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The Immigrant Chinese Influence on the Bay Area and Pinole

By George R. Vincent, Co-founder Pinole Historical Society

The history of the Chinese in North America did not begin with the building of the transcontinental railroads; it began 100 years earlier.

Many sea captains in the late 1700s had Chinese servants, and they remained as house servants when their bosses settled ashore.

The largest influx of Chinese to this country was during the California Gold Rush. Chinese miners traveled usually as indentured servants to San Francisco and then to the gold fields. Their objective was to make their fortunes and return home.

However, many also came to stay, farming and fishing as they had in China. Large numbers were employed in low-paying manual labor work such as building railroads and Delta levies. As the railroad progressed, Chinese settlements grew along its route and remained there.

Although the Irish were the largest minority in California, the Chinese were more visible in numbers and dress and became the targets of discrimination and more restrictive laws and taxes. For example, the Foreign Miners’ Tax was enacted to supposedly end unfair job competition from the Chinese. Yet, the truth was the Anglo population would not work for lower wages, as did the Chinese. The racial component surfaced as the source of bigotry and conflict.

In 1882, the Federal Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, forbidding Chinese immigration into the United States.

This and subsequent acts remained in effect until 1943, when they were repealed as a goodwill gesture to China, our ally in World War II.

By the time Pinole was incorporated in June 1903, its 695 residents were accustomed to door-to-door merchants. The Chinese, in particular, were a familiar sight among merchants of diverse ethnic backgrounds selling their wares from house to house.

One of the earliest peddlers was called Riley. He would come from San Francisco by train with fruits and vegetables in two baskets supported by a pole. Keeping his records on customer fence posts, Riley vended his wares between Pinole and Rodeo.

By the early 1920s, the Pinole waterfront had a small, but industrious, Chinese encampment. They leased the beach land from the Fernandez family.

Living in small houses on stilts above the bay, they dug clams from the shallow tidelands. The fresh clams were put into buckets hanging from poles, shouldered, and sold in the early morning to the local townsfolk.

There was also a Chinese bunkhouse on the Fernandez wharf. An itinerant Chinese merchant by the name of Sing Lee owned and operated a large boat from Pinole and the clam beds between Atlas (Giant) Powder and the Pinole waterfront. He gathered the clams in big fruit boxes to sell in the markets of Oakland and San Francisco.

Sing Lee would also sail to Red Rock in nearby Richmond, where he fished and sold his catch from doorstop to doorstop in Pinole, in competition with the Italians who sold herring from the bay. Many Chinese workers were also employed in dangerous jobs in Hercules at the California Powder Works. Accidental explosions took many lives. By providing clams and fish to Pinole’s citizens, the Chinese played a small, but important role in community life. Today, grocery shopping means the chore of a long, but necessary trip to the local supermarket. However, there was a time in Pinole when a knock on the front door meant the store had come to you.

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