Truckee’s Chinese history highlighted in newscast
When Cantonese news reporter Likcon Lam started investigating Truckee’s former Chinatown, he started by calling people in the local phone book who have Chinese names.
“They all laughed,” said Jody Sweet, a Truckee resident and amateur historian.
The only remnant of Truckee’s 19th century Chinese population is the Chinese Herb Shop, which is occupied by McCarthy’s sign shop on South River Street – hardly a Chinatown.
Sweet, like other Truckee historians, is afraid not many people know the history of the Chinese, because traces of that population have been “whitewashed” from the town and its history.
So when Sweet got involved in the story, he was hoping Chinese ancestors would once again gain an interest in the area.
Lam, the reporter, works for KTSF Channel 26, which broadcasts in the Bay Area in Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as other Asian languages.
After reading a column by local historian Guy Coates in the Sierra Sun, the news station contacted Coates, who then contacted Sweet, for an interview.
“We seldom know of history that far away,” Lam said, referring to the station’s focus on the Bay Area.
Coates’s column about the only standing building of Truckee’s second Chinatown (the first Chinatown above what is now Brickelltown), dealt not only with the building’s history, but the plight of the Chinese who were brought to the area during the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
The series of 13 tunnels above Donner Lake took about three years and thousands of men to build.
“This is kind of a Chinese monument,” Sweet said while pointing to the series of tunnels along Schallenberger Ridge, through which trains pass to this day.
“When I look at it, it makes me kind of awe struck. It was all done with hand tools,” Coates said. “I know that quite a few Chinese lost their lives from digging these tunnels.”
Some were killed when avalanches struck on Summit Peak, others fell over the side of the mountain, and others still were killed by nitroglycerine blasts, which eventually replaced hand drilling during the construction of the tunnels.
“This was the primary route to California,” Sweet said, adding that Truckee as it is today probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Chinese labor.
After the completion of the railroad, many of the Chinese workers decided to make their homes here.
But by 1878 Truckee’s first Chinatown had burned and the Chinese were pushed to the south side of the river.
“The Chinese herb shop became the cornerstone of Truckee’s new Chinatown. It was constructed like a fortress, with brick walls 17 inches thick and fireproof iron doors to protect both front and rear entrances, which could be slammed shut in the event of a fire or raid by vigilantes,” Coates wrote in his Nov. 28 column.
In 1886, another fire broke out, this time destroying almost all of the buildings in Truckee’s second Chinatown. Survivors were put on a train and shipped out of town, Sweet said.
“Their reward was to get kicked out of town,” Coates said. “I think Truckee owes them an apology. I think as a town we owe them that.”
“Truckee, as it now becomes valuable land, in a way, has sanitized itself,” Sweet said. Victorian-style houses now stand where Truckee’s second Chinatown existed more than 100 years ago.
For now, Sweet and Coates hope to draw more attention to this history.
“You have to keep reminding people [of this history] or else they forget,” Coates said. “They think we’re just a ski town.”
Sweet says he hopes the broadcast on KTSF – which aired on Dec. 21 and 24 – will attract more Chinese to Truckee.
“I hope it brings them all back,” he said. “They can come back and claim their town.”