Exhibit focuses on Heinlenville, San Jose’s last Chinatown

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SAN JOSE — The Japanese American Museum of San Jose will unveil a new exhibit, “Common Ground: Chinatown and Japantown, San Jose,” on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m. The exhibit will center on the history of Heinlenville, which is known as San Jose’s last Chinatown and today’s Japantown.

The event will highlight the stories of Heinlenville Chinatown and Japantown residents through exhibits, memorabilia, photos, artifacts and a short documentary film. The artifacts are from a 2008 Sonoma State University archaeological excavation of the Heinlenville site, which was last used as the city’s Corporation Yard.

Guest co-curators Connie Young Yu and Leslie Masunaga will speak at the exhibit.

    UNBURIED TREASURES ­— JAMsj curator Jimi Yamaichi views artifacts from the archaelogical dig, which took place at the Corporation Yard, formerly Heinlenville Chinatown; Japanese and Chinese dishware uncovered during the dig. photos by Timothy O. Moran
UNBURIED TREASURES ­— JAMsj curator Jimi Yamaichi views artifacts from the archaelogical dig, which took place at the Corporation Yard, formerly Heinlenville Chinatown; Japanese and Chinese dishware uncovered during the dig. photos by Timothy O. Moran

In addition, Jimi Yamaichi and Hatsue “Sue” Shiroyama will be interviewed in the film “Common Ground,” which was produced and directed by Barre Fong and written by Yu for the exhibit. The video includes historical narration by actor Martin Yu. The soundtrack features Chinese music and Japanese koto.

Yu said that she enjoyed learning about the lives of Yamaichi and Shiroyama in the making of the film.

“I learned about their youth in San Jose. Jimi was on a farm and Sue was in town. Her father owned the bath house on Sixth street. I also learned about their World War II experience of displacement and incarceration, as well as why the Japanese Americans returned to San Jose and how they managed to rebuild their lives,” Yu said in an e-mail.

The exhibit will focus on the connections between residents of Heinlenville and early Japantown. While they were separate communities, they shared much in common.

Masunaga said in an e-mail, “This exhibit explores the legacy of the early Asian communities in San Jose: Heinlenville as the final Chinese settlement and Nihonmachi as the beginnings of San Jose’s Japantown. These ethnic enclaves on the fringes of San Jose were able to sustain their communities through businesses and social support and to provide a place of respite from the immigrants’ everyday struggles. Though the two communities maintained separate and distinct societies, the interplay at business and personal social levels created the Valley’s initial pan-Asian community.”

She said that the exhibit will highlight the fact that the Chinese and Japanese were highly dependent on one another.

“The focus of the exhibit is on the personal experience of those very early immigrants, the growth and changes in their communities, and their dependency on each other in the face of adversity and challenges,” she said.

At the event, Yu plans to share stories of the Chinese and Japanese communities and how they connected.September 2012 035_Web

According to Yu, who wrote the book “Chinatown, San Jose, U.S.A.,” she will “be sharing stories of how the Chinese and Japanese, with their different language, customs, and separate social systems, interacted. Chinese and Japanese children attended public schools together. There was no racial segregation in San Jose public education, and the first American-born generation of Heinlenville and Japantown had aspirations like the rest of their classmates. I learned about this from my father, who was born in Heinlenville in 1912, and by interviewing many seniors who remember both Chinatown and Japantown.”

Masunaga and Yu became involved in the exhibit after serving as community volunteers at the 2008 Sonoma State University archaeological excavation of the Heinlenville/Japantown site where many of the materials were found and where the actual sites were uncovered.

In addition, Masunaga and Yu coordinated a companion exhibit to the “Angel Island” exhibit at the California History Center at DeAnza College. They put together a small display on the archaeological material of Heinlenville Chinatown and Japantown. Subsequently, they were invited to expand this exhibit for the museum.

Both Yu and Masunaga will display personal mementos from their families at the exhibit.

Yu’s grandfather, Young Soong Quong, was a teenager who fled the Market Street Chinatown fire. Heinlenville developed in 1887 following the arson fire that destroyed Market Street Chinatown.

Yu has the memorabilia from her grandparents’ store, cash box, lacquer treat box for feast days, and photographs of Heinlenville children and families.

Yu said she has enjoyed researching and preparing the exhibit. “I’ve enjoyed learning about early Japanese community. It has been a real thrill, finding evidence of how deep the roots of Japantown were in Heinlenville, my dad’s birthplace. I had heard stories about when my grandmother and the family moved after Heinlenville was razed in 1931. They moved across the way to Sixth Street and their home was right next to a Japanese family. My grandmother’s best friend was a Japanese lady. My grandmother traded her homegrown vegetables for the tofu made by her Japanese friend.”

Masunaga will display some of her personal mementos, including a check and ledger from her grandfather, Takematsu Masunaga, to merchant Tuck Wo, Masunaga said, “As a farmer in the Milpitas/North San Jose area, (Masunaga) and other immigrant farmers were dependent on the Asian businesses in Heinlenville/Nihonmachi for supplies. Wo, a Chinese merchant in Heinlenville, was noted for the fact that he was the first to give credit to the Japanese.

He also trucked out supplies to those outlying farms. The check made out to him is an example of this cross-cultural business transaction. The account ledger shows the listing of debts/payments to Wo and developing Japanese businesses, such as Dobashi.”

Yu added that John Heinlen, for whom Heinlenville was named, was a hero. He leased land to the Japanese and Chinese when most would not.

“John Heinlen’s courageous stand to lease land for a Chinatown made it possible for not only Chinese to live in San Jose, but also Japanese. Because of Heinlenville, my grandfather, a former laborer, could become a merchant, send for his wife, and raise a family.”

Yamaichi said that Wo’s Chinese grocery and butcher shop was popular among those in the Asian community in that they liked the same foods.

“Tuck Wo tied the (Japanese and Chinese) communities together. They found a common ground,” Yamaichi said.

Masunaga added that she hopes that the exhibit will draw more attention to early Japantown and Chinatown.

She said, “As San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley continue to grow and develop, the early community history evaporates and is only captured in books and documents. This is an opportunity to develop an understanding of the sense of place and the rich history literally ‘embedded’ in the ground. This area of San Jose holds a unique spot in the history, as it began as a center for the Chinese and Japanese and continued as a place for other immigrant groups.”

Yu said that she hopes the exhibit leaves a lasting impression on attendees.

“I hope visitors will learn of the struggles of the early immigrant communities, why Chinatown disappeared, the effect of the Exclusion Laws, the ramifications of the anti-Asian movement, and how despite of all adversity, the Japanese returned to San Jose after World War II to rebuild their lives. This history is significant and a long-denied part of the American experience. I hope through this story on early Asian immigration, visitors will make a connection to immigration policies of today and understand the continuing struggle for justice and civil rights in our society.”

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose is located at 535 North Fifth Street in San Jose. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. The cost of admission is as follows: members: free, adults: $5, seniors (65 and older with valid ID) and students (with valid ID): $3, children (under 12): free.

For more information, call (408) 294-3138 or visit jamsj.org.

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