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Forgotten History of Chinese Workers in California Wine Country


Americans and people from other countries like to visit California’s Wine Country, an area known for producing fine wines.

Visitors enjoy stopping by the area’s many wineries to see where the wines are made, and even have a few drinks themselves.

In Sonoma County, visitors to the Buena Vista Winery get a chance to learn about the company’s forgotten past. They learn that the people who helped build the winery in the 19th century came from far away.

"From the late 1850's to the 1870's, they primarily were Chinese laborers.”

That is Tom Blackwood. He is general manager of the Buena Vista Winery, which calls itself California's first premium winery.

Chinese laborers and the Gold Rush

In the middle of the 1800s, many people moved to America's West Coast, notably California, in search of wealth. This period is remembered as the "Gold Rush," named for the large numbers of people searching for gold.

Many of the new arrivals were from China. After the Gold Rush ended, many Chinese stayed and worked as laborers.

Blackwood says some Chinese traveled north of San Francisco and worked in the new vineyards.

“They did all of the work of the fields, the plowing. The actual digging, planting and then the management of all the vineyards,” he said. “They definitely worked at the other properties, but Buena Vista was known to have the largest Chinese labor camp north of San Francisco.”

Chinese workers dug a wine storage cave at the Buena Vista Winery. Rocks from the project were used on buildings, two of which still remain standing today.

Signs of the Chinese laborers can still be seen outside the winery.

"A couple of my friends showed me the so-called "Chinese rock fence," said Jack Ding, a member of the Sonoma-Penglai Sister City Committee. "Local people, they still remember Chinese laborers did something for them."

What happened to the laborers?

What happened to the Chinese laborers is a mystery.

George McKale is a former Sonoma city historian.

"We don't understand where they went once they left the city of Sonoma. We don't know a whole lot of names.”

Jack Ding notes that many of the laborers worked, lived, and died in the area. "They didn't have a place to be buried," he added.

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants experienced anti-Chinese feelings, boycotts, and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted immigration to the United States.

"This was sort of the forgotten history of Sonoma,” said David Katz, who lives in Sonoma. “We had sort of a shameful history regarding the Asia [Chinese] Exclusion Act and people want to make things right," he added.

Building a memorial

Katz and Ding are members of a committee that has launched an effort called the Wine Country Chinese Legacy Project. The goal is to honor the laborers by building a Chinese-style pavilion in the city of Sonoma.

Committee members said the Chinese city of Penglai has promised $25,000 to help build the pavilion. The goal is to raise a total of $75,000. If fundraising efforts are successful, the committee hopes to begin building the structure by the end of this summer.

Ding notes that the pavilion could help educate the new generation of Chinese who are coming to the wine country.

"We can see a lot of investors from China. They purchase wineries. They purchase properties. That is the reason why we want to build this kind of physical structure, to remind the people, remind them of the history, who we are. Where we came from."

I'm John Russell.

Elizabeth Lee wrote this story for VOANews.com. John Russell adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

vineyard – n. a field where grapes are grown

winery – n. a place where wine is made

premium – adj. of high or higher than normal quality

pavilion – n. a building in a park or garden that usually has open sides and is used for parties, concerts, or other events

managementn. the act of supervising or directing something

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