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March 25, 2009 > Exhibit features contributions of Bay Area Chinese

Exhibit features contributions of Bay Area Chinese

By Suzanne Ortt

Visualize 800 Chinese laborers opening tunnels through the San Leandro hills in 1874. Imagine bits and pieces of their lives buried in these same hills. See those pieces on display at Cal State East Bay's Smith Museum of Anthropology.

"Forgotten Contributions of the Bay Area Chinese" emphasizes the lifestyles and customs of approximately 800 men. An Anthropology and Museums class led by Dr. George Miller constructed the project, which began in the fall with a library display and expanded into the exhibit in the intimate setting of the Smith Museum. Twenty-eight graduate and undergraduate students participated, as did Miller, anthropology instructor and museum director; Marjorie Rhodes-Ousley, associate museum director; and Tristan von Dessauer, museum exhibit coordinator.

Begin the self-guided tour by viewing the glass case of artifacts uncovered by San Francisco Muni workers while building a tunnel three stories down. Miller and his college crew were called in and found a multitude of items buried in mud. Highlights include a wooden cribbage board and a lacquered wood handle, probably from a fan.

An instructive timeline and placards provide historical details. Learn about the discrimination dominant in communities around the immigrants. Consider the impact on Chinese laborers who worked for low wages. Additional relevant data is shown on monitors around the rooms.

Venture to the back room. Take time to explore artifacts uncovered in 1980 during work on the Lake Chabot Reservoir. Most of the exhibits pertain to the Chinese Labor Camp, Yama-Po (meaning Wild Horse Slope), near San Leandro Creek. Workers climbed the steep ravine to work on the tunnels and dam. Cave-ins and explosions caused six known fatalities. A plaque dedicated to four fallen immigrants is placed near the entrance of one tunnel. The project's objective and the Chinese laborers' contribution were to provide water to Oakland and San Leandro from 1874 until the late 1930s.

Vestiges of food include remains of pond turtles, sheephead fish and catfish. One cabinet contains rice wine bottles, including one with the original label, water jars and similar storage containers. At the camp, cooking was done on a brick structure with three cooking spots, each large enough for an industrial wok. Eighty workers could be fed at a time. One student created authentic-looking bricks of Styrofoam and assembled a facsimile of the cooking structure. Behind it, a photograph shows the ruins of the original cooker.

Laborers gambled and played games during their leisure time. Tokens and coins were found. An opium display reveals another use of free time. Tired as these men may have been, entertainment was welcomed.

Hands-on activities are part of the exploring. A sand table with scoops offers a chance to be an anthropologist. On one table, a game is ready to be played.

Extend your tour by visiting the DNA exhibit: Life in the Ice Age, located in an adjoining room.

A worthy follow-up is the history walk at Lake Chabot. This trail, constructed as an Eagle Scout project, has 11 stops. Stop # 7 and stop # 9 pertain to the Yama-Po Camp. A pamphlet, History Walk at Lake Chabot, is available at the park kiosk.

A suggestion - put at least 90 minutes on the parking meter.


Forgotten Contributions of the Bay Area Chinese
Weekdays, April 1 - June 12
10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Smith Museum of Anthropology
Cal State East Bay
4047 Meiklejohn Hall
25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward
(510) 885-7414

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