Asian film series highlights Santa Barbara’s Chinatown

The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation is in the midst of a film series honoring what many people may not know existed in Santa Barbara. Many years ago, the city had a Chinatown.

Arts editor Charles Donelan has been covering the film series for the Santa Barbara Independent. He spoke with KCRW’s Larry Perel about the history behind the city’s Chinese community.

Joss House, 1927, at 21 E Canon Perdido St., painting by H.M. Davidson. Presidio Research Center Curatorial Collections. Gift of Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll.

KCRW: Why did Chinese immigrants first come to Santa Barbara?

Donelan: Well, I think for many of the same reasons other people came to Santa Barbara. It was a beautiful place. It was more appealing than larger cities for people who didn’t want to compete with the fierce and unionized labor markets of San Francisco, or the fierce and non-unionized labor markets of Los Angeles. There were great opportunities here for abalone fishermen, gardeners and farmers. Also, and this is a key factor, the Santa Barbara public schools allowed chines students, which as not the case in some other cities. So, the equality of opportunity available in Santa Barbara as early as the later part of the 19th century was a piece of this puzzle.

The 1925 earthquake is a defining moment for the Chinatown. What happened?

The original Chinatown, of which there is little or no trace, was on the block immediately adjacent to State Street on Canon Perdido. That Chinatown only lasted until the earthquake.

It’s interesting. Typically the way the changes are framed is in terms of the aesthetic – the Pearl Chase Society and the decision to go with our tiled roofs and stucco. But, as we have witnessed in the second half of the 20th century, urban renewal does tend to involve racial discrimination. The city fathers in 1925, when they looked at the rubble to the east of State Street, said well, maybe we don’t need a Chinatown. Shortly thereafter, you had the Lobero Theater built on that block.

A subsequent Chinatown, of which there is some significant evidence, was then constructed primarily by a man named Elmer Whitaker, on behalf of Chinese clients adjacent to the small Japantown which had developed one block east. That’s where we can now today see the Jimmy’s Oriental Garden restaurant, which is owned by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. It’s one of the most important social structures in recent Santa Barbara history. It’s a place with a great set of stories, well known characters and there’s even a film about the restaurant that premiered in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2015.

Jimmy Chung with his son Bill (William) Chung, behind the bar at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens 1950s. Courtesy of the Presidio Research Center, gift of Tommy Chung
Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, circa late 1950s, Courtesy of the Presidio Research Center.
Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens circa 2006. (Photo: Mike Imwalle)

Apart from the work of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, how has Asian culture been preserved?

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art didn’t open until the 1940s, but they immediately began amassing a significant collection of Asian art. The curator of the collection, Susan Sai, is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Chinese art. Because Santa Barbara is such a sophisticated art, and because people here have the means to collect beautiful things, there were always people interested in Asian culture in Santa Barbara, and people amassed wonderful collections of everything from beautiful painted scrolls to a very significant collection of Chinese musical instruments, that’s now held by UC Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation’s Asian American History Committee (Photo: Paul Mori)