By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN, Rafu Shimpo Contributor
The history of ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown and Little Tokyo is at the heart of the Asian American experience.
Throughout the state of California, Asian immigrants facing discrimination formed communities in urban and rural settings alike to support themselves and newcomers. Although the creation of ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns, Nihonmachis, and Little Saigons have helped to reinforce communal identity after the arrival of immigrants in the United States, for Asian Americans they likewise are a byproduct of racial segregation and government policies.
And while the discriminatory housing laws that created these neighborhoods are no longer on the books, ethnic enclaves remain as reminders of their consequences.
Historians and anthropologists have noted that the history of Asian American communities parallels the history of California itself. Noted historian Ronald Takaki points to the establishment of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1850 as one of California’s first Asian American settlements. Soon after, Chinatowns in Sacramento, Stockton, and Los Angeles followed. Over the course of the 20th century, communities of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants found home in many of the major settlements in California.
Like the Chinese, Japanese immigrants founded the earliest enclaves in California. The Wakamatsu Tea Colony and Silk Farm, located on the outskirts of Placerville, Calif. in 1869, was founded by Katamari Matsudaira, a daimyo of Aizu, who fled Japan after his defeat in the Boshin War. After a drought ended his mulberry farm in 1871, Matsudaira ended the project and returned to Japan.
Matsudaira’s project would not be the last attempt at a colony. 35 years later, in 1906, newspaper tycoon Kyutaro Abiko founded the Yamato Colony in Livingston, Calif. Settled by farmers from Wakayama and Chiba prefectures, the Yamato Colony evolved into a bona fide agricultural enterprise; by 1940, 69 families operated 3,700 acres of farmland.
In response to the arrival of these immigrants, white anti-immigrant activists began to target Asian communities. In 1871, a white mob invaded Los Angeles’ Chinatown and murdered dozens of Chinese Americans. In 1882, white labor leaders from California successfully pressured Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first comprehensive immigration bill in U.S. history, setting in motion a wave of exclusionary legislation targeting Asian immigrants.
In California, agricultural leaders pushed the State Assembly to restrict the growth of the Japanese American community. In response, the State Assembly passed the Alien Land Law of 1913, prohibiting “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from purchasing land (the law did not prohibit the ownership of commercial buildings). While the law affected Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants, it intentionally targeted Japanese immigrants.
In spite of the Alien Land Law, Issei farm owners bypassed the law by entrusting their property in the names of their American-born children. In the prewar agricultural hub of Guadalupe, Calif., Japanese immigrants became central to the region’s agricultural success. Nonetheless, Japanese Americans lived alongside Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican Americans in Guadalupe as a segregated community due to the racial ordnances of the nearby all-white city of Santa Maria. Journalist and author Gene Oishi later recalled his memories of Guadalupe in his memoir In Search of Hiroshi.
“When I was growing up, Guadalupe was a little like a Japanese colony. We had our own restaurants, grocery stores, fish market, pool halls, gambling houses, barber, beauty shop, doctor, dentist, Buddhist church, Japanese school, and classical dance theater.”
The existence of ethnic enclaves like Guadalupe also served as a home for migrant farmworkers of different ethnicities. As Carlos Bulosan described in America Is in the Heart, the Filipino neighborhoods of California played host to the thousands of Filipino migrant workers like himself traveling along the coast of California.
In contrast, the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles existed due to the limitations placed on property ownership for minority groups. Known as “restrictive covenants,” these laws made it impossible for groups such as Japanese Americans from owning specific properties. Little Tokyo soon became a cultural hub for the Japanese American community, providing a network of businesses and organizations that supported community members.
Despite these laws, people resisted. In the Sept. 21, 1941 issue of The Rafu Shimpo, the Nisei Business Bureau noted that eight in ten residential properties in Los Angeles carried restrictive covenants that prevented Japanese American ownership. In response, Nisei business leaders called for Nisei to build their own houses and take control of their housing opportunities. According to Togo Tanaka, Rafu English section editor and the head of the Nisei Business Bureau, better housing conditions and private ownership provided a “direct solution to the numerous, sociological, political, and social problems which have beset community leaders so long.”
Tanaka’s dream, however, was short-lived. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, California politicians and business leaders called for the forced removal and imprisonment of the Japanese American community. Ironically, politicians cited the existence of ethnic enclaves like Little Tokyo as evidence that Japanese Americans could not be trusted. Following the signing of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the government incarcerated the Japanese American community with the hope of breaking up the Little Tokyos of California.
With the end of the incarceration, most Japanese American families returned to California. Yet despite a desire to return to their former homes, Japanese Americans continued to face discrimination. Historian Brian Niiya states that while formal and informal housing restrictions remained well after World War II, “various real estate agents, brave individual homeowners, builders, activists, and organizations like the JACL and NAACP gradually chipped away as such restrictions.”
With real estate agents often serving as the gatekeepers to all-white neighborhoods, exceptional agents like William Carr, who sold homes to Japanese American, African American, and Jewish buyers in Pasadena, played a key role in opening up these neighborhoods. “Often,” Niiya states, “it was Nisei veterans (or African American or Jewish veterans) and their families who broke down the barriers, as realtors like Carr would pick out the ‘best’ possible candidates to integrate neighborhoods.”
Today, many of these ethnic enclaves remain as historic landmarks. Some, like San Francisco’s Chinatown, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and Koreatown, and Little Saigon in Westminster, remain active communities. Many others, however, have dwindled in size.
Following their forced removal and incarceration, some Japanese communities like Guadalupe ceased to exist. After the war, very few Japanese Americans returned to Guadalupe due to the loss of property and fear of retaliation from local whites. As Gene Oishi described it, Guadalupe transformed from a place into “a memory.”
This project was supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library