Song Wong Bourbeau at Jam Kee Restaurant in Santa Rosa, undated. (The Press Democrat Archives)

LeBARON: City's rich, painful Chinese legacy gets its due

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.

She tells her story on a video which plays at the exhibit. She talks about the temple she tended daily as a child, of the men who worked for her father lying on the floor smoking opium as she made her daily visit to the little temple upstairs.

She tells of the occasional dead body that turned up in the alley, an unsuccessful escapee from the big-city tong wars.

Song and her mother, Lun Moon, were the only women in this all-male society which, in the season, had a population of about 200 crammed into a block of unpainted wooden buildings (Song called them "shacks") on Second Street between D Street and Santa Rosa Avenue.

Her older half-brothers and her uncles owned stores on the block where groceries and incidentals were sold in front and Chinese lottery was conducted in the back rooms. Her maternal grandfather, Poy Jam, owned the first Jam Kee restaurant, with just two tables in the beginning. He left his restaurant to his educated granddaughter, Song, who had graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College and attended Stanford before marrying Charles Bourbeau, a member of one of the families that owned the Chinatown buildings.

Chinatown disappeared, piece-by-piece, in the 1930s and '40s as the property sold and the buildings were torn down to make room for Caucasian businesses like auto repairs and tractor sales.

Jam Kee on Fifth Street closed when Charles died in 1988. Song died in 1996.

Chapter Three is a reminder that there is still a lot we don't know about our town's history.

Everyone who has written or studied about the Chinese in Sonoma County missed the herb shop on lower Fourth Street in 1913.

We all missed it because the census takers and the city directories of the time routinely overlooked the Chinese and their businesses. Most are not listed. If it weren't for Song and her chronicles of Chinatown and the newspaper stories about the boycott, we would have no record at all.

The herbalist's name was Fong Poy, later to be known as Fong Wan Kwong, the self-styled "King of Herbalists in North America," and, incidentally, the owner of well-known Chinese nightclubs and cafes in both Oakland and San Francisco.

It was a bit of serendipity that brought Fong Wan to the attention of Eric Stanley, history curator of the museum. Calvin Fong, one of Fong's 11 children, was net surfing, doing some casual family research. He knew that his notable father (so notable that he rated a two-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1949) had begun his "Chinese doctor" career in Santa Rosa, so he looked for Chinese in Santa Rosa and found that the museum was planning a Chinatown exhibit.

Through Calvin, the museum was able to include Fong's story as part of the current installation. And it's some story, indeed.

After Fong expanded his herb business to Oakland and then to San Francisco, he found himself championing the cause of Chinese herbalists everywhere who were assailed by government agencies that regarded their business as fraudulent medicine.

His oldest sons, Richard and Edward, were both medical doctors. Richard joined his father in the Oakland office for a joint practice in both American and traditional Chinese medicine.

They were enormously successful, despite what Fong considered "constant harassment" from the State Board of Medical Examiners, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Post Office.

He began a series of newspaper ads detailing his every arrest - there were at least 20 of them - and his several trials, all of which resulted in acquittals as his loyal patrons - Caucasian patrons - stepped forward to testify in his behalf.

The ads are what made him famous. The herbs, the nightclubs and his real estate investments are what made him a millionaire.

His first shop, called Fong & Lee Co., was at 209 Fourth St. in Santa Rosa, a building that was in the path of the 1960s freeway.

If it were still there, the Fong family might be tempted to put a plaque near the door.

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