Why Chinese Fishermen Were Chased Away from the Monterey Bay

Chinese fishing village in Monterey, 1875. Photo: Dressler, Albert, California Historical Society, Public Domain
Chinese fishing village in Monterey, 1875. Photo: Dressler, Albert, California Historical Society, Public Domain

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.

Fishermen of European descent felt they were in direct competition with Chinese fishermen in the 1870s. Photo:
Fishermen of European descent felt they were in direct competition with Chinese fishermen in the 1870s. Photo: Courtesy of John Hibble and the Aptos History Museum

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.

The fishing village at New Brighton State Beach was located where the public restrooms are today - just behind the Eucalyptus tree in the above present-day photo. Richard Masoned 2012, CC BY-SA 2.0
The fishing village at New Brighton State Beach was where the public restrooms are today, just behind the eucalyptus tree in this 2012 photo. Photo: Richard Masoner

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.

New Brighton State Beach bluffs, next to the bathrooms looking North. Photo: Lauren McEvoy/Mobile Ranger
New Brighton State Beach looking north from the restrooms. Photo: Lauren Salazar/Mobile Ranger

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 bathrooms at New Brighton State Beach. Photo: Lauren McEvoy/Mobile Ranger
The restrooms at New Brighton State Beach mark the site of the fishing village. Photo: Lauren Salazar/Mobile Ranger

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.

China Beach Plaque at New Brighton State Beach. Photo: Lauren McEvoy/Mobile Ranger
China Beach Plaque at New Brighton State Beach. Photo: Lauren Salazar/Mobile Ranger
China Beach plaque at New Brighton State Beach. Photo: Lauren McEvoy/Mobile Ranger
China Beach plaque at New Brighton State Beach. Photo: Lauren Salazar/Mobile Ranger

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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  1. Sources

    • 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.



About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Ken Jensen

    Didn’t Santa Cruz have a China Town between front street and the river before the 1956 flood? After that disaster, the land was condemed, the levies were built, the Chinese moved to Watsonvile and the County, banks and big box stores moved in?

    Reply
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