Archeology and Artifacts: Digging up the Past

The Sonoma State University ASC crew.The Sonoma State University ASC crew. Director Adrian Praetzellis is second row from the front on the far right.



The day before archeologists uncovered the Ng Shing Gung Temple foundation, one of the Sonoma State graduate students working on the San José dig asked a local historian how to make an offering at the temple. Connie Young Yu, a Chinese-American historian whose grandfather owned a general store there long ago, explained that fruit and incense would be placed on an altar of the Five Gods Temple. Student Chelsea Rose then placed two tangerines on the ground where old insurance maps had indicated they would find the temple.

“The next day Chelsea said ‘Guess what, we found the foundation!’ ”
SSU’s Anthropological Studies Center (ASC), under contract with the City of San José, is studying the archeology and history of what once was Heinlenville (a Chinese community) and Nihonmachi (Japantown). The study will pave the way for a residential-commercial development on the city’s former corporation yard. Asian communities lived and did business there between 1887 and 1931. Most buildings were torn down after the residents moved away; the temple was demolished in 1949.

ASC staff member Charles MikulikASC staff member Charles Mikulik brushes dirt from the grinding stone uncovered during the San José excavation.

ASC’s exploratory 10-day excavation of the site last March included a well-attended public open house aimed at showcasing the dig and some of the findings. Digging resumes this fall, according to ASC Director Adrian Praetzellis.

Praetzellis said he hopes backyard artifacts from the Heinlenville-Nihonmachi site will reveal how people living in the area at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century adapted to American life. He also expects this dig will lead to at least a couple of master’s theses. Artifacts, he said, can answer questions such as: What did residents do with their backyard spaces? How did the Chinese adapt ready-made homes to their lifestyle? Did they add structures? How did the Japanese build? What were their lives like?

Yu says almost 20 years ago when she began work on her book, “Chinatown, San Jose, USA,” she spoke with people whose families had lived in Heinlenville and adjacent Nihonmachi. She has numerous photographs and family treasures. The Heinlenville dig is exciting, she says, as the archeology gives proof that the community was really there.

“It was really something to see the backhoe take up a piece of earth and in that earth would be a crock that belonged to my grandmother,” Yu said.

According to Yu, most of the excavated artifacts are small because Heinlenville residents moved away and took their belongings. The only big item left was a beautiful stone probably used for grinding beans for rice cakes – too heavy to be moved, she noted.

Although she had already researched San Jose’s Chinese communities extensively, she heard additional anecdotes at the open house. Vince Chin, an elderly man told her how he used to peek through the slats of the wall separating his family’s store from her grandfather’s. When she inquired what her grandmother was doing, he answered, ‘Making whisky!’

Some of the found artifactsSome of the found artifacts such as a bone toothbrush and bits and pieces of ceramic teapots, plates and other dishware.

Yu told Chin that her grandmother had fought an enormous fine for her bootlegging. Vince’s explanation was that people across the street with a house of prostitution and gambling thought that turning someone in for bootlegging would keep the cops away.

Erin Davenport, who is taking time from her archeological technician job at Yosemite National Park to earn a master’s degree at Sonoma State University in cultural resource management, said the open house was the highlight of working on the ASC job. She also noted that it was SSU’s focus on cultural resources management that attracted her to the anthropology program in the first place.

Davenport said her 92-year-old grandmother, whose parents had emigrated from Japan, attended the Heinlenville open house. The visit sparked memories of Chinese-Americans she knew as a child in Oakland.

Before the ASC team is finished at the site, plans may also be set in motion for other public outreach projects – oral history interviews, videos, exhibits or even an Asian garden, according to Praetzellis. Yu hopes part of the brick foundation of the temple can be incorporated into a lobby or community area. “It was the heart of the community,” she noted.

Pottery shards, medicinal vials, grinding stones, bones and other artifacts from the site will eventually go to the City of San José. Meanwhile, anthropologists are analyzing them in a building at the northeast corner of the SSU campus.

Rut Ballesteros of Spain and other students agree that SSU offers a unique opportunity to study cultural resource management by combining theory and practice.

ASC staff member Sandra MasseyASC staff member Sandra Massey joins others in sifting for treasures.

“The most amazing thing that this University has is the ASC,” said Ballesteros, noting that in her first year at SSU she has worked on almost a dozen sites. “There’s nowhere else you can do this,” she said. “At other universities, by the time you can work on a site, you have already forgotten what you learned in the first few years.”

Yu said she didn’t think of anyone working on the site as a student. “I felt they were experts… they knew what they were doing. They knew the techniques and they were just as excited as I was,” she said. At the open house, Yu said, all of them spoke with great passion and worked long hours. The next day, she celebrated with them by serving the SSU archeology team a ceremonial meal of tsai, a Chinese dish of moss, lichen, gingko nuts, bok choy, vermicelli and oyster sauce. Yu sees some irony in the situation. The city now paying for the excavation is eager to learn whatever possible from the refuse and latrines of a community that former city fathers scorned, excluded and brutalized.

For ongoing information about this ASC project, see: http://heinlenville-
nihonmachi.blogspot.com
.