Monday, June 18, 2012

Sucheng Chan-This Bittersweet Soil-The Chinese in California Agriculture 1860-1910

Out of print but essential reading to understand the history of the Chinese in California agriculture is Sucheng Chan's book published in 1989. Used copies are available through Amazon. My family history blog has chronicled the multigenerational story of  the Jue family and it's involvement in asparagus farming in the San Fernando Valley. In a 1934 article my great grandfather, Jue Joe was dubbed the "Asparagus King" by the Los Angeles Times. My grandfather San Tong and my father, Jack Sr, were also involved in asparagus farming. My father even created a video of the family farming operations in the 1950's.

Reading Professor Chan's book really has helped me place our family's story within the broader context of the Chinese involvement in agriculture from the mid to late 19th Century and on into the 20th Century. Her book is quite detailed and interesting. Her research was based on a thorough examination of census records, legal deeds and documents as well as  family histories of notable Chinese agriculturists. Her book, as does many books on Chinese American  history begins with the great diaspora of the Chinese in the late 19th century. Agriculture as an economic opportunity for Chinese immigrants really began with supplying of  vegetables for consumption  of the Chinese miners and then grew as the mining claims became exhausted. and the Chinese workforce entered agriculture as well as other as other work opportunities when they could no longer mine.  The presence of Chinese in California agriculture grew rapidly before the Exclusion era and then continued and matured throughout the Exclusion era but then declined with the ageing of the Chinese population and the lack of new Chinese immigrants caused by rigid enforcement of Exclusion era regulations.

A major contribution of Professor's Chan's book is to change the widespread monochromatic picture of the Chinese in California agriculture as a faceless horde of "cheap immigrant stoop laborers" to a rich tapestry of entrepenurial men who were tireless in improving their economic lot and that of their families back in China despite persecution and discrimination.
These men may have started as laborers working for Caucasian landowners clearing and planting and harvesting fields, and reclaiming swamp land but rapidly many became interested in striking out on their own as tenant truck farmers, leasing land and growing their own crops, and hiring their countrymen to work at their sides in these tenant farms. Many also became involved in marketing, selling and distributing their crops or partnered with Chinese merchants to do so. Some, before the enactment of the Alien Land Law, were even able to buy land of their own  to farm as landowners rather then only as tenant farmers. A few became rich and owned  hundreds of acres of land becoming "Potato Kings ", "Lettuce Kings ",  or " Asparagus Kings. Chinese tenant and landowning farmers farmed through out California  from Tehema County  in the North , to the foothills of the Sierra's, Santa Clara County , Sacramento-San Joaquin County , and down into Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. They grew a huge variety of crops including grains, strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, sweet potatoes , potatoes, peaches, pears, chinese vegetables, and asparagus.

Gradually with the ageing of the population , the lack of a new influx of Chinese immigrants because of Exclusion era polices, the enactment and strict enforcement of Alien Land laws , and the lack of desire of subsequent generations to continue family farming businesses , the importance of Chinese in California agriculture greatly diminshed.

Interestingly, the Jue Joe Clan involvement in agriculture continued into the middle 1950's before we as a family ceased to be involved in farming . The story of our family is deeply rooted in the soil of Yuba and Sonoma county and in the soil of the San Fernando Valley and the Saugus hills.

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