By Gosia Wozniacka
The Associated Press
HANFORD, Calif. (AP) — The smell is musty, the wooden floorboards are rotten, and the original owners are long dead.
But the century-old Chinese herb shop with its towering armoire of small wooden drawers can still be found nearly intact behind a set of heavy metal doors.
Herb bundles sit on dust-coated shelves, and wafer-thin paper used by owner L.T. Sue to wrap his herbs still hangs on a rack by a counter stained with bird droppings.
The shop in China Alley in the rural Central California town of Hanford once bustled with customers, as did the nearby temple, gambling dens, restaurants, and other shops.
But now, the buildings in what used to be one of the largest Chinatowns between San Francisco and Los Angeles are mostly deserted. Walls are cracked, bricks chipped, and signs faded from the sun.
China Alley was named last week as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The non-profit group spotlights places that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or cuts to preservation funding by legislatures across the country.
Other sites on the list include the Long Island, N.Y., home of jazz musician John Coltrane, the cloverleaf-shaped Prentice Women’s Hospital building in Chicago, and a Pillsbury plant in Minneapolis that once was the world’s most advanced flour mill.
In China Alley, community members hope the designation will help them raise funds to save its 19th century buildings near the intersection of Seventh and Green streets that have fallen into disrepair.
“What is so unique about the alley is that it’s a living piece of history,” said Arianne Wing, president of the Taoist Temple Preservation Society, which is working to restore the buildings and artifacts inside. “It’s not Disneyland. It’s all real and authentic.”
She said China Alley is a tribute to immigrants who settled in the San Joaquin Valley and the once-thriving Chinese community they built. The town, created in 1877 after Southern Pacific Railroad tracks were laid through a sheep camp, had a sizeable Chinese population starting in the 1880s. As Kings County pioneer Frank Howe wrote, the only inhabitants in Hanford were “a Chinaman, a band of sheep, and his sheep dog.”
There must have been more than one Chinaman, because records show that within a few years, Chinese immigrants owned several buildings in what would become China Alley. They built the rail line, then stayed to plant vineyards and peach orchards and work in the fields. Others streamed in from impoverished southern China, with many of those who shared the same dialect settling in Hanford.
China Alley became a thriving community in the 1920s and 1930s, recalled 83-year-old Camille Wing, who is Arianne’s mother and China Alley’s resident historian. Under an awning of the old facades, Camille Wing stooped and gray-haired, described coming to China Alley with her parents and seeing the street bustling with shoppers and children at play.
There were numerous herb and grocery shops, a temple, restaurants, and a Chinese school house, but its major business was gambling. Wing remembers going into gambling dens with her father, a rancher who bought Chinese lottery tickets for drawings held twice a day. While adults played dominos and Mahjong on tables covered with felt, children ran through the buildings.
At the L.T. Sue Herb Co., some customers drank their herbs in the waiting room as men gathered to discuss politics. Caucasians and Mexicans also came to gamble and buy herbs. Folklore has it that an herbalist was arrested several times for practicing medicine without a license, but was released and won his case in court.
Camille Wing also recalled a beautiful prostitute “with a heart of gold” known as Jade Box, whose real name remains unknown. She helped many people and was well-accepted, despite her profession, Wing said.
China Alley began to fade in the 1950s after the city shut down the gambling houses and the next generation of Chinese Americans moved on to jobs away from Hanford. The Chinese school and some businesses closed.
But the neighborhood survived, thanks in part to Imperial Dynasty, a restaurant run by the Wing family. It attracted then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, along with movie stars and other celebrities.
In 2001, the city disbanded its historic preservation commission. The city is now supposed to provide oversight for China Alley, but has no preservation staff, so historic buildings are at risk of being altered by renovations.
The closure of Imperial Dynasty in 2006 brought the final, drastic decline of the neighborhood.
The preservation society is hoping to reverse that slide. Of the alley’s 11 historic buildings, three are owned by the organization, including the temple. The society renovated that structure in the 1970s, making it into a museum that houses the original altar and furniture, as well as artifacts from China Alley.
However, Arianne Wing said the society has little money to restore other buildings. The L.T. Sue Herb Co. building needs to be stabilized and have its roof replaced to guard against birds and the mess they leave.
The society, which is made up of two dozen Hanford residents, is working with a Fresno-based historic architecture firm to stabilize the building. Society members raised enough money for the first phase of the renovation through fundraisers, an annual harvest festival, and individual donations. But it’s not enough to complete a full renovation of the herb shop or other China Alley structures.
Arianne Wing hopes the buildings can eventually be fully restored and house some of the artifacts that were moved to the museum. She hopes to attract a Chinese calligraphy class, tai chi, or another activity, and to travel around the United States to gather oral histories from former China Alley residents.
Wing, who is a chef by profession, also hopes to reopen a restaurant in the same building, where her great-grandfather ran a noodle shop at the turn of the century.
“This is for me a way to keep the alley alive,” she said. ♦