When someone mentions Chinatown, the cities of San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles might come to mind, but Chinatowns were once common throughout the American West. Historian Alicia Barber takes a closer look at one of them in this episode of Time & Place.
The promise of work on the country’s first transcontinental railroad brought thousands of Chinese immigrants to the American West in the 1860s. When that line was completed, many of the former workers decided to settle down in communities throughout Northern Nevada and California, forming ethnic enclaves known as Chinatowns.
Reno’s Chinatown grew up along the Truckee River close to Virginia Street, burned down in 1878, and was reconstructed a few blocks east. As in other western communities, its residents were frequent targets of anger and even violence from many native-born Americans who blamed them for taking away their jobs and lowering prevailing wages. Tensions came to a head in 1882 when the federal government passed the country’s first major law restricting immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act. Between 1880 and 1890, Washoe County’s Chinese population dropped by more than 50 percent, to just 217.
Those who remained didn’t have it easy. Reno’s Board of Health declared Chinatown a “physical and moral threat” in 1908, and a grand jury ordered its demolition, leaving 150 residents homeless. Even then, the community didn’t entirely disappear. When Lai King Chew moved to Reno with her husband Charles in 1956, they found the city’s small Chinese population largely concentrated in the same area.
“Most of them lived along Lake Street. They had boardinghouses there and a lot of the Chinese workers lived there,” she said.
Also remaining at the foot of Lake Street was the community’s Joss House, a temple and meeting place that was built in the twenties but had fallen into disrepair as the community’s needs changed. After the little brick building was demolished, in 1958, the trustees of the Joss House Society, including Lai King Chew, debated whether or not to build a new one.
“We never had a Society meeting anymore after that because there wasn’t anybody left—just about four or five of us, and that was it!”
They decided to fund construction of a picnic shelter at Rancho San Rafael Park. The Joss House Pavilion was dedicated there in 1984 as a lasting tribute to Reno’s Chinese community and the neighborhood they once called home.