A new book highlights the history of Chinese immigrants in Napa Valley

A detailed discussion and celebration of the contributions of Chinese immigrants took place locally earlier this week — days before Sunday’s celebrations of the Year of the Rabbit.

As part of the Napa County Historical Society Lecture Series, author John McCormick presented his new book, The Chinese in Napa Valley: The Forgotten Community That Built Wine Country.

Thursday’s hybrid event, held on Zoom and at the Sons of Indigenous Hall in Napa in advance of the Lunar New Year, served as a reminder of the rich history of Chinese immigrants and workers in the United States.

The California Gold Rush brought the first wave of Chinese immigrants to California in the mid-1880s. In the following decades, many Chinese workers traveled to California in search of work. In Napa Valley, many Chinese workers worked on farms, vineyards, tanneries, and laundries.At one time, Napa Valley included Chinatowns in Napa, St. Helena, and Calistoga.

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As more Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States and accepted work at a fraction of the cost of white men, resentment toward immigrants grew, anti-Chinese leagues were formed, and restrictive federal immigration policies targeting Chinese immigration were implemented.

The Paige Act of 1875 prohibited the immigration of Chinese women, and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all new immigration of Chinese workers for a decade. This was itself extended by Jerry’s law, draining the Chinese population.

At Thursday’s event, Napa Mayor Scott Sedgley awarded former Sonoma mayor and current city councilman Jack Ding, and Dr. Paul Gee — both first-generation Chinese Americans — with certificates of appreciation for their contributions to the community.

Next, McCormick sat down for a conversation with Dr. Jack Joe, Jr., a retired family physician and author of the blog “Jue Joe Clan History” to discuss the book, which explores the contributions made by Chinese workers and the hardships they faced in the Napa Valley from 1870-1900.

A fifth-generation Napanan, McCormick worked in tech in Silicon Valley before earning a master’s degree in history from Harvard University. When McCormick was taking a class on US-China relations, he stumbled upon an article from the St. Helena Historical Society about Chinese vineyard workers in the Napa Valley.

“As I was getting deeper and deeper, I realized that it’s not just working in the vineyards, it’s working up and down the valley,” McCormick said. “All of this has been completely erased from history, I mean, whitewashed.”

At the time, the COVID-19 virus and anti-Asian rhetoric was on the rise. Frustrated by racism and injustice, he began writing.

It is a very positive and little known story of what the Chinese did here. “They were the founding backbone of the business from the 1870s through 1900. Napa would have looked a lot different if they weren’t here,” McCormick said.

While doing research, he ran into a problem—there was little written record of Chinese workers who came to Napa Valley in the 1870s. Lacking information, McCormick relied on oral accounts that had been passed down through the generations. One of these dates was Ju Ju, a Chinese immigrant born in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, who came to the United States as a teenager in the 1870s.

The story of Jue Joe is compiled by Jue, the event broker and great-grandson of Jue Joe. For the past decade, he has been working with his relatives to document and publish his family’s rich oral history online. After McCormick discovered the blog, Jo Jo’s story became an integral part of the book.

“Since I have children and grandchildren, everyone has forgotten where we came from. We take what we have for granted, and many people just forget their immigrant roots.” Joe said. “These are really illiterate people who came to a foreign country, didn’t speak the language and were able to be successful, you know, which is amazing to me.”

Also essential to McCormick’s research was the Napa Valley Register and St. Helena Star Archives, which the author combed through with the assistance of Napa County Historical Society Research Librarian Kelly O’Connor.

“That’s the record we have,” McCormick said, “and if they (the newspapers) weren’t doing their job—and a lot of them were perverted—they were at least documenting what was going on…we wouldn’t know what we do know.” With a heavy bias note. “The reports weren’t necessarily good.”

Using leaves as source material proved challenging.

“Everything I read,” he said, “I had to realize that they were writing with (bias).”

It wasn’t just reporting.

An advertisement for a white-owned laundry service published in the Napa Valley Register on June 14, 1880 read, “The washing and ironing have been scrupulously done on the most reasonable terms. Give your laundry to a white woman who deserves preference over a Chinese.”

This disdain for Chinese immigrants and various laws banning Chinese immigration in the latter part of the 19th century ended the vibrant Chinatowns that once existed across the Napa Valley. The Chinese laundries, opium dens, shops and markets are long gone, and there is little trace of the Chinese community that was instrumental in the area’s prosperity.

Many workers moved to different cities, returned to China, or stayed in the valley until they died. Since then, the valley has relied on immigrants from other parts of the world.

“We should have gotten past this 19th-century discrimination against ethnic minorities, and yet, it just repeats itself. Especially with the Hispanic immigration,” Joy said. Illegal… I think it’s really sad that history is repeating itself.”

Moving forward, McCormick hopes that the history and contributions of Chinese immigrants will be added to the curricula of local schools so that their work and presence in Napa Valley will not be overlooked.

Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, is a 15-day festival celebrated in many Asian countries.

You can reach Daniel Wilde at 707-256-2212 or dwilde@napanews.com.

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