Woolen Mills Chinatown of San Jose

by Anmarie Medin

The Guadalupe Parkway in San Jose, constructed in the 1960s, near the former Woolen Mills Chinatown was proposed for upgrading in the 1990s. This afforded an opportunity for Caltrans archaeologists and historians to tell the story of the Woolen Mills Chinatown.

In this essay, Caltrans Historical Archaeologist Anmarie Medin elucidates the history of a people for whom few English language records are available. Like the thousands of Chileans, Mexicans, Germans, Irish, and Americans, the Chinese also traveled to California in search of fortune. Most of their stories have been locked behind a cultural barrier of language and culture, so foreign to the dominant American culture that most of their history has been lost. Historical Archaeology provides one effective means of reawakening the times and lives of early California Chinese and the towns they built.


The story of Chinese immigration to nineteenth century California is familiar to anyone interested in California history. As was true for so many other immigrants, the Chinese came originally to make money in the gold fields. And, like others, they congregated in their own communities of language, culture, and shared goals, establishing Chinatowns in many cities and towns.

This paper is the story of one such Chinatown, the Woolen Mills Chinatown of San Jose.

In the 1960s the Guadalupe Parkway was constructed near the site of Woolen Mills Chinatown in San Jose. In the 1990s Caltrans proposed upgrading the facility. The involvement of federal funds in the project necessitated compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, thus affording an opportunity for archaeologists and historians to tell the story of the Woolen Mills Chinatown.


In the late nineteenth Century, San Jose was a center of agricultural production, shipping produce and raising sheep for wool. Norlh of San Jose was the Woolen Mills factory that employed Chinese laborers despite anti-Chinese sentiment. The economic rationale for this was made clear by Robert Peckham, president of the Woolen Mills, who testified before Congress that he hired cheap Chinese labor to compete with East Coast businesses. In 1887, under questionable circumstances, the Market Street Chinatown in the center of San Jose burned down. In response, the Chinese established two new Chinatowns in San Jose, Heinlenville and Woolen Mills. Heinlenville attracted many families while Woolen Mills was more of a “company town” populated by single male laborers. Newspapers editorialized about the “scourge” of Chinese living on the north edge of town and portrayed them as dirty, unkempt vagabonds or criminals. Woolen Mills thrived for several years under the patronage of Ng Fook, a businessman with interests in San Francisco and other bay area communities. After Ng Fook’s death in 1888 the community went into a period of decline, finally being destroyed by fire in 1902. Memories of the Woolen Mills faded over the years while Heinlenville, with families and businesses, remained as San Jose’s main Chinatown.


Archaeological and historical research carried out prior to the upgrade of Guadalupe Parkway revealed the Woolen Mills Chinatown as a neatly organized community in direct contradiction to contemporary depictions of the Chinese as dirty and unkempt.

This Chinatown had graveled streets and a sewer system that tied into the city sewer almost 1000 feet away. Brick walls, hydrants, and other fire protections provided defense against fire, the common scourge of wooden cities. Given the general state of sanitation in nineteenth century cities, archaeology demonstrates that Woolen Mills, by comparison, was uniquely neat and an orderly place.

Archaeological excavation revealed a particularly interesting feature, a brick smoker located on the edge of town (Figure 1 on right). It was identified on the Sanborn map as a brick “roasting kettle.” Archaeologists uncovered a brick a cylinder with mouth for cleaning out ashes. It stood on a brick platform, surrounded by faunal remains and broken ceramic dishes. Comparative research, including oral history accounts, demonstrated that this probably served as a smoker for preparing pork and other meats, as well as preparing food for feasts. Archaeologists have identified similar features in Australia as well. This feature is tangible evidence of a concerted effort by the Chinese to retain their traditional foodways despite their status as immigrants in a new land.

The common cultural pattern of refuse disposal in most cultures of the time is also seen in the communal refuse dump found on the riverbank. Here, like most other residents of the city, Woolen Mills residents carried their household waste to the river for disposal. While most was washed away, much of the waste remained to be covered by subsequent land use, only to be excavated almost 100 years later. This trash deposit included the typical array of food remains, dishes, pharmaceutical products, alcohol bottles, and household supplies.

Archaeological studies at urban Chinese sites typically find a variety of material culture indicative of wealth and status differences within the community. At Woolen Mills, however, the ceramic dishes reflect a relatively poor community unable or unwilling to purchase the higher priced ceramics generally prevalent at other urban sites of the time (Figure 2).

Inferences for History

Artifacts from the dump portrayed Chinese values and material patterns, however Woolen Mills Chinatown residents had access to a variety of consumer goods in common with the greater San Jose community.

There was a reliance on imported Chinese foods, cooking, medicines, opium, liquor, and ceramics, while other artifacts point to trade with the local Euroamerican community. Chinese merchants were linked to local, regional, national, and international trade networks. Overall, the artifact assemblage reveals the rich and complex material culture and diet of Woolen Mills Chinatown residents. It also points to a community that maintained a sense of its own cultural heritage. And although their degree of assimilation was low, the Chinese were still part of the larger San Jose community and economy.

What happened at the Woolen Mills Chinatown was not acculturation; the Chinese did not strive to become American in nature. Rather it was adaptation, reacting to local circumstances and fluctuations in the economy, using parts of the Euroamerican culture that were useful to their day-to-day lives, but remaining Chinese.

Public Outreach

Archaeology offers the ability to tangibly connect the past to the present, thus enriching a sense of historic place and continuity. We stressed public outreach during this project. Many expressed an appreciation for finding out about a Chinatown that many never knew existed. Archaeology at Woolen Mills provided an opportunity to remind members of the public that San Jose was culturally diverse in the past and to share the active role Chinese residents had in the creation of this town.

Despite the town’s ultimate failure due to a lack of economic support, it became a source of pride. Chinese of the past clearly maintained their own identity while finding a place for themselves in the larger society. This experience is well received by first and second generation Asian-Americans, as well as other nationalities. The archaeology of Woolen Mills provides clear evidence that groups often maintain important cultural traditions, that there was room for cultural diversity in economic integration in nineteenth century San Jose, and hence a reason to believe that the same is true today.

Anmarie Medin is a historical archaeologist with the Cultural and Community Studies Office in Caltrans Headquarters in Sacramento. She is certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) and meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualification Standards. Her education includes a Master’s degree in Cultural Resources Management from Sonoma State University. Professional experience includes] 7 years in California archaeology working on both historical and prehistoric projects.