One last look at Madera’s ‘Chinatown’
Madera County Historical Society
Frank Tuck, 2nd from the left, leads a delegation of history lovers in unveiling the plaque honoring the Borden Chinese Cemetery.
The Chinese were among the first settlers in Madera. Most of them came here from the little town of Borden, four miles to the south. By the late 19th century, a bustling Chinatown thrived in the area that had been set aside for them by the founding fathers, who fought to keep the Chinese on the west side of the railroad tracks.
There, they operated their restaurants and laundries and a few smoked opium in underground tunnels. For a while, some worked in the Sugar Pine Lumber Company mills and labored in the Madera brick factory, while others operated little truck farms on the outskirts of town. Together, they became a significant economic force in town until the 1920s; then came the huge fire of 1923 and with it the demise of the Chinese presence in Madera.
Before the conflagration, however, one Madera newspaper reporter took a last look at Chinatown and gave his readers what amounted to its obituary.
On the appointed day, that reporter took a ride to Madera’s Chinatown. After leaving the news office, he crossed the Southern Pacific tracks at Yosemite Avenue, traveled west until he reached G Street and then turned north. As he made the corner, the newspaperman reached his destination, the remnants of old Chinatown. Bordered at one time by I Street, Central Avenue, F Street (Gateway Drive), and West Yosemite Avenue, this abode of Madera’s Chinese residents was now a shadow of its former self.
The first structure that the writer met was what had once been a Chinese hotel, now entirely “unoccupied and extremely dilapidated.” In the next block, near where City Hall and the Madera Valley Inn are now located, several buildings stood, most of them, although run down, were still occupied. The main one in this array of weathered structures was the “China Store.”
The reporter pulled over and stopped. The China Store was the congregating place for the few Chinese who were left in Madera. Inside he saw “quantities of rice...packages of tea, tobacco, chopsticks, quaint little, flowered bowls, and prettily embroidered, tiny slippers made by China Girls.”
From the China Store, the reporter went a bit further north to perhaps the most important spot in Madera’s Chinatown: The Joss House. The late Mildred Eaves, long time Historic Sites Chairperson of the Madera County Historical Society, remembered that the old Chinese place of worship stood at 718 North G Street, now an empty lot.
The Joss House was built in 1888 and stood on G Street until the 1930’s. When the reporter arrived on that summer day in 1923, he was given a guided tour by Jake Jaun Tong through what some then referred to as the “Churchey House.” The inside was described as musty and dark, “reeking with the odor of the punk sticks burned yet on certain occasions before the altar.”
There an image of the god the Chinese worshipped could be found behind the altar. He was well preserved and in days gone by had been given little bowls of rice and tea. It was reported that whenever the Chinese wanted to know when “will come the rain,” the image was consulted. As the reporter walked to the rear of the temple, he found a Chinese “hospital.” Broken jugs and vases that contained “Chinese medicine” were found in the deep, dried grasses in the backyard, which at the time was secluded by a broken down fence.
Returning to the inside, the visitor took note of the bronze, wooden, and clay candlesticks. A large brass bowl full of sacred ashes reposed beneath elaborate bouquets of paper flowers, “brilliantly hued, ages old, but still retaining color.”
Strange stools, which were once used as chairs at the meetings, were piled in the corners. Scattered around in other corners were the old instruments of a Chinese band, and in various places were honor rolls written in the Chinese language. These rolls included the names of donors who helped build the temple.
The one item left in the almost abandoned Madera Joss House that most impressed the reporter was a religious tapestry. It had been placed above the altar years ago, but still retained the lovely color of the embroidered threads of dragons and “curious emblems of Chinese understanding woven into the silken folds.”
The reporter left the Chinese place of worship and returned to the east side of the tracks. He wrote his story which was entitled “Chinatown is now only a Remnant.” He reminded his readers that “When Madera was in its early days, Chinatown extended down to what is now the imposing Lincoln Grammar School.”
“Little by little, one by one, the dwellings and business houses of the race that haunt our shores and throng our western coast cities are tumbling down, or are being torn away,” he continued.
By the end of the year, Madera’s Chinatown had no buildings at all. Most everything was consigned to the flames in 1923. Not all was lost, however. Sheriff John Barnett saved that beautiful Joss House altar cloth, and it is now displayed at the Madera County Courthouse Museum, along with other memorabilia of Madera’s Chinatown.