A History of Chinese Americans in California:
Ken Ying Low Restaurant
The Ken Ying Low Restaurant is located in the city of San Jose. It is a long, narrow, two-story wooden building, 25 feet wide by 138 feet long. Its original portion may have been constructed as early as 1887, but during its early years, it underwent numerous changes and additions to adapt it to current taste and different functions. The front portion has walls of horizontal shiplap boards, while the walls of the sides and rear sections are of vertical boards.
The facade has a false front, with a corniced parapet. A second-story door, flanked by two windows, opens onto a cantilevered balcony covered by a barrel-vaulted roof, which runs parallel to the building's face. Wooden pillars support the barrel-vaulted roof, the edge of which has sockets for nine light bulbs that once lit up the facade of the building. The balcony has a simple iron railing. A neon sign reading "Ken Ying Low Chop Suey" projects from it. The balcony and lighting features are of the type common to 1920s and 1930s chop suey restaurants.
The building faces east. The ground floor of the facade has three doors of various sizes and one window, which are unrelated in design to the second floor of the facade. The facade is painted white with red trim, while rear portions of the building are unpainted.
San Jose was the gateway to the southern mines for Chinese immigrants during the 1850s. They traveled by water to the port of Alviso (now part of San Jose), and continued overland to the mines after picking up supplies in San Jose. Gradually, a Chinese American community developed around Market and San Fernando streets in San Jose. As the city grew, city officials became concerned that the Chinese occupied such valuable land in the central business district. On March 8, 1887, the city council discussed the "abatement" of Chinatown, and instructed its lawyers to find a legal means of removing the Chinese to the edge of the city.
On May 4, 1887, a fire started in Chinatown. According to a local newspaper, "a well-known fireman says that he was one of the first men at the fire and when he arrived flames were issuing from three different points in wooden Chinatown, as if an incendiary had been at work." By coincidence, the 10,000-gallon water tank in Chinatown that supplied water to extinguish fires was almost empty when the fire started. Many Chinese lost all their possessions and were financially ruined. After the fire, they were not allowed to rebuild at the same locations.
Relocation of Chinatown was difficult because of laws that had been passed to prevent the Chinese from owning land in California. However, the property at Sixth and Taylor Streets was leased from John Heinlen through the Quong Hin Hoon Company for about $1,500 a month. This new Chinatown was subsequently referred to as Heinlenville. It flourished at the turn of the century, but nearby residents protested its growth, and home protective associations were formed to oust the Chinese from the district.
In 1931, many brick buildings of the 44-year-old Chinatown were torn down in order to provide for expansion of the Department of Public Works. One of the buildings scheduled for demolition was the Temple of Five Immortals. Some members of the Hip Sing Tong raised funds to hire attorney Gerald S. Chargin in an attempt to save the temple. This was the beginning of an 18-year struggle. All efforts to save the temple eventually failed, however, and in May 1949 it was demolished.
Today, there is no Chinatown in San Jose. The only trace of those early Chinese pioneers who played an essential role in development of the mines, orchards, railroads, vegetable and flower fields, and other businesses and industries around San Jose are the Ken Ying Low Restaurant and two vacant buildings. These buildings are endangered by proposed commercial development supported by both the local businessman's association and the San Jose Tourist Bureau, which seeks to bring in foreign business investment and to establish a uniform (non-Chinese) theme for the neighborhood.
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