The Race to Save the Last Piece of a City's Chinatown

Posted on: March 14th, 2013 by Lauren Walser

Exterior of China House. Credit: O.C. Lee

In Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the only surviving remnant of the valley’s once-thriving Chinatown -- a two-story, c. 1919 house -- faces an uncertain future, and local preservation and Chinese American heritage groups are fighting to save it.

“All the agriculturally centered communities in this area had their Chinatowns,” says Eugene Moy, vice president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “Unfortunately, many are gone. There should be recognition of this forgotten piece of our history.”

Rancho Cucamonga’s Chinatown, Moy says, began in the 1880s as a small settlement of wooden houses built to accommodate the many Chinese workers in the area, who found employment on local farms and vineyards.

Today, all that’s left of the settlement is the so-called China House, built shortly after a fire ravaged much of the community in 1919.

After many of the Chinese residents left the area, a local family purchased China House in the 1940s, where they lived for more than 40 years. In 1988, the Cucamonga Valley Water District (CVWD) purchased the property -- a designated city landmark -- and today it sits vacant, boarded up and deteriorating behind a chain link fence.

Brick of China House. Credit: Brian Turner

A little over a year ago, the CVWD arranged for a structural engineering firm to inspect the structure. The firm concluded the building was both structurally unsound and a safety hazard and recommended its immediate removal.

Working with the city, the CVWD discussed ways to save materials from the building for future use, should it be demolished, and to build a monument recognizing the historic site.

A report was also completed late last year, outlining the building’s history and condition. But the report, Moy says, did not fully recognize the cultural and architectural significance of the building.

“It was dismissive of vernacular architecture,” he says. “This was a utilitarian structure, built using the cheapest and most available materials by the Chinese workers. … We felt [the assessment] was a real slap in the face. It was dismissive to the heritage and contributions of the Chinese.”

Earlier this year, city officials red-tagged the building as unsafe and required the CVWD to take action on the structure by Feb. 14, according to CVWD’s assistant general manager Jo Lynne Russo-Pereyra. The CVWD requested, and was granted, a 60-day extension.

With this extension, Moy and representatives of a number of different preservation and heritage groups -- including the Historical Preservation Association of Rancho Cucamonga, the Endangered Sites Committee of the Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Los Angeles Lodge, and the Asian/Pacific State Employees Association -- have been developing an alternate plan for the site.

“We’re not necessarily engineers,” Moy says, “But we’re also aware that structures like this can be restored. So we’re looking at it from a more positive standpoint.”

No trespassing at China House. Credit: O.C. Lee

They recently presented a proposal to the CVWD that called for preserving the site and turning it into a community center, with space for meetings, exhibitions, and educational activities. The group is putting together a budget for the plan, along with a list of potential consultants and contractors who could work on the project.

The CVWD has not yet responded to the proposal, Moy says.

When asked about the CVWD’s intentions for the structure, Russo-Pereyra says there are no immediate plans.

“Our main concern is to minimize any risk or hazardous issue to the community,” she says.

Moy and his colleagues remain hopeful.

“Our discussions [with the CVWD] have been very friendly,” Moy says.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also written a letter in support for the preservation of this building, urging the city to complete an environmental review to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act prior to issuing a permit to demolish it.

“Precious few places like the China House remain that are tangible reminders of the contributions of the Chinese American community to the founding of the ‘Inland Empire,’” says Brian Turner, senior field officer and attorney with the National Trust. “It is inspiring to see such a well-organized group of advocates working so hard to defend this site.”

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Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

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