When you walk through a museum exhibit and hear people around you exclaiming, "Well, for heaven sakes. I didn't know THAT," you know that history is being well served.
Such is the case with the current installation on the mezzanine of the Sonoma County Museum, which tells stories of Santa Rosa's Chinatown; stories that have either been forgotten or — more and more, as time goes by — were never known. The exhibit ends Aug. 12.
There are three "chapters" to the story told in photos and artifacts. The first is a grim tale of the anti-Chinese politics of the late 19th century, the open hostilities, the boycott of businesses hiring Chinese, the determination to "starve them out" of Santa Rosa.
The West Coast's anti-Chinese movement that began in the early 1880s was the result of joblessness created by a worldwide economic depression.
The politics of fear and hate took hold all along the Pacific Coast, resulting in the formation of Anti-Chinese Leagues in the cities, including Santa Rosa, where the banner unfurled across the main street, in front of the courthouse, read: "The Chinese Must Go, We Mean Strictly Business."
Signs appeared in store windows here saying "No Chinese Employed." Two cooperative "white laundries" were organized to put the Chinese laundries on the east side of the plaza out of business. And it worked.
The newspapers, both the Sonoma Democrat and the Santa Rosa Republican, reported with undisguised glee on how many Chinese had left on the train each week — until almost all of them were gone.
One of the unintended consequences of all this political "success" can be
assessed by the newspapers of the time. When the harvest season arrived, headlines fairly screamed: "Hop pickers needed!" Editorials asked: "Who's going to pick the crops?"
Chapter Two: By the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese had returned. The political climate had changed. Chinese were no longer the enemy, although still considered exotic.
Tom Wing Wong, an enterprising Canton-born man considered to be the "mayor" of Chinatown, fostered Santa Rosa's "second" Chinatown.
He had survived the boycott and gathered his extended family to create a Santa Rosa sub-culture that endured for more than 50 years. As a labor contractor, he brought Bay Area Chinese in the harvest season to work the crops.
The museum exhibit revolves around one remarkable woman, Tom's daughter, Song Wong Bourbeau.
Song, born here in 1909, was the last resident of Chinatown. Her decision, in the 1990s, near the end of her life, to give the museum the surviving artifacts of her early home has given us a clear look back at a time and place that can seem too remote to understand.
Song's story is a familiar one to people who knew the Santa Rosa of 30 years ago and more. She and her husband, Charles Bourbeau, owned Jam Kee, considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in town, located first on Third Street, west of the courthouse, and later, from the 1960s, on Fifth Street.
Song was a Soroptimist, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary and active in charitable causes. Some say she was the go-to person when a friend needed a quick loan. She was friends with all, even those who had pulled her hair and taunted her as the only Chinese child at Fremont School.