Tom Lim Yan


  Tom Lim Yan was a big man - in every sense of the word.  In stature he was large and his tremendous influence in San Buenaventura’s Chinese community spanned over 30 years.  His local authority was so notable that in 1881, the Ventura Signal referred to him as the “Boss Chinaman.”  He contributed to the success of his community by starting a school, working as a translator, posting bonds, writing letters to immigration agents for his countrymen, and he was among the first merchants to establish a business in San Buenaventura’s Chinese community. 

Tom Lim Yan

Circa 1909

Courtesy: National Archives

San Bruno, California



Tom Lim Yan was reportedly born in China in 1848, yet it is unknown when he came to the United States.  His name appears on the 1880 census for San Buenaventura, and at that time, he was unmarried and residing with several Chinese laborers.  Yan married while he lived in San Buenaventura, and his wife and two daughters are mentioned in documents relating to his estate, immigration case files, and letters from the Chinese community dated 1894. 

Knowledge of legislative affairs and the legal system were also among Yan’s skills.  One of the requirements under the tenants of the exclusion laws, was that an applicant seeking a Return Certificate, permission to travel to China and return to the United States, was to prepare a formal request which was forwarded to immigration officials.  This request, in a form of a letter, was the instrument that set an investigation of a Chinese individual’s legal status in motion.  Yan supported his countrymen by writing these requests, in English, and forwarded the documents to appropriate officials.  He also helped his fellow Chinese residents when he offered to post sureties on bonds for four Chinese men accused of gambling in Oxnard in 1908.

Tom Lim Yan will probably best be remembered as a merchant, and it appears that he was the first merchant to establish a business in San Buenaventura’s Chinese community.  He was a member of Kun Wo and Company located on Figueroa Street.  Tax rolls form 1877-1878 state that he held $300 in merchandise and he paid taxes on his inventory.  Also in 1878, when he was 30 years old, he had a school in his store.  Curiously, considering the flagrant hostility toward Chinese settlers during this time, Tom Lim Yan’s scholarship was praised in a newspaper account.

In the Chinese quarter of this town there is a school in which Chinamen are being taught to read and write English language.  It has been in successful operation for several months and some of the students are quite proficient being able to read and write.  Tom Lin Yan, the proprietor of the store is one of the most intelligent and highly educated Chinamen we have ever met.  He speaks and writes English fluently, and looks after the school, of which he seems to be very proud.


           Merchants were among the first Chinese pioneers to settle in America.  They held a position of prominence in Chinese American society where they enjoyed certain privileges.  While many Chinese settlers in the United States worked in migratory jobs, Chinese merchants had a tendency to remain in Chinese communities where they possessed a vast amount of material resources when compared with the average Chinese worker.  Another aspect of the Chinese merchants' role in Chinatown was providing his countrymen with goods from the homeland.  These familiar goods helped the settlers continue their connection with China. 

Many Chinese merchants could speak English, thereby establishing themselves as the primary source of information between the Chinese and Euroamerican communities.  Consequently, Chinese settlers trusted merchants to negotiate effectively with the host community.  Lastly, after the passage of the Exclusion Law, in 1882, only Chinese merchants and native born citizens could travel to China and return to the United States.  These settlers were also given the privilege of bringing their wives and families to America. 

           There were no Chinese merchants enumerated in San Buenaventura for the 1870 census.  Since Tom Lim Yan appears on the tax rolls during the 1870s, it is unknown why he was not recorded in census enumerations.  The 1880 census enumerated three merchants, one labor contractor, and one retired merchant.  By 1900, the number of Chinese merchants doubled and four grocers had established businesses in the Chinese community.  

It was common for Chinese merchants to work as labor contractors.  A map of San Buenaventura’s Chinese community, drawn in 1894, shows that Kun Wo and Company, Wing Tai Yuen Company, Sam Fong Yi and Company, Quong Loy and Company, and Sing Hing and Company were all merchants and labor contractors. 

Many Chinese communities had labor contractors who in many cities doubled as merchants.  These men were the middleman between employers and laborers.  As one of the few organizing influences in a disorganized market, the labor contractor was an important man in Chinatown.

With access to a large network of workers and services, labor contractors were able to assemble gangs of Chinese men in a very short period of time. Through their web of acquaintances, contractors could find field hands in Chinatowns throughout California. Locally, Chinese laborers were available at family association halls, gambling establishments and stores where laborers and merchants socialized.

Chinese contractors often spoke English and were able to negotiate wages with Euroamerican employers. These men also arranged food and housing, and growers liked these arrangements because their wives did not have to cook for the workers.  Once all parties were satisfied, Chinese laborers were known to work tenaciously until the job was completed. 

There was a symbiotic relationship between the Chinese contractor and the Chinese laborer; in fact in most cases they had a kinship connection.  The contractor would hire out his relative and receive a small commission for providing employment.  If the laborer had problems on the job he would not revolt or complain, as all efforts were made to avoid loosing face between family members.  Finally, upon the death of the laborer the contractor would return the deceased's bones back to China.

There is not a lot of information pertaining to Tom Lim Yan’s activities as a labor contractor.  The 1880 census enumerated 24 men living at his address.  Yan’s profession is listed as merchant, and the rest of the men were listed as laborers.  It is possible that these men were farm laborers housed behind Kun Wo and Company store.  Moreover, several of these men were from the Lim clan, which adds credence to a kinship relationship between labor contractors and their workers. 

Tom Lim Yan continued to live in Ventura where he played an important role for his community through his intelligence, organization, ability to speak English and knowledge of American laws and legislation.  He moved his business to Main Street in Ventura when the Chinese community was relocated in 1906.  Yet, it was his wish to die in China, so after living in Ventura for over 30 years, he set sail to fulfill his dream in 1909.  He died on the ship before it reached shore.  In his obituary, printed in September 1909, his importance to community in Ventura was highly praised, especially his contracting of Chinese labor. 

So, Tom Ling Yan (sic) is dead!  Old timers in Ventura will remember Tom Ling Yan.  He was a big fellow, with a head that might have fitted a United States Senator.  And, in a large way, he was a man of affairs in his county.  With his own countrymen, he was the whole thing- literally, all there was.  You could not get Chinese laborers to do anything the days when Chinese laborers did many things here, without first going to see Tom Ling Yan.  He was educated, and a gentleman- after the Chinese manner.  That is not our manner, but Tom Ling Yan had his own ethical code, and lived up to it . . .  Of late years, with the passing of the Chinese labor element as a result of the enforcement of the Restriction Law, Tom Ling Yan retired from the leading place in the industrial life of the county that he once held, and became just a common merchant-with a weakness for yen shee, it might be, and something a penchant for the seductive game of fan tan.  But he was always a gentleman, after the Chinese manner- and he always had a pleasant greeting for old friends among the Americans who called at his place of business to see him.  And now, Tom Ling Yan is gone! Peace to his ashes which will repose in the Central Flowery Kingdom to which he was returning in he feeble old age after almost a life time in this town!  They did not have to carry his bones far to get them to China..