History of Heinlenville and Nihonmachi

kids at open house

Japanese ceramic art is like a Picasso, according to Spanish anthropology student Rut Ballesteros. “There’s a mix of colors,” she explains, “and you can see something if you look hard, but it’s not as well defined as drawings on Chinese pieces.”

Ballesteros uncovered Chinese pottery shards at the Heinlenville dig last spring. Now back at the Anthropological Studies Center lab, she says she delights in cleaning and labeling Japanese pieces as well. She looks forward to the next steps – fitting pieces together and figuring out meaning for the artifacts from Heinlenville and the adjacent Japantown Nihonmachi.

One of her favorite pieces is a Chinese teacup lid. “It’s perfect – no scratches, nice shiny colors,” she said. She would be thrilled if she could piece together its cup.

Just as Chinese and Japanese ceramic styles differ, so too do their respective cultures. It’s unusual to find them intertwined in one archeological dig. However, there’s a logical reason the two diverse Asian cultures rest side-by-side in San Jose, according to Connie Young Yu, a historian whose grandfather owned a Heinlenville general store.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was high in the late 1880s. Five years after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, arsonists torched the Chinese community along San Jose’s Market Street. Ten days later, a German immigrant businessman leased five acres of pastureland to the dispossessed Chinese. John Heinlen fenced his property to protect the community that became known as Heinlenville. The Asians said the name with respect; Caucasians used it to mock the landowner.

Although Japanese could immigrate to the U.S. legally after the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically barred Chinese laborers, Yu explained that the Japanese still felt the sting of anti-Asian discrimination. Unwelcome elsewhere, Japanese men who came to work on San Jose farms found refuge in Heinlenville where established merchants offered them credit. They eventually built Japantown next to the Chinese enclave.

Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act twice, finally repealing it in 1943 when the United States and China were World War II allies. One year earlier, the United States government had forced more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent from Pacific Coast states.

Yu said that although the Heinlenville community no longer existed at that time, many Chinese-Americans in the area helped the Japanese-Americans protect their property.

Yu, a Chinese-American who sits on Japantown community committees, is proud that people from different Asian backgrounds have come together more than once in San Jose’s history. She said she admires Heinlen because the German immigrant took a huge risk leasing land to dispossessed Chinese so they could rebuild after the Market Street fire.

“A lot of people can’t quite grasp that Heinlen was so courageous,” she stated.

ASC Director Adrian Praetzellis agrees. “Perhaps the Heinlenville-Nihonmachi dig should be considered a site of conscience,” he said. “It shows how Asian immigrants faced and overcame discrimination with the help of a German immigrant.