Santa Cruz was not always the open-minded, progressive community that it is today. In the mid 1800s, the Northern California beach town was known as the national epicenter of anti-Chinese laws and regulations, even though the Monterey Bay regional economy depended on Chinese as laborers in agriculture and for building railroads.
The Chinese were also very skilled fishermen, and in the 1870s, they caught most of the fish around the Monterey Peninsula. By 1878, they were catching half of all fish caught in Santa Cruz County. Chinese fish peddlers were a common sight walking along the streets of Santa Cruz, Capitola, Soquel, and Watsonville, their shoulders hunched with the weight of bamboo poles hung with fish baskets.
Their success in the fishing industry angered the other local fishermen, who were mostly Italians and Portuguese at the time. They urged political leaders to push the Chinese off the beaches with local ordinances that were rigorously enforced in Santa Cruz County. By the 1880s, Chinese fishermen had been pushed completely out of the Monterey Bay area.
The Chinese Exclusion Law
The Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 was the first immigration law in the U.S. that restricted a particular race from entering the country. The Geary Act of 1892 extended this law for another 10 years and required Chinese immigrants to carry ID cards at all times. Other laws forbid the use of carrying poles on public streets (the same poles they used to peddle their fish), as well as “Chinese activities” such as flying kites. Those of Chinese descent were also commonly the target of acts of violence.
Before the laws were passed, there were several Chinese fishing villages throughout Monterey Bay. One was located just north of Seacliff at a beach that was then called China Beach. The village consisted of 29 Chinese fishermen (no women or children) living in a ramshackle structure of driftwood and shakes at the base of the high bluffs. Atop those same bluffs now sits one of the most popular campgrounds in California: New Brighton State Beach.
Chinese Fishing Villages Trumped by Tourism
When the railroad finally connected Santa Cruz to the San Francisco Bay Area via Los Gatos in 1875, it opened a gateway to tourism but closed the door of opportunity for the Chinese fishermen in Monterey. Thanks to the railroads, more fishermen and visitors of European descent came to Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay region, and the Chinese were viewed as unwanted competition. The Chinese peddlers and fishing villages began to disappear just three years later.
In 1878, Camp San Jose opened on the bluffs above what is now New Brighton State Beach to accommodate the many tourists arriving on the new train. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese were forced to move their fishing villages there and told to move farther down the coast.
As the railroad moved south, the Chinese fishermen were continually pushed farther south also. The last fishing camp was set up near the mouth of the Pajaro River at Camp Goodall. By 1888, this camp closed too, and fisherman of Chinese descent had moved away from the Monterey Bay completely.
The site of the fishing village at New Brighton State Beach is now marked only by restrooms built for the many tourists who flock to this sunny stretch of sand. There is only one known photograph of the village that shows the precarious driftwood structure that the fishermen called home.
A plaque at the south end of the parking lot commemorates the Chinese fishermen. It was the first plaque in the Monterey Bay region dedicated to the memory of these Chinese pioneers.
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This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region, by Sandy Lydon. Capitola Book Company, 1985.
- The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region: A Brief History, by Sandy Lydon. Capitola Book Company, 1997.
- Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee, by Geoffrey Dunn, Lisa Liu Grady, Tony Hill, James D. Houston, Sandy Lydon, Morton Marcus, and George Ow, Jr. Capitola Book Company, 2002.