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Salinas Chinatown Multi-ethnic Past and Present

Salinas Chinatown is an historical “gold mountain.” Established on Soledad Street in 1893 (and
encompassing half a dozen adjacent blocks), after the first Chinatown burned down, Salinas
Chinatown is the largest existing Chinatown between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is an
important crossroads in California immigrant history. It was home to successive waves of
immigrant labor that formed the backbone of California’s agricultural economy: Chinese
arriving in the 1860s, Japanese in the 1890s, Filipinos in the 1920s, a few Mexican families in
the 1930s, and a larger group of Mexican “braceros” in the 1940s, as well as several Black
families and businesses.

Filipino workers gather on Soledad St. with two Chinese youth, 1920s. Photo: Wellington Lee Collection.

These ethnic communities coped with marginalization and discrimination as they coexisted and sought to establish homes and livelihoods as immigrant laborers (R. Benmayor). While Salinas experienced unprecedented growth through “urban renewal” in the mid-20th century, infrastructure changes dispersed Chinatown’s communities throughout the Salinas Valley (Vengua, 2021). During the 1960s through 1980s, Chinatown suffered deterioration; to many, it seemed to have “disappeared” (Salinas Public Library, 1960-1969). Thriving businesses closed and buildings were boarded up.”

For decades, Chinatown has been known more for its homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and drug traffic than for its rich history. Today, positive changes are happening in Chinatown: transitional and affordable housing has been built; health and counseling services are available; two art galleries now occupy space on Soledad St., as well as an office/gallery space for Asian Cultural Experience (ACE).

This tiny enclave contains a “root” California story that has been little known within and outside the local community. If walls could speak, this neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks from Main Street would tell a rich multi‐ethnic story of agricultural development, labor movements, daily life and low life, celebrations and struggles, collaboration and tension, discrimination and solidarity (Benmayor). 

After bowling party, Republic Cafe, 1960s. Photo: Al Baguio.

Salinas Chinatown’s history differs from that of other Chinatowns in the U.S. because of its multicultural composition: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican communities that thrived in the same marginalized neighborhood, despite their cultural differences. The story of Chinatown’s past gives insight to contemporary struggles around immigration, integration, and socio-cultural marginalization, through the persistence of inter-ethnic ties and collaboration in the present.