DISCOVER RIVERSIDE'S CHINESE AMERICAN HISTORY
Riverside Chinatown, a unique heritage asset
- In 1968, the County of Riverside’s Board of Supervisors was the first government agency to designate Riverside Chinatown as a historic resource. In addition to County landmark designation, County staff submitted an application for recognition at the State level, which resulted in the site’s listing as a State Point of Historical Interest. The City of Riverside expressed interest in designating the site as a local landmark as early as 1971, but it was not until 1976 that it added Riverside Chinatown to the City’s landmarks list.
- After the passing of George Wong, the last owner and resident of Riverside Chinatown, the site was purchased from his estate by a development company that planned to build on the site. Attempts at commercial development were unsuccessful. The land was cleared in 1977 and purchased in 1980 by the Office of the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools, bringing the site into public ownership. Soon, the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) 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, an archaeological test excavation which would assess the abundance and significance of the buried remains. Funds and permission were secured to conduct an archaeological testing program at the site. In 1984, members of then Save Riverside’s Chinatown group and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California contacted the Great Basin Foundation, a research affiliate of the San Diego Museum of Man, to assist in the archaeological testing program. The Great Basin Foundation agreed and the project ensued in 1984 to 1985.
- In keeping with professional best practices, a decision was made to focus on the archaeological site's least sensitive areas, leaving the bulk of the site undisturbed for future study. Efforts were made to involve public volunteers. The immediate reconstruction of the settlement following the Chinatown Fire of 1893 had preserved the 1885-1893 features of the site, as had dumping of fill dirt in some areas during George Wong’s tenure as owner. During the archaeological testing program, archaeologists identified building foundations, filled-in basements, remains of a Joss House (temple), and artifact-rich trash pits. Though limited, the archaeological test excavation yielded some three tons of artifacts, drawing national and international attention.
- After some analysis, as reported in the two-volume Wong Ho Leun: An American Chinatown, the artifacts were placed in the care of the Riverside Metropolitan Museum. Archaeologists concluded the site still contained an abundance of artifacts and had great potential to relate the largely untold story of Riverside Chinatown, the center of life for Riverside's Chinese pioneers. Most of the archaeological features were left for the future, covering the remaining 80% of the site with a protective layer of soil. In 1990, Riverside Chinatown was successfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Despite removal of much of the protective layer and some probes of the site in 2009, mostly in sterile areas, the protected 80% of the site remains underground, where SOCC and responsible archaeologists recommend it be preserved until techniques and knowledge have advanced considerably.
A legacy of protecting Riverside Chinatown
- Since its beginnings in 1885, Chinatown residents and local citizens have taken action to affirm and maintain Riverside Chinatown as a community asset. More recently, multiple historic designations and projects related to the 1984-85 archaeological study of Riverside Chinatown have enriched the City's historical record and affirmed Riverside Chinatown as a heritage site. In the late 1980s, residents and community stakeholders were successful in obtaining a State grant to purchase the property from the RCOE to protect the site and develop a Chinatown Historical Park. Though the deal fell through in the mid-1990s, the community remained vigilant to development threats.
- In 2008, the City of Riverside approved a medical office development for the site of Riverside Chinatown. The Save Our Chinatown Committee (SOCC) was formed following the city approval of the development project. One of its first actions was to file a lawsuit to prevent the destruction of Riverside Chinatown'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. SOCC was successful in obtaining a court ruling which set aside the City’s certification of the EIR, its statement of overriding considerations, and project approval.
- 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 the Chinatown archaeological site. Talks resulted in identifying an alternative site for the medical office building project, located five blocks east of Chinatown at Olivewood Avenue off the 91 freeway and south of 14th Street. As of 2017, that medical office project is under construction. SOCC has been working with government officials and private citizens to protect the site for current and future generations. Learn more about SOCC's vision for a Chinatown Heritage Park.