum near Carson City.

"The Donner Party has more prominence than what the Chinese did here," said the group's co-founder, Khan Tung, a Carson City architect.

Lovelock demolished its Chinatown in the 1970s. But it recently has made an attempt to tout its heritage by encouraging "love-locking" -- a Chinese custom, common near the Yellow Mountains and the Great Wall, in which couples latch locks together in a show of their devotion.

About 900 locks now dangle behind the courthouse in Lovelock. The promotion, officials say, has lured a handful of drivers off the interstate.

De Leeuw considers his garage collection more a historical repository than a tourist attraction.

He unearthed many of his treasures in antique stores and near old workers' camps along the railroad tracks.

He also scoured the spot where the Chinatown stood -- now a junkyard near a McDonald's -- where decades ago archaeologists unearthed medicines, firecracker labels, an English snuff jar and 119 gold coins.

De Leeuw's passion extends beyond his driveway. About five miles west of town -- past fields of alfalfa and wheat -- is a cemetery where some of Lovelock's Chinese residents are buried.

Before De Leeuw got to work in 2005, it had been an unmarked patch of weeds and scrub brush next to the Lone Mountain Cemetery with its white crosses and marble headstones.

De Leeuw pulled death records, trying to figure out who was buried in the 35 or so unmarked graves.

He and other residents cleaned up the cemetery, and the county paid for a fence to keep out bikers and off-road vehicles. Each grave now is adorned with a dollar-store vase and a single fake flower.

In April, De Leeuw plans to preside over Ching Ming, a holiday when Chinese clean their ancestors' graves and offer roast duck and pig. De Leeuw has built a concrete-and-tile food platform for the festival.

"Last year, we had five Chinese people show up," he said, his voice welling with pride.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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