Chinatown House: A Legacy in Need of Saving

This week the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its list of most endangered historic places for 2013. One of the buildings listed is Chinatown House in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
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This week the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its list of most endangered historic places for 2013. One of the buildings listed is Chinatown House in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

If this building is demolished, the Inland Empire of Southern California will lose all signs -- every trace -- of the important participation of the Chinese community in building this part of the West.

Each year the National Trust for Historic Preservation announces its selection of the 11 properties most in need of preservation so that Americans will have an opportunity to try to save our various legacies. The Trust's track record is good. Over the 26 years that the National Trust has compiled this list, 240 sites have been pinpointed and only a handful have been lost.

The Chinese in America
The story of the Chinese in America is not nearly as well-known as our story of slavery but there are similarities. Just as the African-American population was vital to agriculture and provided much of the labor when it came to moving goods in the South, the Chinese played a similar role in the West. While they technically weren't enslaved, they were overworked and underpaid, often abused, and had little control over their lives or their futures.

When the railroads solicited workers, there was no effort to bring families. Virtually all who came were men who had no wives or were willing to leave them to find work.

After track was laid and the trains were running, the Chinese men moved to other communities where they found other types of work. Much of the West is very dry and so many communities needed workers who could help build dams or dig culverts to channel the water. Later, agricultural workers were needed.

"A very large Chinese community settled in Rancho Cucamonga," said Eugene Moy, an urban planner by training and now vice president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. "It was a beautiful agricultural area but water was needed here for the farmers to be able to fully cultivate the land."

"The Chinese community thrived here and in other parts of the Inland Empire," continues Moy. "First they worked to bring water to the area. Then later they were needed to work the farms. As a matter of fact, in the late 19th century, about three-quarters of the agricultural workers in the area were Chinese."
But since that time there have been a lot of changes. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 meant fewer Chinese were coming to the country, and the dearth of females meant that men who wanted families needed to return home to marry.

But today a new wave of people are arriving. While every American should know the stories of the various groups who helped build this country, the arrival of new groups of Chinese-Americans coming to the Pomona Valley to be teachers, college professors, doctors or scientists, means there are new children growing up in the area for whom its particularly important to tell the story.

Without Chinahouse, How Can the Community Tell the Chinese Story?
Chinatown House is one of the last remaining tangible connections to the history of the once-thriving Chinese community that helped build modern-day Rancho Cucamonga. It was built about 1919 from local materials in a vernacular style in 1919. The two-story brick building provided housing and a general store for a community of approximately fifty Chinese American laborers.

While many towns in the area would have had Chinese communities, Rancho Cucamonga has one of the few buildings still standing. Today the building is owned by the Water District in Cucamonga.

The house is not in good condition. Because the building received landmark status in 1985, the city has a say in what happens next. They have issued an order for the Water District to develop a plan for the property. In response, the District filed a demolition plan that has been rejected by the Planning Commission.

Thus far there is a temporary hold on what is to happen. The Coalition to Save Chinatown House would like to have the property made available so that a professional evaluation of the building's condition can be conducted.

The Way Forward
Moy says that ultimately the Coalition would like to modify the building so it can be used for educational purposes. While adaptive reuse requires time and investment to bring a building up to code, the hope is that the building can be well-used and still remain a reminder of the strong contribution made by the Chinese community.

Eugene Moy and the Save the Chinahouse Coalition are working with a Chinese school in the area (Pomona Valley Chinese School in the City of Upland), the local historical society, a Chinese-owned grocery chain as well as the East-West Bank. Moy has also solicited and received interest from the great-grandson of the Araiza family, the ranchers who once owned the land on which the building sits. The young Araiza fellow has just completed studies in archaeology so certainly the stars are aligning in such a way that the Water District might reconsider and Chinahouse might be saved.

The building may also benefit because it is located just off historic Route 66, an area where preservation has been very much valued

"With proper attention and stewardship, the Chinatown House can serve the community as a tangible reminder of the contributions of Chinese immigrant labor in our nation's history," said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We strongly support finding a solution that better stewards its legacy."

Members of the public are invited to learn more about what they can do to support these 11 historic places and hundreds of other endangered sites at

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