Sonora Chinatown

And this is our old Chinatown of yesterday – a block of dingy wooden buildings grown brown with the years, and a few bricks that housed the better class – the front covered with strips of red paper, while near the doorways lighted punk smoked to “scare the devil away”; a laundry filled with jabbering Chinamen, ironing or sprinkling the clothes  (and do you know what their method was?) it consisted of taking a mouthful of water, then sputtering it on the clothes – how was that for sanitary laundry?

And still in those days the Chinese were our only laundrymen. There were other little shops and many gambling dens, for Chinamen were great gamblers, and they would inveigle many of our young men into their games. They also smoked opium and everyday or two these dens were raided.

On the corner was a fine big general store run by Kwong Wo – and what a fascinating place it was to us children – so many quaint curious things and such odors! Kwong Wo was a high class Chinamen and in business he was the soul of honor. His wife Mary, was a shy little creature that pattered in and out noiselessly.

There were hundreds of Chinese in Sonora then – besides the Chinatown block, there were the laundries around town, vegetable and fruit peddlers, and cooks just everywhere – known generally as Jim, Charley, Sam, and so on – and there were miners along the gulches. They had their secret places where they ran sluice boxes or gophered into the hills nearby.

I recall an old vegetable peddler, Ah Mow, such a pleasant little fellow, would tow huge baskets of vegetables swung on the ends of a stick and carried on his shoulder and always keeping up a little dog trot which seemed to lighten his load. I can see his wrinkled face light up as he delved into his basket to get the candy and nuts and China lilies he had brought for a News Year’s gift.

Then there was Ah Fie, and Suey Lee and Ah Lock, and Hop Kee, and others – such familiar figures around town – quiet, peace loving and sincere.

Tuck Lee had a big laundry where the Sonora Theatre now stands, and I remember a shooting scrape there – A Tong man came in from San Francisco one night, walked into the laundry and shot one of the men. Immediately there was great excitement, a wild chase, and the offender was caught a mile out of town and stabbed to death.

Who of us does not remember China Charley, the clothes peddler – he was tall and very aristocratic and wore a handsome Chinese outfit with the whitest of stockings and felt-soled shoes. He came regularly about twice a year and what a wealth of wonderful things he poured from his two big packs.

He carried mostly ladies underwear and every housewife in town patronized Charley. He spread his pack on a sheet on the floor and we children sat near in quiet admiration, There were voluminous petticoats with yards of embroidery and tucks, there were chemise, ruffles – all white and starched and there were draw strings and plenty fullness everywhere – and he carried a few gay, bright things that we were only allowed to “peek” at; then, oh yes, and Charley had Mother Hubbard dress – do you remember them? Yokes back and front and the fullness gathered on and hanging loose – everybody wore them.

And dear Ah Fie – I knew him so many years – he cooked at lumber camps and mines, often spending the Winter in town – he was a frequent visitor at our home and on China New Years he fairly showered us with gifts. He brought double China lilies saying they were for good luck. In later years his one besetting sin was gambling – to him it was no crime – he paid his fine and gambled more. He and his wife, Mary, were pathetic figures before they left for China. He came to tell us good-bye and his wan, wrinkled face lighted up and tears came to his tired eyes as he shook our hands.

And one by one the old Chinamen have left us- the buildings are all gone – just one old brick left – the last tie between the Chinatown of yesterday and today. No more kind-faced, kind-hearted Chinamen shuffling along, their hands buried deep in their huge sleeves- no more.

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