If you drive by, you may miss it: Fresno’s Chinatown.
What may seem forgotten, recently impacted by the California High-Speed Rail project, is an intrigal part of Fresno’s history.
From the outside, you see damaged signs and worn down buildings. But along streets and through alleyways are reminants of a thriving entertainment district once filled with nearly a dozen diverse minority groups, helping build the City of Fresno more than a century ago.
And there are still hundreds of people whose families work and lived here, and have for decades.
Between Highway 99 and the iconic Fresno skyline, you find Chinatown, home to 18 blocks filled with dozens of landmark buildings containing more than a century of history.
“Central Fish is one of the anchor places here in Chinatown and what my uncle started in 1950,” says Morgan Doizaki, general manger at Central Fish Co. in Chinatown.
Doizaki now runs the market to keep that legacy going.
“I remember when I was a little kid coming up to Fresno there were a lot of people walking the streets of Chinatown having fun. The older I got the more dangerous it got. A lot of prostituion, a lot of drug dealers, a lot of crime going on, a lot of break ins, vacancies that we are still plauged with today,” Doizaki explains.
He works alongside of Jan Minami, the executive director of the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, a group working to revitalize and preserve its history.
“Part of our process is to provide start up business classes and seminars. With that, we can match potential start up businesses with locations. There are quite a few start up spots and give them a location to do that in chinatown,” Minami explains.
Doizaki adds, “Hopefully it can’t get much worse than it is right now. It was important for us to start an organization that unifies our voice just over a year ago and we’ve really gained a lot of momentum.”
Chinatown was founded in the early 1880s when Chinese immigrants came to build railroads through the Central Valley.
“They were building Fresno and it was determined by the powers in Fresno that it would be they didn’t want to live together so the Chinese people were moved across the tracks,” Minami says.
A redline district, a way to segregate minorities from the city.
“There were 11 different cultures that were forced to relocate on this side of the tracks,” she says. Adding, “So they are who founded Chinatown who made Chinatown vibrant in very different ways.”
Diverse groups quickly turning an outcasted area into a thriving entertainment district.
One place always stirring: the Bing Kon Association Building.
“They’d have shows here I’ve seen a bunch of pictures with seats right here,” Doizaki says.
The buidling is filled with all kinds of people, ready to party.
Bing Kong, one of many included in a “not so secret” underground tunnel system, used for drug trade, prostitution and illegal gambling.
Looking out from the balcony, Doizaki still sees a divide, but also glimmers of hope.
“I just want people back here in Chinatown,” he says.
Just business owner, neighbor John Salazar, lead barber at Ofelia’s Barbershop.
“I think it’s in a transition. You can see the change, you can see more people coming down here, a lot of people come down here ask questions of our history,” he says.
He calls Chinatown home.
“It feels great. It feels like you are a part of something a little bigger. Like in San Francisco, their area is very historical. I feel like we have that we just need to bring it out and show people what we have here,” Salazar says.
Now the Chinatown Fresno Foundation has a gallery dedicated to its history, is also consulting with local businessess and helping start a streets project, adding sidewalks, and soon a 57-unit housing building.
“These cultures provide so much vibrance to the entire tread of the City of Fresno as they moved beyond Chinatown to recognize that they’ve started here and currently have such an impact on the culture,” Minami says.
Adding, “It’s history and I’d like to preserve it.”
Click here for more information on the Chinatown Fresno Foundation.