For approximately 40 years, from 1865 to 1906, a Chinese settlement made up of merchants, laborers, and families was flourishing on Figueroa Street, between Main and Santa Clara Streets.  This Chinatown was located in the middle of the newly incorporated township of San Buenaventura.  Many Chinese businesses and organizations were located on Figueroa Street.  Additional businesses, residences, a kitchen and the Chinese Fire Company were located in an alley that ran perpendicular to the east side of Figueroa Street. 

            Census enumerations from 1870 to 1900 record the period of occupation by the Chinese on Figueroa Street.  The following information is gleaned manuscript census:







Total    14



Males    13  



Females   1



Average Age 25.14         








Cook          3

Cook             2             

Cook               3

Day Laborer   7

Contractor       1

Cook for Family    3

House Servant 1

Gardener         3

Cook for Hotel     2

Keeps House   1

Laborers        42

Cook on Ranch      1

Washermen     2

Laundry Men     12

Cook in Restaurant 2


Merchants        3

Day Labor         13


Physician        1

Farm Labor         3


Retired Merchant 1

Gardener           3


Servants         9

Grocer             4


Servant Farmer   1

Laundry Men       11



Merchants          6



Porter             1



Physician          1



Prostitute         1



Restaurant Keeper  1



Servant            1



Salesman           1


Census occupation data also show that the largest percentage of Chinese in Ventura were employed as day laborers.  Laundry men, cooks, servants, and merchants were the next largest labor categories respectively.  There has been mention of a Chinese herbalist in Chinatown, however this business does not appear on maps.  It is possible that the herbalists were the physicians recorded on the 1880 and 1900 census.

Women in Ventura’s Chinese Community

There certainly were Chinese women in Ventura, but little is known about them.  In Ventura, Nellie Chung, who was born in Ventura in 1888, said that the women seldom went out.  Yet, when they did venture out the Chinese men would stare at them.  This was probably because there was such a shortage of women.  Missionaries would come to the Chinese women's homes to teach them and their children to read.  She went on to say that the Chinese women did beautiful sewing and embroidery, but the Chinese women were so reclusive that the missionaries would shop for cloth and bring it to the homes of the Chinese women.  Lastly, John Peirano explains that absence of women on the street was because some of the women had bound feet and walking was difficult.   

Chinese Occupations

Laborers and Farmers

Victorian Ventura was a growing town, and there was much work to done.  When the Chinese first arrived, they were welcomed as construction, industrial, and agricultural workers. In 1878 "Chinamen" were employed on the Casitas Pass road.  The Chinese who built the canal, which brought water to Ventura in 1871, provided other labor.  They were paid $1.50 per day.  Sam Long supervised 15 men who cut and threshed mustard seed for $2.00 per day.  In 1873 a gentleman named Wing ran a harness and repair shop on Main Street (Greenwood 1984:1).  Many of the agricultural workers performed migrant labor.        

            The farm cook ran the households and farms for many landowners in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  They performed many managerial functions and were treated as close members of the family (Chan 1986:361).  In some cases the farm cook would arrive with the laborers at harvest time.  Nellie Chung speaks of how her father traveled with a harvesting crew.  She described his duties:

Vegetable peddlers were important in Ventura during this 40-year period.  Most observers agree that the Chinese settlers had a near monopoly of the fresh vegetable business in Southern California.  A local resident, Myrtle Shepherd Francis, recalled the "blue shirted gesticulating vegetable Chinamen who were teetering about with their baskets balanced across their shoulders" Beatrice Rodriques recounted in her oral history that her family bought squash, onions, carrots, cabbage, and garlic from the Chinese vegetable peddlers.  

Merchants and Labor Contractors

            Merchants were among the earliest immigrants to come to America.  They were not seen as upper class citizens in China, however in America they became the ruling class elite.  This could be partly because merchants were also more permanent in the Chinese community then the migrant laborer.  Another reason for respect was their ability to deal with the host community.  The merchants recognized that they needed to speak English to negotiate effectively with the host community.

            There were many efforts to teach the Chinese the English language in Ventura.  In 1877 Tom Lin Yan was the teacher at a school in Chinatown. 


     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.  There is a large number of students . . . Many of them go about our  street when they have no employment on hand, and question well disposed white men on the meaning of certain words and phases, listening with rapt attention while the desired information is being given.  They have a school building of their own, about 10 X 14 in size furnished with a single desk running through the middle on each side of which, during every evening, may be seen a row of stolid looking Celestials, each reading or spelling in a loud voice, and apparently unconscious of anything except the work at hand.  If an American should happen to call at the Chinese store during school hours he is generally invited to visit the school, and if he should accept upon entering the school he is immediately solidified by the Celestials present to hear them read [Ventura Free Press Jan. 19, 1878].

One of the most respected and prosperous merchants-contractor in Ventura’s Chinatown was Ung Hing.  He arrived in Ventura in the 1870s and established a store and a laundry. As mentioned earlier Ung Hing was a property owner and a real estate speculator.  He owned land on the west side of Figueroa Street, the Ortega Adobe with the adjoining five or six acres, and land in Oxnard.  His property on the west side of Figueroa Street included the Temple and Bing Kong Tong. 

Newspaper accounts of the time speak highly of Ung Hing.  His 1896 wedding to Soo Moe Jung was featured on the front page of the Ventura Free Press.  She was 19 years old, and the writer described Ung Hing as follows:


     Ung Hing, well known to Venturians as Sing Hing, has been a resident in this county for twenty two years, and is a man of wealth and influence among his brethren.  He is the head of the Sing Hing Company with headquarters in Hong Kong and branches in Queng Hoey Sung, the city of Mexico, Ventura and Hueneme, this county [Ventura Free Press January 24, 1896].


            The export trade was another profession that was taking place in Ventura.  There is very little written about it, but we know that Chinese workers were shipping seaweed to San Francisco.  The Ventura Free Press ran the following piece in 1904:  


The local Chinese shipped Tuesday to San Francisco 15 bales of seaweed.  As the bales weigh 350 pounds each, and as the weed is dry the amount of work required and the time spent gathering the stuff must be great.  But the Chinks are well paid for their work.  The sea weed is of a kind highly prized for food and is also used in medicine and commands 5 cents a pound in the city (Ventura Free Press June 10, 1904).


The Chinese Fire Company

            In the early days of San Buenaventura most of the building were made of adobe.  However, as the town grew more and more wooden buildings were erected.  These buildings were easily built, but were highly flammable.  There are many accounts of fires in Chinatown in the local newspapers of the period.  The Ventura Free Press dated Dec. 19, 1890 described the damage of an especially destructive fire that almost burned the whole Chinese community.  By the time the municipal fire department arrived, the fire had spread to three buildings, two stores, and a barbershop.  These included the stores of Sam Fong Yi and Mee Chin.  The loss was estimated at $1000 to $1500.  The fire was supposedly caused by a lamp near a gambling table.  This was the second time that this part of Chinatown was burned.  Nellie Chung remembered this terrible fire in Chinatown.  She was two years old when it happened, and was afraid of fires for the rest of her life.

            In 1872 the town had formed its own "Monumental Hose, Hook, Fire and Ladder Company."  The Chinese of Ventura decided to form their own fire brigade as well.  It has been proposed that the Company was formed because they felt that the Monumentals were too slow or unwilling to extinguish fires in Chinatown.  Yet, these men extended their own services and helped extinguish fires outside of Chinatown.  Maybe the Chinese Fire Company was formed to compete with the Monumentals.  The Chinese were excellent fire fighters.

            These men were greatly appreciated in the whole community.  Newspaper reports of the time said the following:


The Chinese Fire Company is peculiar to Ventura and a valuable adjunct.  By its promptness always, it has saved 1000's of dollars worth of property and it would not be a bad idea to give it a benefit so it could have a new complete outfit.  Its maintenance has never cost the town a cent [Ventura Free Press March 13, 1903].

Another article on the same day said that the Chinese Fire Company was the first to arrive at the fire at Ayers Hotel.  The article went on to say that they "worked like veterans and it was their efforts that saved the office of Justice Eastin."  In 1921 the Ventura Post describes them as a group of a dozen active young Chinese.  The reporter went on to say:


"They fell heir to one of the cast off hose carts of the Monumentals.  In time they fell into cooperation with the Monumentals, and always turned out at all town fires and always did good and efficient service.  Also they always turned out and joined in the public parades with the monumentals and received their share of the applause and cheers of the crowd (Ventura Post Oct. 26, 1921).  

           One of the early chiefs of the Chinese Fire Company was Soo Hoo How.  He was employed by Thomas Bard for seven years and then opened a hand laundry.  He fulfilled his dream of returning to China and did so in 1928.  His son Wo Hing continued the laundry on Main Street until 1936.  Another important person in the fire company was Nellie Chung's father, "Charley" Hay Yee.  The shed containing the hose cart was located at the east end of China Alley.  Mr. Yee lived nearby so he had the key to the shed.  When it was harvest time, somebody else held the key. He would open the door for access to the fire engine, which was pulled by the men.  When a fire was detected, a gong was sounded and the firemen jumped to action.  According to Lillian Wong, Mr. Yee's grand-daughter, the fire company was formed because the American response was too slow (Lillian Wong, personal communication 1993). 


            Many factors contributed to the razing of Chinatown on Figueroa Street.  Bubonic plague was diagnosed in San Francisco in 1901, so there was great pressure in Ventura to clean up and modernize the town.  This was done through civic improvements which included developing the area close to the Mission.  By 1905-1906 all of Chinatown was dismantled except for the buildings owned by Ung Hing.  What became of the Chinese after Chinatown was removed?  Their plight was described in the Ventura Free Press in 1905:

S. C. Walker Inspector of the U.S. Immigration services paid an official visit to Ventura this week for the purpose of gaining statistics regarding the Chinese population . . . Mr. Walker stated to a Free Press reporter that the town of Ventura has 110 Chinese, but that here as everywhere else in the south the Chinese population is decreasing. Since the last census was taken the Chinese in this section have decreased at least fifty percent. Mr. Walker thinks this is because the Chinese are getting enough money, go home and never return.  Many of them are dying off and there is no new generation to take their places.  They are also leaving the Pacific coast for other parts of the country [Ventura Free Press May 26, 1905].    

            A new Chinatown was established on Main Street between Ventura Avenue and the Mission after 1905.  Many of the buildings were actually relocated to Main Street, and some families and businesses moved into the old adobes, which lined the north side of Main Street.  However, around the turn of the century many Chinese moved to Oxnard to work in the Sugar Beet Factory.