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Preserving Chinese American Heritage in Riverside, California
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About Chinatown

Historical Background

It is generally accepted that the Chinese pioneers first arrived in Riverside around the time it was founded in 1870.  However, in 1868 Chinese masons were in the area to make and lay the bricks in the traditional Chinese method for the historic Jensen-Alvarado house and the Jensen-Alvarado Ranch buildings.  (“Chinese and the Jensen-Alvarado Ranch” by Mary H. Haggland in Wong Ho Leun: an American Chinatown, 1: 167-172.) 

The first Chinese businesses were established on Seventh St. between Main and Market in 1878.  An early Chinatown area was located downtown, near the Mission Inn and a few blocks from the current commemorative Chinese Pavilion near Orange Street and Mission Inn Boulevard (formerly Seventh St.).

In 1885, the Chinese community was forced to move out of their central downtown locations due to ordinances outlawing Chinese businesses there.  They moved to the Tequesquite Arroyo southwest and outside of the downtown mile square after purchasing the property along Tequesquite between Brockton and Pine Streets.  This second Chinatown flourished with over 450 full-time residents and housed an additional 2,500 people during the harvest season.

Hand-tinted detail photo of Riverside (second) Chinatown, ca. 1910. Photo courtesy of Riverside Metropolitan Museum
The Chinese were essential to the development and quality of life in Riverside because:

  • Chinese knowledge of citrus, which had been cultivated in China for 2,000 years, allowed citrus to thrive where many other farm products had failed. Without the Chinese, the California citrus industry would never have succeeded.

  • Chinese labor and tools, combined with professional promotional techniques, made citrus growers wealthy and the entire community prosperous, at one time the richest city per capita in the United States. Today, Riverside continues to lead the world in citrus research and technology.

  • Additional agricultural contributions included the grape harvest and raisin production, other orchard crops, and truck farming, which supplied Riverside residents with vegetables for 50 years.

  • The Chinese community also provided needed services by working as cooks, servants, laundrymen, farmhands, and laborers, among other jobs.

Chinese citrus laborers, ca. 1898. Photo courtesy of Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and anti-Chinese sentiment, the Chinatown community slowly declined after the turn of the century. Most of this population consisted predominantly of aging bachelors and a few families.  

George Wong, 1968  

George Wong, Chinatown's Last Resident, in 1968. The  10-foot high sign designating Chinatown as a Riverside County Landmark has disappeared.


They had moved out or died by the 1930s. By the 1940s only one resident, Wong Ho Leun (George Wong), remained. During his tenure as owner, he never agreed to sell his beloved Chinatown. He remained its steadfast caretaker until his passing in 1974.

In 1968, Chinatown became County Historical Landmark #8. Later that year it received a designation as State Point of Historical Interest, RIV-008. Chinatown became Riverside’s City Landmark #19 in 1976. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

After George Wong’s death, the Chinatown property was purchased from his estate by a development company that planned to build on the site.   Attempts at commercial development were unsuccessful.  The last of the buildings were torn down in 1977.  (“In violation of existing heritage protection statutes, the last surviving structures…were demolished…”  from “Digging to China: the Historical and Archaeological Investigation of Riverside’s Chinatown” by Clark W. Brott and Fred W. Mueller, Jr. in Wong Ho Leun: an American Chinatown, 2:435) The property was purchased in 1980 by the Office of the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools, bringing the site into ownership by a public agency.

Soon, the Riverside County Office of Education sought to build a maintenance facility on the western portion of the site bordering Pine Street. The City's Cultural Heritage Board became concerned and required as part of the approval process, an archaeological test and assessment program which would assess the abundance and significance of the buried remains. A conscious decision was made to investigate least sensitive areas of the site. Archaeologists who participated in the study concluded the site still contained an abundance of artifacts and had great potential to relate the largely untold story of Riverside Chinatown. The archaeological study of Riverside Chinatown drew national and international attention.

Sample artifacts recovered from the 1984-1985 partial excavation of Riverside Chinatown. Photo courtesy of Judy

After the archaeological testing program of the mid-1980s, there was a cooperative effort and endorsement among the City of Riverside, Riverside County, and the Riverside County Board of Education (RCBOE) to create a Chinatown Historic Park at the eastern portion of the original site. It was supported by sustained citizen efforts for over a five-year period.  A highly competitive state grant was awarded from Proposition 70 funds for the site and a landscape design firm was hired to generate a development proposal. Around this time, the Riverside County Board of Education adopted a Minute Order on March 21, 1990 regarding the criteria for the utilization and disposition of the Chinatown site.  From the Minute Order: “The cultural, historical and archaeological, values of the site will be preserved.” Unfortunately, poor communication among city, county, and school officials hampered efforts for a final arrangement. To date, Riverside Chinatown is owned and maintained by the Riverside County Office of Education.

In 2008, a medical office development was approved for the site of Riverside Chinatown. As planned, the project would destroy the historic site’s archaeological remains. In 2012, a panel of judges ruled City officials failed to consider reasonable alternatives to the proposed building plans and location. The court also found that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) contained insufficient analysis for the City to consider the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed development. The final court ruling set aside the City’s certification of the EIR, its statement of overriding considerations, and approval of the project.

In 2014, SOCC and developers began a dialogue with the goal of finding a way to bring the medical office development to Riverside, while not destroying a valuable heritage site. Talks resulted in identifying an alternative site for the medical office building project, located five blocks east of Chinatown at Olivewood Avenue. The site was partly owned by the City and the Successor Agency to the City’s Redevelopment Agency. On December 9, 2014, Riverside’s City Council voted unanimously to sell land at Olivewood Avenue off the 91 freeway and south of 14th Street in Downtown Riverside to the developers. A major hurdle cleared away, SOCC is now working with City officials to acquire the historic site for future park development.

Learn more about our vision for a signature park at Riverside Chinatown.




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