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Wine Caves and the Chinese

Having heard stories that the streets of San Francisco were lined with gold, the Chinese came to California.  They came with wide-eyed excitement of a better life than what they had in China.  Their desire was to make a quick fortune and return to China and share their new wealth with their families.  The Chinese had no desire to remain in California for the rest of their lives.  They considered it a tragedy to be buried in a foreign land away from the spirits of their ancestors.

What they found when they arrived was somewhat different - no streets line with gold.  They found hard work, dirty work, and menial work.  Willingly, they took up the labor.  They found jobs as servants and nannies.  They worked in laundries.  Many took up the work of building the railroads.  The Chinese worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the Sierra Nevada, digging and blasting tunnels and rail beds.  They worked on local train lines including the stretch of rail to Sam Brannon's new Calistoga resort.  And when that was finished they took up building rock walls, tunneling mines, and digging wine caves.  They willingly worked for low wages.  This created resentment in unemployed white men and anti-Chinese movements sprang up all over the state.  All too soon the Chinese were expelled from the state by law.

The Chinese were different, looked different, and acted different.  Nevertheless, they were polite, hard-workers, and many other people found them to be honest, intelligent, and industrious.  Still, others found them to be cold and emotionless.  The men wore long pony tails called ques.  Often white children as a prank would sneak upon a Chinese man and cut off this que.  Horrified, the Chinese man would scream in anguish.  It was their belief that when they died they had to be buried with all their body parts or they could not go to heaven.  The men often wore long blue robes and became known as Celestials.  They were clannish and congregated in Chinatowns, shanties often found on the outskirts of the main towns.  Such Chinatowns sprang up in Napa and St. Helena.

Each Chinatown had its own Joss House, sort of a temple, where the Chinese man would go after a hard days work to smoke opium.  These houses had idols - dragon idols - and vases for burning incense.  The men would also spend the evening playing a game of cards called fan tan.

Chinese workers formed into clans much like unions, each with its own overlord who contracted work for them and provided housing and food.  One such overload, Wah Chung, controlled some 300 Chinese workers, who trusted him explicitly and thought it fine that he take a cut from their wages for his services.

The Chinese usually worked for less than 75 cents a day.  Charles Krug, at his St. Helena winery, paid them two dollars a day.  They took up work that no white worker desired to do, dirty and dangerous work, menial work.  They built the rock walls that still line the roads in Napa Valley in many places.  They planted grape vines, they dug quicksilver mines, and they dug wine caves.  It was believed that the Chinese did not feel danger in the same way as did the white man.  Even in the face of dangerous work like digging quicksilver mines, the Chinese seemed cool and emotionless.  They would light dynamite with short fuses, far shorter than any white man dared to light.  But when calamity did strike, they became more frightened than any white man.

During the 1880's, the Chinese were desired as workers.  However, that soon changed.  Unemployed white men called Sandlotters claimed the Chinese were taking away their jobs; forgetting the Chinese did work that they weren't willing to do themselves.  The Chinese were called coolies, dirty, and smelly.  They were attacked, beaten, and sometimes murdered.  White men who hired Chinese workers often found their barns on fire.  The newspapers railed against the Chinese and finally the State legislation took a hand and passed the Expulsion act.  The Chinese were gone.  The vacant Chinatown soon burned to the ground.