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High Speed Rail Archaeologists Search For Fresno's 'Underground' Chinatown

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Chinatown was once home to 11 different ethnic groups.

Generations of Fresno residents have heard stories about the mysterious underground world of Fresno's 19th century Chinatown. Was it a world of illicit activity, with a network of subterranean tunnels? Archeologists with the state's high speed rail authority are hoping to shed some new light on this dark and forgotten part of Fresno's history. 

Last week archeologists gathered in Fresno’s historic Chinatown to sift through soil with a hope of unearthing century-old artifacts just yards from the future bullet train.

“What we are looking for are discrete intact deposits that would have been associated with a privy or maybe a trash pit because before the 1900s people didn’t have garbage pickup they would bury their stuff in the backyard, burn it or put it in the privy," says Dana McGowan, senior cultural resources manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm overseeing environmental work for the rail authority.

"That kind of gives us a time capsule of families living in the area,” she says.

The dig behind a graffiti filled building on Tulare and F streets is part of the first wave of a survey by archeologists for the California High Speed Rail Authority to determine whether construction in Chinatown would impact existing and unearthed cultural and historical artifacts.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

A series of underpasses below the future high speed rail line are planned for Fresno, Tulare and Ventura streets.

There was a moment of excitement during the Tulare and F streets dig last week — a possible tunnel.

“When we started digging we got a wall and two columns and a void between the two columns,” says Benjamin Camarena, public relations outreach specialist with the High-Speed Rail Authority.

“We thought it was the start of a hallway. It looked like it was a hallway, so we started digging deeper and deeper and it looks more like a fireplace," he says. 

Even though the fireplace proved not to be a tunnel, activists like Kathy Omachi founder of the group Chinatown Revitalization Inc. fervently believe that tunnels do exist under Chinatown.

“So what we’re walking across is actually some of the basement and on some of the walls are archways that have bricked up that go across the road,” Omachi says.

"In these basements are rooms that are locked that have peep holes. So clearly there was some fun going on down there," Karana Hattersley-Drayton

Omachi says these tunnels and/or interconnected basements linked homes, businesses, gambling grottos and places of prostitution. She says she has given more than 1,500 people tours of what she calls Chinatowns secret underground.

Karana Hattersley-Drayton, Fresno’s historic preservation project manager, says the theory of tunnels in Chinatown’s across the state aren’t new.

“Throughout California in the gold rush there are lots of stories of tunnels, connected with the Chinese, and I don’t think there’s ever been any documented proof of a free standing tunnel, other than connected basements,” Hattersley-Drayton says.

But she says stories of the underground are rampant.

“In these basements are rooms that are locked that have peep holes,” Hattersley-Drayton. “So clearly there was some fun going on down there. And another story is of seeing Chinese women dressed in gorgeous clothes coming down in one area and popping up somewhere else. Clearly there was a whole underground world here that was rich, nefarious, all of those things together.”

But with all folklore aside Omachi says these digs are missing a huge part of culture in the region since they were focused on the Chinese community only when “Chinatown was the original home to 11 different communities: African American, Armenian, Basque, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Mexican-Americans, Germans from Volga Russia, Greek and Filipino communities.”

Omachi says she wishes the community had more to say in the High Speed Rail Authorities decision making process.

“We’re saying that the discussion needs to be held and it needs not be a fait accompli,” Omachi says. “That they’re just doing digs and surveys and other kinds of things because that’s on their schedule and because that is what they are going to do – whether or not they find something.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
"My parents brought me here ever since I was small, so I was raised inside the store. My grandparents started in 1915, so it's part of family history." - Lynn Ikeda

Lynn Ikeda owns one of the oldest businesses in Chinatown – Kogetsu-Do.

“My parents brought me here ever since I was small, so I was raised inside the store,” Ikeda says. “My grandparents started in 1915, so it’s part of family history.”

She sells “Japanese pastries, snow cones during the summer, ice cream and giftware.”

Ikeda says she is skeptical that Chinatown will benefit from the bullet train. She doesn’t think the underpass and a wall to prevent sound from the train are enough.

“The way the city is – I don’t know – because we’ve always been on the back burner,” Ikeda says.  

But Hattersley-Drayton is more optimistic.

“We are in Chinatown, which is actually the original heart of the City of Fresno,” Hattersley-Drayton says.

She hopes the bullet train connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles reinvents Chinatown and helps the community preserve its heritage.

"A city that's lost its soul is not of interest for cultural and heritage tourism. When you tear down your old buildings you are losing your soul." - Karana Hattersley-Drayton

  “A city that’s lost its soul is not of interest for cultural and heritage tourism,” Hattersley-Drayton. “When you tear down your old buildings you are losing your soul. We are working very hard to see that that doesn’t happen.”

She says digs like this wouldn’t have happened without entities like high speed rail.

“They wouldn’t have done an archaeology project here except for high speed rail and that was like thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars,” Hattersley-Drayton.

She says the bullet train could bring vitality and tourism to Chinatown.

“Why not!” Hattersley-Drayton. “Once you’ve got people coming through and you’ve got a cool restaurant or Linda Ikeda’s beautiful Kogetsu-Do and you advertise that and you put a sign in the station saying for blah, blah, blah come to Chinatown. Right down the street, right out your back door. Why could that not work?”

The rail authority hopes to dig more in Chinatown but is waiting for clearance from business owners closer to the rail line for future digs.  

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