By Gary Singh
SINCE SAN JOSE has always been a city of neighborhoods, and since Arcadia Publishing continues to jam out exquisite photo books on different local zones of this place, now is a perfect time to celebrate yet two more books in their Images of America series. You may have come across these books--they're small, 6-by-9-inch black-and-white photo gigs, usually $19.99 and about 130 pages or so. Display sections in bookstores and car-wash gift shops have fully showcased 'em.
The series features old-school photo essays of places all over the country. A few years back, in the Jan. 26, 2005, issue of Metro, I applauded the ones on downtown San Jose and Milpitas, the latter of which was penned by the dude who made the classic B-flick The Milpitas Monster. When the one titled Cemeteries of Santa Clara emerged, I just had to throw in my 2 cents of praise on that piece of work as well.
Now we have two more. Chinese in San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley is the result of work by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project along with Lillian Gong-Guy and Gerrye Wong; The Portuguese in San Jose comes to us from Meg Rogers with support from the Portuguese Historical Museum. Both of these things document forgotten histories of those particular immigrant populations right here in town.
Not many people know that there once existed five Chinatowns in San Jose, and you can actually turn to page 10 and see a map of where they were. Sure, they were nowhere near as predominant as San Francisco's, but hey, at least we had something. Basically, right where the Fairmont now stands was one of the original San Jose Chinatowns in the 1880s, before it was intentionally burned down by nefarious types who felt threatened by the presence of foreigners.
If you haven't read the plaque out in front of the hotel, it was dedicated on May 4, 1987, exactly 100 years after the fire, and it begins with this: "On this site on May 4, 1887, a mysterious fire, deliberately set, destroyed San Jose's Chinatown. This was the largest Chinatown south of San Francisco."
Also included in the Chinese photo book is the story of Dick Yee. In a chapter titled "In Search of Economic Prosperity," the plight of Chinese immigrants is documented in detail. In 1948, Yee opened the first Dick's Supermarket, on North Fourth Street, at what is now Commercial Avenue, a market that still exists. An old rockin' photo of the place graces page 44, and on the same page we see Yee's son, Gene, who expanded the family business by purchasing 15 acres of prune orchard on Bascom Avenue for a shopping center in 1951. Yeah, you've driven by there—that quintessential throwaway strip mall called Dick's Center on Bascom, where the long-gone restaurant Zorba the Greek sits like a dead whale on the beach.
Ernie the Butcher also used to be there in that mall. The ancient Dick's sign still graces that stretch of road, although the Dick's Market itself hasn't been there for God knows how long. According to Chinese in San Jose, "At the height of operations, there were a total of 15 stores throughout the South Bay, making Dick's the largest independent chain in the region." And it was a Chinese guy who created it all. According to the book, Gene is now in the Grocer's Hall of Fame.
And lastly we come to the Portuguese. The Portuguese in San Jose elaborates on the city's Little Portugal/Five Wounds neighborhood on Alum Rock Avenue near 101, which is a great place to walk around. It also documents three different waves of Portuguese immigrants in San Jose and their contributions. So we must reiterate for the zillionth time that Arcadia Publishing rocks, and that local history is not just for cantankerous old curmudgeons. Dig it. It's good for you.