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Graduate student uncovers Hopkins' immigrant history

From the ground beneath Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, graduate student Bryn Williams has unearthed history of Chinese immigrant life.

L.A. Cicero Bryn Williams

Bryn Williams, graduate student in anthropology, worked on examining the artifacts unearthed at Hopkins Marine Station.

BY SAM JULIAN

A bare stretch of beach separates Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Dirt, scrub brush and broken concrete obscure evidence of previous life, but the rocky bluff above once went by another name: Point Alones. More than 100 years ago, the area was a fishing village and home to hundreds of Chinese Americans. Bryn Williams, a Stanford graduate student in anthropology, excavated the land as part of his dissertation work.

Williams' primary excavation took place in summer 2007, but he continues to visit Hopkins when site renovations occur to safely preserve any artifacts that might be found. His excavations and analysis have led to new insights on material life in the village and revealed similarities with Chinese settlements worldwide.

"Bryn's work at Hopkins has made a significant contribution to studies of the Chinese diaspora," said Laura Jones, university archeologist and director of heritage services in the office of Land Use and Environmental Planning. "The Point Alones village is a particularly interesting site because it was occupied early – beginning in the 1860s – and by entire families."

For the excavation, Williams and his team dug pits about a meter square in the bluff above the beach. They found a variety of preserved artifacts. Ceramics, glass bottles, fishing gear. Animal bones and shells – the remains of food. Dice and game pieces. A toothbrush. A leather shoe, preserved intact in the salty earth for more than a century.

Members of Monterey's nearby Chinese communities contributed to the project. Descendants of the village's residents helped to excavate the site, and one woman was able to dig on the site of her great-grandfather's house. Elder members of the community helped Williams identify obscure artifacts, such as game pieces.

"That sort of connection is really powerful because it reminds you that history isn't just something detached and in the library," Williams said. "It's something that people in the present live through."

Village life in the 1800s

Courtesy Miller Library Historical photo of fishing village

The stilted wooden houses of the Chinese fishing village. Flat-bottomed fishing boats line the beach.

Around the 1860s, at the time of the California Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants began applying their fishing skills to the plentiful wealth of the California coast.

Life at Point Alones was centered on the fishing industry. Entire families were involved in the trade. Men would fish at night for squid using burning pitch embers in a wire mesh basket hung over the side of the boat, and women would work on the shore cutting and drying the catch.

The village also served the needs of the broader Chinese community in the Monterey area. Immigrants and Chinese Americans working as wood harvesters, miners or railroad laborers would come to the village to buy goods or pray at the shrine. The village also held festivals to celebrate holidays like Chinese New Year.

A fire of mysterious origins

In 1906 a fire of mysterious origins burned most of the village to ashes. Although there is no way to know for sure, Williams believes the fire was likely the work of arsonists.

"Around this time period, the turn of the century, almost every Chinese community up and down the state of California was subject to some kind of 'mysterious' fire," he said.

The Pacific Improvement Company (PIC), which owned the land, wished to develop the area but was reluctant to evict the villagers. According to Williams, the Chinese were good tenants, and the village attracted tourists to the area. However, there was a great deal of anti-Chinese hostility among the residents of Pacific Grove.

"There are rumors of fire hoses being cut and looting of homes," said Williams. He recalls a tourist account of a crowd watching and cheering as the town burned.

"[After the fire] the company went in with armed guards and tried to keep out the Chinese," said Williams. The few people who returned to their homes were eventually forcibly evicted.

The PIC bulldozed the land and built the Monterey Boatworks building and boat-launching ramps.

Out of the ashes

Sam Julian Hopkins Marine Station

Hopkins Marine Station, as seen from one of Williams' excavation sites. Hopkins moved to its present location in 1917, and serves as a research laboratory for Stanford marine biologists.

Interestingly, this incident is partially responsible for the present location of Hopkins Marine Station. Hopkins opened in 1892 as a research base and laboratory for Stanford's marine biologists at Lovers Point, a mile south of its current site.

After the fire, the PIC had gained a very valuable piece of land but had engendered a lot of ill will in the community.

"Half of the people in Monterey hated them for letting the Chinese live there for so long, and half hated them for mistreating the Chinese and kicking them out … and everybody hated them for being the Southern Pacific Railway anyway," said Williams.

According to Joe Wible, Hopkins librarian, the PIC offered the land to local universities for a research station to elicit goodwill and increase the value of the neighboring land. The University of California was offered the land but failed to follow through, and in 1916 Stanford took advantage of the opportunity and initiated a land swap.

Eventually, Stanford acquired the defunct Monterey Boatworks building and even the Hovden Cannery, which was eventually transformed into the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Global Chinese diaspora

Now that he has completed his fieldwork, Williams is spending the coming academic year finishing his dissertation. He is analyzing and comparing his findings with the portrayal of village life based on media accounts, fiction, photographs and tourist notebooks. He hopes to form conclusions about how Chinese and Chinese American identity was imagined from the perspective of the villagers and non-Chinese residents of the surrounding communities.

Besides contributing to understanding of the Chinese diaspora, Williams' project also has helped heal the wounds created by the fire and decades of discriminatory practices against the Chinese American community in the Monterey Bay area, according to archeologist Jones. "This is community archaeology at its finest and a demonstration of the level of responsibility and leadership we expect of our graduates," she added.

L.A. Cicero Asian coin

Among the finds in the site of a former Chinese American fishing village was an Asian coin dating from the mid to late 1800s.

The lab Williams works out of in the Stanford Archaeology Center is filled with identical blue-and-white cardboard boxes packed high along the edges of the room. Out of one of them, he presents a bowl, nearly whole, decorated with a glaze of blue flowers.

"This is kind of the coke bottle of the 1800s," he joked. Guilds in China would specialize in these "bamboo style" bowls, he said, which they would use as ballast in boats traveling all over the Pacific. Williams has seen similar remains in Australia and Singapore, all with the same distinctive pattern.

Williams intends to explore the greater global Chinese diaspora. How did people from the same village change and interact in different environments? How did they respond in a country like Sumatra, with different race relations, different labor and economic systems – or a different colonial regime?

"In a sense that's the classic scientific hypothesis," Williams said. "You isolate variables and then tell a story about it."

Williams is increasingly doing legal research and will attend law school next year. This summer he is researching the illicit antiquities trade between China and the United States. Issues of heritage ownership and historical preservation are hotly debated, he says, and not many people are knowledgeable about both archaeology and law.

Back at Hopkins

Recently, Williams went to Hopkins to help dig a pipe trench and to preserve any artifacts that might be found. The holes from Williams' previous dig have now been filled in. He points to a spot in the underbrush, where a faint indentation in the grass can be made out.

"That was a site," he says. At other sites, the grass has already grown back so thoroughly that the places where holes used to be are no longer visible at all. Williams is certain that digging in the same sites again would yield new artifacts.

"There are gophers digging all around here," he says. "Anything smaller than their head, they'll move. Stuff's all over the place."

To illustrate this, he reaches down and picks up a small piece of ceramic. "Here," he says. "This is from the village."

He puts it down again, unconcerned. After a certain point, there is only so much that one can tell from what's buried in the ground, and in that sense, Point Alones' history will forever remain a collection of fragments.