Save Chinatown Button

Save Our Chinatown Committee
Preserving Chinese American Heritage in Riverside, California
   Home   Programs and Events   About Chinatown/Resources   About Us/Join Us/Donate  

News / 中文

  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.  Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and anti-Chinese sentiment, the town slowly declined after the turn of the century.  

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.


Most of this population consisted predominantly of aging bachelors and a few families.  They had moved out or died by the 1930s.  By the 1940s only one resident remained and he purchased the property.

In 1968, Chinatown became County Historical Landmark #8.  Later that year it received a designation as State Point of Historical Interest, RIV-008.

The last resident and property owner of Chinatown, Wong Ho Leun (George Wong) died in 1974.  Chinatown became Riverside’s City Landmark #19 in 1976.

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)

What remains of the site, remnants of buried buildings and other relics, lies underground.

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.

Later, the Riverside County Office of Education became interested in developing the property for a parking lot.  Public interest and support for the site in face of this development led to limited archaeological excavations conducted at the site in 1984-1985.

The excavations were supported by a wide constituency, including the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), the Ad Hoc Committee to Save Riverside’s Chinatown, the Great Basin Foundation, and the University of California, Riverside.  (“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)  Other support came from the Riverside County Office of Education, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, and the Riverside City Council (including then Ward 1 Council Member Ron Loveridge, later the Mayor of Riverside). 

Author Maxine Hong Kingston (Woman Warrior and China Men) dedicated the excavation and dug the first spade of dirt in the groundbreaking ceremony.  She wrote the introductions to both volumes of Wong Ho Leun: an American Chinatown (vol. 1: history, vol. 2: archaeology).  Later, she returned for the celebration of the report's publication and the Riverside Chinatown Ball (1985), which had actor James Hong serving as the Master of Ceremonies.

These excavations drew national and international attention to Riverside and its Chinatown, revealing buried architectural features, recovering thousands of artifacts, with the resulting research contributing significantly to the knowledge of Chinese American settlements.  According to archaeologists, the unexcavated portion of the site contains the bulk of the Chinatown artifacts, preserved many feet under the ground.

In recognition of the significance of the site, a conscious decision was made at that time to excavate the less sensitive area and to leave the bulk of the artifacts undisturbed.

  The sign says "This fence provided by the Riverside County Office of Education For The Protection and Preservation of the Origninal Site of Chinatown"

After the excavation, 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 over the area containing the extant archaeology.  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.

Chinatown was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

Poor communication among city, county, and school officials hampered efforts for a final arrangement. County school officials had received a higher appraisal for the land in 1989 and decided they were unwilling to consider selling it at the original price negotiated for the park (Press-Enterprise, February 8, 1990).  Negotiations for the sale collapsed.  The City returned the $220,000 grant to the state.  

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.”  

The Chinatown Historic Park, once so close to reality, was never built and the land was left empty under the ownership of the Riverside County Board Of Education.  

Despite the Riverside County Board of Education’s commitment to preserve the Chinatown site, they recently negotiated the sale of the property to a developer.  While the property was in escrow heavy construction equipment sat on the site.  

Proposed Medical Office Building  

Proposed Medical Office Building


On October 7, 2008 the Riverside City Council unanimously approved the construction of a medical office building which would obliterate this important historical archeological site.  A vast majority of speakers from the standing-room only crowd in attendance at the Council meeting expressed opposition to the project, and turned in petitions with over 1,000 signatures supporting the preservation of the Chinatown site.  This public outcry did not sway the City Council from their support of the developer and the proposed project.

As a last resort concerned citizens formed a grassroots community organization, Save Our Chinatown Committee (SOCC), and filed suit against the Riverside County Office of Education, the City of Riverside, and the developer in November, 2008.

Normally included as standard practice in the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for consideration and examination before the report's adoption, this Archaeological Treatment Plan (ATP) was not developed and presented to the Cultural Heritage Board for approval until December 2009, where it passed on a 4-3 vote.  It was formally adopted by City Council on February 10, 2009, over appeals to the ATP, including those submitted by an archaeologist.

Lawyers for SOCC filed an injunction on Friday, February 13, 2009 to prevent work on the Chinatown site before the outcome of the lawsuit’s Hearing on the Merits.  By 7:00 am, Saturday, February 14, 2009 heavy construction equipment appeared at the Chinatown site for three days of earth moving, demolition, and “excavation” over the three-day holiday weekend.  For newspaper accounts of these actions see 2009 Press Enterprise articles February 10, 17, 18, 24, 25, and March 13, 20 linked in the News section of the SOCC website.

Smoke emission from one of the pieces of equipment used all three days.   Smoke emission from one of the pieces of equipment used all three days.
The developer and archaeologist at the site with members of the construction crew and a city employee   The developer and archaeologist at the site with members of the construction crew and a city employee
Ward 1 Council Member M. Gardner at the site Saturday afternoon [Photo from Save - Riverside]   Ward 1 Council Member M. Gardner at the site Saturday afternoon
City Planner K. Guitierrez at the site on Sunday. The City Planner is responsible for project oversight, compliance with City regulations, and adherence to the Final Environmental Impact Report.   City Planner K. Guitierrez at the site on Sunday
Heavy equipment behind the RCOE “for the protection of Chinatown” sign.

More construction photos here. Youtube videos of the construction: 1 | 2 | 3

  Heavy equipment behind the RCOE “for the protection of Chinatown” sign

At the Hearing on the Merits and in the subsequent judgment, Judge Sharon Walters found that the agreement for the Riverside County Office of Education to sell the land to the developer violated state law. The Riverside County Office of Education filed an appeal of that judgment.  SOCC lawyers filed an appeal of the court’s decision that the City of Riverside did not violate the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requirements and provisions that should protect the site under State law.  The injunction issued in February 2009, preventing further activity on the site while the lawsuit was pending, is no longer in effect.

The 4th Appellate District issued a final opinion on March 21, 2012 agreeing with SOCC that the City failed to consider reasonable alternatives to a development that threatened to destroy Riverside’s historic Chinatown.  It was decided that the EIR contained insufficient analysis for the City to consider accurately the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed development. The Court of Appeal’s decision will cancel any construction permits issued based on the EIR.  Any new or revised EIR will require additional public review. 

The Appeal Court also reversed the Superior Court’s ruling that the sale of the property was improperly conducted.  The RCBOE argued that their sale of the property to Jacobs (which to date has not been finalized, contrary to what has been reported in the Press Enterprise) did not violate State Education Code instructions because those instructions apply only to school districts, not Boards of Education.  SOCC arguments that the RCBOE is subject to nearly identical rules in another state law were not considered by the Court of Appeal due to a timing issue.  SOCC holds that RCBOE’s “surplus” property should first be offered to governmental units and nonprofit organizations before being offered to private entities.  Also, RCBOE’s apparent disregard for the fact that this is an irreplaceable historic property with rich educational value makes their actions appear even more egregious.  SOCC will monitor the RCBOE’s actions in light of the judgment and asks our local supporters to remain vigilant for any activity on the site. 

Why is Riverside's Chinatown archaeological site in danger?
When property passes from public to private hands, there is less protection available for recognized sites of significance.  Just because a property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it does not enjoy special protection.

Once any site is excavated, it is final; the context for analysis is destroyed.  Standard meaningful archaeological excavations involve careful planning, time, and affiliation with scholarly entities or research organizations.

The current plan for development includes a “salvage” archaeological excavation and some display cases of artifacts in the project building’s lobby. Salvage archaeology normally associated with development projects are often dictated by the developer’s construction timetables.  An archaeological site with four levels of significance (city, county, state, and national recognition) deserves more attention and care than salvage archaeology normally provides.  The Archaeological Treatment Plan adopted by City Council for this project in early 2009 is controversial.   One of its features allows for the decision to discard artifacts to take place in the field, before adequate analysis can occur.

The Riverside Metropolitan Museum currently has neither storage facilities nor resources to cope with the resulting artifacts that would emerge from the richest portion of the unexcavated Chinatown site.  The original 1984-1985 partial excavation yielded over 3 tons of material.  The vast majority of the artifacts from the 1984-1985 excavations are in the Museum’s storage.

Recent past behavior as described in the section on “Recent Developments” has impacted public trust in the approved medical office building project. 

It must be recognized that the developer’s proposal to have the site excavated does NOT preserve the Chinatown site.  

Why Save Riverside's Chinatown archaeological site?
The site of the archaeological remains of Riverside’s Chinatown has been declared a City Landmark, a
County Point of Historical Interest, a State Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Riverside’s historic Chinatown site is “the only known complete Chinese village site in California that has not been subsequently developed and rendered unavailable for archeological study” (from the California Office of Historic Preservation, Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, January, 1990).

This Chinatown is the most complete and representative of the many citrus belt Chinatowns of Southern California; it contains the remains of a temple, the business district, permanent residential buildings, and probably areas of temporary housing.

By 1893 the original Chinatown at this site consisted of 26 buildings, when all but 8 of them were destroyed by fire.  Reconstruction began immediately and buildings were erected directly over the old remains, including two brick buildings to accompany other wooden replacements.  The fill placed on the site over years and the decision in 1984-1985 to leave the bulk of the artifacts undisturbed contributed to the intact nature of this site that has remained thus far in situ.  More than one strata of archaeology exists on the site.  As much of the Chinatown site was intentionally buried, preservation of the archaeological remains is excellent.  

  Pottery remains unearthed during the 1985 excavation

Pottery remains unearthed during the 1985 excavation

Archaeologists recognize that excavation, even when carefully conducted by standards of today, destroys any portion of a site that is dug.  When the ground has been stripped, the site no longer exists, and it can not be reexamined at a future date when more advanced techniques and scholarly interpretation could shed light on the resource.  Preserving the artifacts in situ allows for more accurate interpretation.  Removing them from the environment destroys that interpretive context.

Archaeologists recognize that the remaining Riverside Chinatown site should be preserved in-place for future generations unless it is
necessary to excavate it.   

The site represents the history of the Chinese in Riverside, Riverside’s early heritage, and the development of California’s citrus industry and agriculture. 

It provides a sense of place for local residents and others interested in the Chinese in California and the United States, a connection to the past, and a legacy for future generations.

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.

In short, Riverside’s early Chinese population was a vital part of the area’s economic infrastructure and aided the development of various industries. These contributions significantly impacted the region, California, and the United States.

How the Riverside Chinatown issue is resolved sends a message out to local community groups and the rest of the public in the state, nation, and internationally (e.g., Riverside’s Sister City Jiangmen and other Chinese around the world) about how the City and the Riverside County Office of Education, both public entities, value and treat heritage resources.

The Save Our Chinatown Committee (SOCC) supports the development of a Chinatown Memorial Park to recognize and commemorate the contributions of Riverside’s Chinese pioneers, point to this era of Riverside’s history and development, and illustrate how these events impacted the state and nation. 

At the same time, such a Memorial Park would provide a valuable community green space and protection of the historic archaeological resources under ground.





Historical Resources

City of Riverside:

Riverside County Office of Education

Riverside Press Enterprise:


The Chinatown site is located at the corner of Tequesquite and Brockton Avenues in the city of Riverside.

Maps to the site:

Map detail showing the location




Click on image at right to see stitched panoramic view of the site, taken from the corner of Tequesquite and Brockton, July 12, 2010  
Click on image to see stitched panoramic view of the site, taken July 12, 2010
Image of the Button  

You will see many of our members and supporters wearing this button: an image of an unidentified servant from the Bettner household, ca. 1890.  The Bettner home is now the Heritage House, an historic site managed by the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

Supporters hold a photo of George Wong, Chinatown's last resident during a silent vigil demonstration

Supporters hold up photos of George Wong, Chinatown's last resident during a silent vigil demonstration




  Save Our Chinatown Committee
P.O. Box 55436 Riverside, CA 92517
Facebook Icon Find Us On Facebook  E-mail Icon E-Mail Newsletter
© copyright 2014 Save Our Chinatown