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In My Neighborhood: History Comes Alive
By Yanran Lu, Age 12, Rohnert Park
Bay Area Winner, Essay on Growing Up Asian in America

At first sight, there is nothing special about my hometown Rohnert Park, some 40 miles north of San Francisco. Like many others, it is nestled in suburbia, where houses are neat, lawns green, and life is somewhat boring. In my mind, my neighborhood includes the entire Sonoma County with its gently rolling vineyards, quaint little towns and majestic redwood forests. But besides its undeniable natural beauty, what sets my neighborhood apart from the dozens of others surrounding San Francisco Bay is its history, which is intertwined with that of the Chinese Americans.

Today, you will see Asians, African Americans, Latinos and Caucasians alike, strolling the streets of Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa. There are few signs of racial tension, but that was not the case 120 years ago. During and after the Gold Rush, flocks of Chinese came to America, with hopes of relief from poverty in the legendary “Gold Mountain.” They were the miners in gold mines, farm hands in California's vineyards and farms, railroad builders of the trans-continental railway. In the 1880s, Sonoma County had about 900 Chinese; many lived in Santa Rosa. Most were hired as domestic helpers like cooks or servants or worked in home-owned laundries. However, the good time did not last and the economy started to turn sour. Many Caucasians thought that the “Chinamen” were taking away jobs, endangering the opportunities of white Americans. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The act singled out the Chinese for discrimination, prohibiting them from immigrating to America or becoming US citizens.

Anti-Chinese sentiments were also very strong in Sonoma County. In 1886, the Anti-Chinese League was formed with the goal of eradicating the Chinese from Santa Rosa. The League did everything it could to make the Chinese people's lives miserable. They tore down Chinese homes, forced them out of business, and raided their opium dens. The league even put a banner over Mendocino Avenue declaring, ''The Chinese Must Go.'' In a few months the Chinese population had dropped dramatically.

But still, their tactics were not entirely successful. First, Chinese people have time again shown that they are a hardy and tough bunch. They were pushed around and beaten up, but some still refused to leave. And second, farmers near Santa Rosa needed the cheap Chinese labor to get through the winter. The Chinese who stayed in Sonoma County laid low and waited for the storm to pass. They waited and waited… To their dismay, in 1892 the Santa Rosa Congressman Thomas J. Geary introduced a legislation (the Geary Act) to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten more years. Understanding little about politics, they thought that Mr. Geary was a friend. He hired Chinese as servants himself and frequently visited a local Chinese restaurant called Jam Kee.

By 1920, the number of Chinese in Sonoma County had dwindled to a mere 143. The once vibrant Chinatown near Santa Rosa Avenue and Second Street largely disappeared. The wait of the Chinese people was not over until 1943 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed. During more than half century of dark times, many Asians had to go through the dreaded immigration center at Angel Island where they were detained and interrogated for weeks and months. Some were deported back home. Many left marks, literally, on the wall of the detention center to express their frustration, sadness and anger.

Thankfully, the days of Chinese Exclusion Act are long gone. Today in liberal California, Asian people are treated just like everyone else. But beneath the surface of harmony, have things really changed? It is true that Asians are no longer the primary scapegoat for problems that our neighbors might have, exception of intermittent outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiments. These roles have been passed on to other nationalities. However, immigration is still a very controversial topic as it was150 years ago. The same rhetoric that sparked the Chinese Exclusion Act still pops up from time to time.

Here in Sonoma County, Asians have thrived since 1990s. Along highway 101 is the telecom valley where many high-tech companies are located. Many engineers in those companies are Chinese or Indians. The tech boom has created quite a few Asian millionaires. Intermarriage between Asians and Caucasians is also quite common. While there are occasional talks of “Asian cliques” at school, there are not enough Asians to actually form an exclusive group. So we get alone with others fairly well. Many of us Asian kids see ourselves more as “American” than Asian. And while our looks are oriental, we are as patriotic as everyone else.

On September 23, 2005, a new exhibit celebrating Chinese-Americans' heritage opened in the Petaluma Historical Library. Lucky dragons winded their way through the streets in front of the library and the sweet music of an erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, punctuated the first day of the celebration. As I strolled through the exhibit looking at those old pictures and artifacts including clothing and household items, I realized that the history is not an abstract and boring subject that is learned through books. It is alive and so much a part of our life. Today Asian immigrants have a much easier time integrating into American society. We sometimes take our good fortune for granted. The times have indeed changed, but the hard lesson of the Chinese Exclusion Act should not be forgotten because the history tends to repeat itself.

America has long been seen as a land of opportunities. On the Statue of Liberty, a Sonnet by poet Emma Lazarus is engraved. It says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” The Chinese were people just like that: hungry and yearning for freedom. For 150 years, the Chinese kept coming despite the hardship, discrimination, tears and occasional blood. Their journeys from immigrants to citizens were long and torturous, yet they pushed on. The Chinese Americans are the ultimate survivors and the true believers of the American Dream.

Growing Up Asian in America is a program of the Asian Pacific Fund, a foundation established to improve the well-being of all Asians in the Bay Area. The largest program in the nation celebrating Asian heritage, Growing Up Asian in America provides a unique forum for youth to explore their ideas on being Asian and American through art and writing. Students in grades kindergarten through 12 compete every year for $27,000 in savings bond awards, and the winning entries are displayed in public libraries throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more about this program, visit the Asian Pacific Fund web site,, or call (415) 433-6859.
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