The site of Reno’s former Chinatown has not been memorialized
Walk under the old Reno Arch, and crossthe bridge on Lake Street. Hear the Truckee River flow below your feet as you head north. To your right, you’ll see an empty lot bordered by fences hung with shredded tarps, flapping in the wind. You might see the rain soak the earth, or drum atop a shipping container, or drip through a stack of unused chain link fence. But most likely, you won’t notice anything at all.
If you stood here just over a century ago, you would’ve seen something worth noticing. You would’ve smelled roasting pork, seen a woman gather water from the river to wash her daughter’s clothes, heard two elderly men discuss the afternoon sun through plumes of tobacco smoke. You would’ve brought your bedsheets there to be cleaned, exchanging no words, only a smile, with a woman who spoke no English.
You would’ve seen Chinatown.
An unnamed journalist from the Reno Evening Gazette described Chinatown in vivid detail during its New Year’s celebration in 1909. He walked down avenues fragrant with the scent of lilies. He heard the cracking of fireworks and the laughter of children. He stopped into a pharmacy to see a Chinese band, mystified by the strange and foreign music. “Wagner, in his wilder moments, may have produced some effects not wholly unlike what will be heard in Chinatown tonight,” he wrote.
As afternoon gave way to evening, the aroma of the Sacred Chinese Lily intoxicated him, inspiring him to close with the legend of the flower’s origin. Maybe he heard the tale recounted that night by a storyteller in Chinatown, or maybe, consumed by curiosity about the flower, he committed himself to research. Regardless, he devotes a third of his article to spinning this traditional yarn, which begins when an emperor dies and leaves two sons behind.
“The foxy one managed to get away with all the rich lands left by his father, but he very charitably left his brother a plot of rocky ground utterly devoid of soil. Just rocks, nothing more.”
When the brother discovered the con, he wept. The storyteller compares the ensuing flood of tears to “high water of the Truckee.”
“But in the midst of his lamentations, the god of his Chinese fathers suddenly appeared, and sizing up the flood, bade the weeper weep no more. He promised to cause a new and beautiful species of lily to grow upon the soil-less rocks, a lily that would grow nowhere else.”
In the context of the time it was published, it’s possible to read the fable of the two brothers as a metaphor for Chinatown itself, which in Reno, always sprung up in an area that was barren, undesirable, and at an arms length from the larger society. The writer was aware of the unease in the community. He sensed that the Chinese New Year was quieter than usual. When he asked why, the residents of Chinatown told him they felt their days there were numbered.
The Chinese were trying to grow their community, their culture and an identity as dwellers of the American West.
In the legend, the tearful brother grew very wealthy from his new sacred lily. In the story of Reno’s Chinatown, the garden was mowed down before its buds could flower. Today, the Lake Street plot is just as the folk tale described—rocky, empty, barren. But something new can grow there.Yinshan
The Chinese name for Nevada is Yinshan, meaning Silver Mountain. When the Manchu government fell into decline, many sought refuge on ships to America, which landed in San Francisco’s wharf. They came to Nevada following the brilliant glow of the Comstock Lode.
They built the first Chinatown, at First and Virginia Streets, on land owned by the railroad company that employed them to build the Truckee and Virginia railways. These channels would eventually connect Reno to the rest of the United States via the first continental railroad.
During its brief time here, Chinatown left a lasting impression on the city. One such legacy exists and thrives to this day in the game of keno.
Sue Fawn Chung is the author of several books on Chinese-American history. She’s professor emeritus of Chinese and Japanese history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-founder of Preserve Nevada. She says keno’s auspicious origins came from an unlikely place.
“One of the attractions in this area was Chinese laundries,” said Chung. “In Carson City, for example, some of the white patrons realized there was this game going on there, and they wanted to participate. One woman who brought her laundry there won 50 dollars. That was a lot of money in the 1870s. It hit the newspaper.”
The story inspired people in Reno to visit the laundries of Chinatown, where they saw winning numbers posted on the walls.
“They didn’t understand the symbolism of the game,” said Chung. “It was a Confucian poem written on the keno ticket. It wasn’t until much later that numbers were added, one through 80. Which made it even more popular.”
Keno grew to become a staple of gambling throughout Nevada, which today brings millions of dollars through Reno annually.
This city wouldn’t be what we see today if it weren’t for the contributions of Chinatown. Today, we can only imagine what could have been.Park life
Twenty-five years ago, Larry Hosley noticed something missing from his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Of all the major port cities on the West Coast, Tacoma was the only one without a Chinatown.
“The Chinese were thrown out of here,” said Hosley. “And once they were thrown out, and their homes and businesses burnt, there was nowhere for them to establish a place.”
Tacoma’s Chinese population was driven out in 1885—its Chinatown burnt to the ground. It was done so quickly, with such savage efficiency, that it became known as “The Tacoma Method” by cities that aspired to dispose of their own Chinatowns. Hosley admits it’s not a subject a lot of Tacomans would like to address.
“It’s amazing the number of people who don’t know the history of the expulsion, because it’s not something that’s talked about a lot,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to sell to the general populace.”
Yet, against the odds, Hosley, with his wife Theresa, brought the community together to plan and build a tribute to their lost Chinatown. By telling the story, they inspired the city of Tacoma to build a public park by the waterfront, called Chinese Reconciliation Park. The people of Tacoma believed the park had the potential to start the oft avoided conversation about immigrant and minority communities in America, the oppression they face, and how to create a more harmonious future.
“We want to show people what happened,” said Hosley. “Not that anyone is looking for reparations. Just to say, ’Hey, this is what happened in the past, we certainly don’t want it to happen in the future.’”
In addition to its functionality, the park provides cultural education to the area. Students take field trips to the site. People from many minority groups, including Native Americans, Vietnamese and Koreans, use the space for social functions. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited the park and brought 100 high school students from Tacoma to visit China for a week.
Outside of Tacoma, several monuments to evicted Chinatowns dot the West. In Oroville, there’s a Chinese temple with a park, a koi pond and a museum, standing to honor the 10,000 Chinese who once lived there. Winnemucca’s former Chinatown is memorialized by a diorama detailing its buildings, garden and activities as remembered by one of its residents. In Carson City, there’s a plaque, and, in Reno, a pagoda located at Rancho San Rafael Park.
In light of budgetary concerns, or the effort it takes to build a park, many people would opt to simply place a plaque at a historical site. This is an adversity that the Hosleys faced early on in their mission.
“We felt that a plaque really doesn’t tell the story—it doesn’t impact people,” said Hosley. “There’s one site in Northern California called Chinamen’s Cove. There were 12 or 14 Chinese people who were thrown in the river and drowned. If you go there, there’s a plaque, that says ’This many Chinese were killed here.’ So what do you do? You look at it, and on you go.”Fires
In 1878, the residents of Reno’s Chinatown feared for their safety. Word had reached Reno of several fires started in nearby Chinese settlements. One, known as the Blue Tent Ditch, had been attacked by an armed militia in Nevada City. Even white patrons of Chinese businesses were afraid. They stopped bringing their laundry there, for fear they would lose their cloth in the angry flames of a mob.
Meetings were held throughout Reno and editorials were published in the newspapers—all regarding Chinatown: how to remove it, and what to replace it with.
The Chinese population’s fears were not unfounded. Reno’s fire of 1878 was started the very same night an anti-Chinese mob rallied in Reno—bringing together the Workingmen’s Party and the Anti-Coolie Society. The former was a young labor union that objected to railroad companies hiring Chinese labor, and the latter consisted of people in a variety of fields, from doctors to businessmen, who wanted to develop on the land upon which Chinatown stood.
No one knows who started the fires that swallowed Chinatown whole. That didn’t stop the local newspapers from promptly claiming the destruction came about by accident. Without a trial or investigation, this became the widely accepted narrative. Those same newspapers, mere paragraphs after declaring the mystery solved, made statements such as these, found in the Daily Nevada State Journal: “We hope some means may be found to prevent the town from ever being built there again. A few nice residences or a Pavilion would add to the value of that land. It certainly seems as if some plan could be hit upon to banish Chinatown from that very desirable location.”
The Workingmen’s Party, keen on creating such a means, issued a declaration that within 48 hours, all the Chinese were to leave Reno.
“In the very beginning, it was cheap real estate,” explained Chung. “As the decades passed, and Reno became prosperous, it became very desirable land. There were different plans on how to drive the Chinese out, but burning the Chinatown was probably one of the most effective, quick ways of doing it.”
But the cruel efficiency of the Tacoma Method had yet to be applied to Reno’s Chinese. They refused to leave, camping outside of town, sleeping at night while hugging their rifles. Before long, they rebuilt Chinatown farther east on the Truckee River, at the present day Lake Street site.
Once again, as the city developed, Chinatown became prime real estate. Anti-Chinese sentiment had grown bolder and more pervasive in the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thirty years after the first fire, there came another—this time with no doubt about how it was set.
“The burning of the Chinatown in 1908 was because it was situated in the heart of Reno, and the landowners wanted the land to build non-Chinese structures, so the movement was to burn down the Chinatown,” said Chung. “It was done in the winter, there’s a photo in the Reno Evening Gazette of all of these hundreds of Chinese who were left out. They’re standing there looking at the destruction of their homes in the snow.”
Fears of disease were used to justify the second burning of Reno’s Chinatown. And at least some people bought it.
The contempt present in the reporting of the time can be sensed in a newspaper account of the fire.
“Chinese shacks in which scores of Chinese have existed for years in misery and poverty are now coming down under the direction of Dr. Robinson, backed up by the Washoe County Grand Jury Dr. Robinson [chairman of the city’s newly formed Board of Health] believes burning the safest way of getting rid of all danger of disease resulting in destruction of the hovels. These shacks resemble the lairs of wild beasts and are filthy to the extreme.”
Chung explained that after the second fire, fewer Chinese opted to stay in a town where they were clearly not wanted.
“They had to go to neighboring areas,” she said. “Other people, and other Chinatowns that would take them in.”
The last Chinatown building, a joss home, was demolished in 1957. It had stood near the corner of First and Lake Streets.From the ashes
As we approach 150 years as a city, the people of Reno could make a park commemorating our Chinatown. Or the plot of land could resemble the dreams of the xenophobic land owners of the past. It could become nice homes or a business front—it will forget.
The present-day landowner is Simon Equity Partners, owned by Herb Simon. Eric Edelstein, president of the Reno Aces, also owned by Simon Equity Partners, spoke recently about the plot: “It is a goal of the Simon family to find the right project to put on that land. We’ve had a number of conversations with local and regional developers. Nothing anywhere near an endpoint at this time, but we’re continuing to engage in those conversations, and we have every intention of finding the highest and best use of that property for the benefit of downtown Reno.”
A public park across the street from the ballpark would add foot traffic, walkability, value and beauty to nearby businesses, hotels, and apartment buildings. There could be a wooded patch, alive with silver birch—a tree that grows in both China and North America—to further the motif of Yinshan, the silver mountain.
Francesca Martinez, owner of Reno clothing boutique Bad Apple Vntg, says her Chinese heritage is an underrepresented part of Reno’s history. “Having representation of the Asian community here in Reno would reflect our diversity that is often shorthanded,” she said. “I sure didn’t know there was once a Chinatown here, let alone the tragedy that destroyed the lives of many. A memorial park would not only show respect to those that suffered, but also to illuminate the history that was swept under the rug.”
Larry Hosley encourages Reno to follow the lead of many Western cities in making a commemorative park.
“Unfortunately today we’re hearing a lot of the same rhetoric about immigrants we were hearing in the mid-1850s,” said Hosley. “Even if you were to have half a city block, some type of a park with Chinese elements, then it wouldn’t be some thirty-second stop at a plaque, and then on to something else.”
For Reno’s 150th anniversary, there could once again be something on Lake Street worth noticing, somewhere people could walk through a birch forest, listening to the peaceful swell of wind through trees and river flowing—sounds the people of Chinatown once heard, sounds that perhaps reminded them of home.