Honoring the Asian American legacy in West Marin

05/05/2021

A history exhibit on the almost forgotten story of Chinese people in coastal Marin has long been a goal of the Bolinas Museum, but the current national conversations about anti-Asian racism led us to consider our coastal Marin story now. The San Francisco Bay Area has a dark history of anti-Chinese racism dating back to the Gold Rush, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was not revoked until 1943, after China became our ally during World War II. Today, fueled by rhetoric linked to the pandemic, elderly Chinese, vilified, have been the victims of physical attacks that echo an attack on an elderly Chinese man on Bolinas Beach in 1878. Despite such history, the talents and accomplishments of Asian people have profoundly enriched the Bay Area’s culture and economy.

Contributions to the early development of coastal Marin by Chinese people have mostly been ignored in written history, but Chinese men built much of our transportation infrastructure, as they did throughout the West. One of the most celebrated moments in America’s history was the joining of two railroad lines in 1869, forming the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Though they are rarely acknowledged, it was predominately some 15,000 Chinese men who accomplished the harrowing and monumental feat of blasting tunnels through solid granite with nitroglycerin and using picks and shovels to lay railroad lines in winter through the Sierra Nevada. In Marin it was crews of mostly Chinese workers who built the narrow-gauge railroad that, from 1872 to the 1930s, was a vital economic and tourist artery carrying agricultural products, lumber and passengers between Sausalito and Sonoma County, and which gave rise to Point Reyes Station. There was also a small number of Black Americans, Italians, Mormons, Native Americans and others in the crews. Despite loud demands that white men should get local jobs, there were few who wanted to take on the severe conditions, hard labor and low pay. It was primarily Chinese men, far from their families, underpaid and often scorned, who cut roads through the rugged terrain to the Marin coast. In his book, “The Bolinas Fairfax Road,” Brian Crawford tells of the daunting challenges met by the Chinese laborers who built that road despite attempted interference by local anti-Chinese hate groups.

Agriculture needed workers, too. According to Jack Mason, on the Point Reyes Peninsula there were 500 Chinese working on potato farms and more in the dairies, as fishermen or as cowboys in the 1870s. Limited in what jobs they were allowed, some Chinese entrepreneurs established laundries, such as the one in Bolinas operated by Ah Lee Yung, who lived on the property of community leader Samuel Clark near Pine Gulch Creek. Decades later, scientist Evan Evans (1922-2018) recounted how, as a child in Bolinas, he loved to spend hours with a Chinese family who sang Chinese opera and ran a laundry in the historic barn at 52 Wharf Road.

Other Asians also contributed to the local agricultural economy. Historian Dewey Livingston has delved into the history of the many Japanese families who farmed on hundreds of acres at Limantour and Drakes Estero beginning in the 1920s and ending by 1942, when war with Japan led to Japanese American citizens being swept into internment prison camps. There are some heartening stories of California farmers who maintained and protected farms owned by their Japanese neighbors and returned them after the war. Among the imprisoned Japanese Americans were two young men who went on to be renowned contemporary artists: Gompers Saijo (1922-2003) of Inverness and Arthur Okamura (1932-2009) of Bolinas. Beside his fine art, Saijo’s exquisitely detailed California wildflower identification posters, published by the California Native Plant Society, have sold 120,000 copies. Okamura, whose artwork is in collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian, cultivated the abilities of thousands of students during his decades as a professor at California College of the Arts. There are many more stories of Asian people and their ideas contributing to Marin coastal life. For example, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Buddhism and organic agriculture have drawn people from all over the world for the last 49 years. Today, Asian American residents in coastal Marin are from many nations and generations. They are part of the fiber of our communities, adding cultural traditions, skills, innovation, creativity, friendships and families.

Bigotry, stereotyping and exclusion take much more energy than appreciation and respect for our human diversity. Right now, our nation is sharing a remarkable time of re-examining habitual perceptions and behaviors, and realigning our social values and actions with equity, justice and inclusivity. We at the Bolinas Museum have always been inspired by the diversity of people of all kinds.  

 

Elia Haworth is the curator of coastal Marin art and history for the Bolinas Museum.