In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we wanted to bring attention to and highlight the Chinese immigrants that played an extremely important role in the early history of California; their work contributed greatly to the state’s economic growth through their labor in mines, in agriculture, and on the railroads.
Research regarding the Chinese immigrant experience in the greater Antelope Valley is very limited, however, we hope this post will foster awareness in our local community of an ethnic group that substantially enhanced the historic development of our valley.
Once the news of gold being discovered in California reached China, there was a dramatic increase in Chinese immigrants to the west coast. Most of the immigrants came from Kwangtung Province in Southern China which previously had contact with the West through the port of Canton. Many Chinese emigrated due to a series of wars, rebellions, civil disorders, floods, famines, and droughts that made earning a living difficult in their native land. To better prepare for what lay ahead, most emigrated with groups from the same region or village, and often sharing the same surname.
Building the railroads was one of the most important phases in the development of our country, state, and city. The location of early communities followed the railroads, and as one travels to Lancaster by train, they see an expanse of endless desert, mountains, valleys, and dry lake beds but what they don’t see is the hard work that was put into its construction.
In 1876, the workforce consisted of approximately 1,500 to 3,000 Chinese immigrants that furiously hammered using picks and shovels with horse-drawn plows and scarpers to level the roadbed and drop ties, five for each rail of length. They wore basket hats referred to as “head roofs” to protect themselves from the sun and heat while blasting rock and laying track.
Reports from 1884 to 1885, indicate a temporary Chinatown in Lancaster made of tents and shack dwellings, however, there were never any permanent Chinese temples erected in the Antelope Valley as there were in Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Most recently, a Chinese coin was discovered at the site of the county sheriff’s building located on the corner of Sierra Highway and Lancaster Boulevard during archaeological investigations.
Despite the hostility and discrimination that Chinese immigrants faced throughout the years, they continued to avail themselves of whatever opportunities awaited them. When they were prevented from mining gold in the mining districts, they became merchants, laborers, laundrymen, or sought employment elsewhere.
During the late 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad still employed eight to ten Chinese railroad workers at Harold (located two miles south of Palmdale), who lived in shacks beside the tracks. Other groups of Chinese worked diligently in the almond orchards located in the western section of the valley, while others worked in the Lake Elizabeth region.
In Lancaster, enterprising On Lee ran a Chinese laundry service and sold potatoes from 1885 to the early 1890s around the northeast corner of modern-day Lancaster Boulevard and Sierra Highway. After 1870, the laundry business offered the easiest route to independent proprietorship for California’s Chinese. Laundry could be opened with a small capital outlay of one hundred dollars and required only laundry stoves, sadirons, a dry room, and a sign. By 1880, the most profitable shops were owned and run by Chinese immigrants.
As in many other California communities, the Chinese experienced radical discrimination in the Antelope Valley and although it seldom resulted in violence, the exclusion took its toll on the Chinese in the area. Although more than one-third of Valley’s population was foreign-born during this time, by the 1920s, the Chinese and Chinatowns had all but disappeared.
In 1943, it finally became legal for Chinese immigrants to become naturalized citizens of the United States. Although very few written Chinese histories, visual records, and physical artifacts (such as coins and opium pipes) have been found locally, before the close of the 19th Century the Chinese were an important part of the American West’s economy and overall development. The Antelope Valley’s multi-ethnic development offers a stimulating experience in nostalgia along with a sobering picture of yesterday’s reality as immigrants in our society have often been ignored and undervalued.