Ah Fook
Cover Stories

The Hidden Legacy of Santa Cruz’s Chinatown

Uncovering the fate of one of historic Chinatown’s most famous residents reveals the harsh realities faced by his community

Ah Fook from 1941 courtesy Skip Littlefield Archive/Santa Cruz Seaside Company.

“Ah Fook was born to fish…For Santa Cruzans not to know him is comparable to a mountaineer spending a lifetime within five miles of Yosemite Valley and never taking the trouble to view the wonders of its waterfalls.”

 — Warren “Skip” Littlefield, Santa Cruz Evening-News, 1941

Ah Fook may be the biggest, most badass ghost in Santa Cruz County history. A hungry ghost?  Maybe. Angry? He could be—maybe even should be—but I don’t think so. He seems to have a perennially beatific smile on his face, as though he’s got a big cosmic secret hidden somewhere in his soul, and one of these days he’s going to let us all in on the joke.

One thing’s for certain: Ah Fook’s ghost is tenacious as hell. He’s got pure neon tenacity running through his phantasmal veins.

Raised during a time in local history when immigrants of Chinese descent were branded as subhuman or worse, the person—or more accurately the character—who today we call Ah Fook, or Cheung Ah Fook, witnessed an ugly brew of hatred, racism, violence and xenophobia that cast him and others in his community to the shadowy margins of 19th-century Santa Cruz society. Let’s not pull any punches: the xenophobic Yankee power structure in Santa Cruz did everything it could to drive the Chinese out of town.

In one legendary editorial appearing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1879, close to the year that Ah Fook was born, Chinese immigrants were described as “half-human, half-devil, rat-eating, rag-wearing, law-ignoring, Christian civilization-hating, opium-smoking, labor-degrading, entrail-sucking Celestials.”

So much for subtleties. The anti-Chinese movement in Santa Cruz was as racist and vicious as it was anywhere in the West.

And while the Chinese played an absolutely critical role in the economic development of Santa Cruz County (and the rest of California for that matter), their roles in the region’s expansive mythology have often been relegated to faceless stereotypes as railroad workers and laundrymen, their lives tossed carelessly (and ceaselessly) on the ash heap of history.

As Cabrillo College historian emeritus Sandy Lydon wrote in his definitive Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Region: “Though the Chinese are not explicitly mentioned in the local and regional histories, if you hold each page to the light you can make out a faint pattern. The longer you look, the stronger the pattern becomes. The Chinese are in the very paper; they are the watermark.”

Ah Fook’s lined, weathered face surely appears in the patterns on those pages.

cover-photo-additional-weaving-1928

 In the 1940s, when most of his elder American Chinese compatriots were left lurking in the shadows of Santa Cruz’s final Chinatown, Ah Fook became something of a local celebrity, appearing on the front pages of newspapers and calendars, promotional brochures and advertising billboards. For the next decade and more, even into the sanitized 1950s, he appeared regularly as a character in newspaper columns, with various details of his life recorded on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

And then he mysteriously disappeared. His death went unnoticed, and more surprisingly, seemingly unrecorded. After being a media darling and public figure here for the better part of two decades, his passing, rather shockingly, went unreported. His spirit vanished. His memory became an apparition.

Then, two generations later, he returned again. As interest in local Chinese history experienced a resurgence with the publication of Lydon’s work in the 1980s, he appeared in movies and later on the cover of the book Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee, which I edited and co-wrote with my friends Lisa Liu Grady, Tony Hill, James D. Houston, Morton Marcus, George Ow Jr., and Lydon. In the cover image, Ah Fook is holding the 7-year-old Ow with his weathered hands as though he is hanging onto the future.

Just this past spring, Ah Fook returned again. He had a cameo in Tessa Hulls’ fascinating exhibit at the MAH, Chasing Ghosts, which chronicled her own family’s migration to the U.S. along with the history of Santa Cruz’s various Chinese communities.

Ow, who spent the first seven years of his life raised in the final Santa Cruz Chinatown, has gone so far to suggest, at least casually, that a footbridge crossing the San Lorenzo River, in a project spearheaded by Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council, be renamed in his honor.

“Ah Fook is not letting Santa Cruz forget about its Chinese history,” says Ow. “I can feel his positive energy. He wants the spirits of the old Chinese men and women who never got their due to be remembered, honored and recognized. He won’t be denied.”

Ah Fook’s ghost is tenacious indeed.

Most Santa Cruzans give you a long, blank stare when you talk about the city’s Chinatown and its myriad Chinese historical roots. There’s good reason for that. There are few remnants of this history to be found anywhere in the community, save for a relatively hidden plaque on the Galleria Building downtown and the recently constructed and colorful memorial Chinese gate located in the Evergreen Cemetery, which is overseen by MAH. Not much else.

But in the 1800s, Santa Cruz County claimed major Chinatowns in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville, along with several smaller Chinese communities scattered from Davenport up the San Lorenzo Valley and the California Powder Works (today Paradise Park), and south to Capitola (New Brighton Beach) and the Pajaro River.

 The City of Santa Cruz actually had four distinct Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were located on the periphery of the city’s downtown economic center. The first was located on what was then known as Willow St. (today Pacific Ave.), between Walnut Ave. and Lincoln St. The second stretched along Front St., from just below the current site of the Post Office down along what is now the Comerica Bank property. The third, Blackburn’s Chinatown, was located along the west side of Chestnut St., just south of Laurel, above what is today Depot Park. 

These so-called Chinatowns were largely bachelor communities (Santa Cruz had the lowest percentage of Chinese women in the region) and many of the men worked as servants for upper-middle class families residing in the city’s stately Victorian homes.  Others worked in laundries and in vegetable gardens scattered around the city; still others developed the region’s commercial fishing and agricultural industries; while a handful operated small businesses and retail stores, importing mercantile items from China.

It would be a bit of an overstatement to describe the Santa Cruz County Chinese immigrant economy as thriving, but it was as industrious as it was persistent. At its peak in the 1890s, U.S. Census figures indicate that nearly five percent of the county’s population was composed of Chinese immigrants.

In Santa Cruz, the city’s final Chinese community—known as “Birkenseer’s Chinatown” on Bellvue Place and, later, China Lane—was nestled between the San Lorenzo River and the city’s downtown business district, just east of Front St. (running into Cooper St.), and sloping into the San Lorenzo River.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Birkenseer’s Chinatown was known largely for its underground activities—gambling and prostitution, rum running (during Prohibition) and drug dealing, with opium and heroin being the drugs of choice. References in the local newspapers were almost exclusively from arrests and police raids. Graft was omnipresent and bribes the currency du jour. Scandal was always lurking in the shadows. Chinatown had a hard edge.

The 1940 Federal Census of downtown Santa Cruz indicates that there were still more than 60 residents of Chinese descent living in Chinatown on the eve of World War II. Nearly all were men, though George Ow’s maternal grandmother, Gue She Lee, lived there along with her husband, Sung Si Lee, and several children, including Ow’s mother, Emily. His father, George Ow Sr., lived there as well.

Living next door to the Lee family, at what was commonly known as the Joss House—which was operated by the Gee Chong Tong (Chinese Freemasons), along the edge of the San Lorenzo River—was a handful of elderly men. One of them, according to everyone I’ve interviewed over the last 40 years, was Ah Fook. And that is the name by which residents of Chinatown referenced him in the 1940s and beyond. It is how Ow and his uncle Jun Lee, now 83, reference him to this day.

But in the 1940 census, there is no one listed by that name living in the Joss House—or anywhere else in Chinatown, for that matter. This presents one of the great problems in tracking down Chinese biographies and personal historical details of American Chinese in the 19th and early 20th centuries: individuals often went by different names—sometimes a dozen or more.

 Chinese emigrating to the U.S. often did so as “paper sons” or “paper daughters,” purchasing fraudulent documents claiming blood relations to those legally living in the U.S. They changed their names to match the documents, often more than once. This was a common practice until well into the 20th century. And it’s a secret still held closely by many Chinese American families living in the U.S. for more than a century. Add to that the racist ignorance of U.S. immigration officials, census takers, court officials, peace officers, journalists and others who butchered Chinese names.

Then there was the matter of protecting one’s identity and sowing confusion among those who maintained power. The novelist Maxine Hong Kingston once told me the story of how her father, who ran a gambling house in Stockton’s Chinatown not unlike those located in Santa Cruz, changed his name on each occasion that he was arrested, which was often. He never got a record, she said, because he changed his name every time. Sometimes the name came to him in the back of the police car; sometimes when he was getting booked. “I got away with all those aliases,” her father told her, “because the white demons can’t tell one Chinese name from another, or one face from another.”

George Ow told me that his own father went by at least a half-dozen different names during his lifetime. “For many,” he said, “it was simply a matter of expediency, convenience, or survival.”

 The three men listed in the 1940 Census as living in the Joss House were Yee Chin, Mon L. Chin, and Lam Lee. An article appearing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in November of the following year noted that two men had just left the structure—Un Hay and Lee Lem—and that three remained—Ah Jim, Lem Bach, and Ah Fook, the latter of whom was identified as a “chair repairer and fisherman.”

 Earlier that year, Ah Fook had caught the literary imagination of one of Santa Cruz’s most colorful promotional figures of that or any era, Warren “Skip” Littlefield, who then served as the publicity director of the Santa Cruz Beach Company, better known as the Boardwalk. I knew Littlefield well as a young adult (he died in 1985), and discussed local history with him as often as I could, but I don’t remember him ever talking about Ah Fook.

That said, on the first day of spring, 1941, Littlefield turned Ah Fook into a full-blown character (and perhaps a bit of a caricature, too) in Santa Cruz media, and even in publications outside the community. In a front-page story appearing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel entitled “Fishing Comes First, Work Comes Last With Ah Fook, Venerable Angler on S.C. Municipal Pier,” Littlefield introduced Ah Fook to the community.

Accompanied by a large photograph of Ah Fook fishing from the end of the wharf, the article described its subject as a “peppery little Chinaman,” his face “weathered to the color of driftwood” with “piercing brown eyes, fanned with wrinkles from squinting over sunny waters” that “will suddenly sparkle like diamonds when a 12-inch jack smelt whips line and pole into agitated motion.”

Ah Fook, Littlefield assured readers, “has never been known to allow business to stand in the way of pleasure.”

Littlefield had obviously done some homework. He described Ah Fook’s living quarters in Chinatown—“an old wood cooking stove and a mid-Victorian bed provide help in the simple operations of sleeping and eating”—and Ah Fook’s complementary employment of repairing reed and rattan chairs in some detail, pointing out that he had learned his trade from “an American woman in Oakland,” and that he purchased his materials through a “Chinese concern” in San Francisco that he “paid every Chinese New Year.”

Littlefield’s portrait certainly catered to Chinese American stereotypes typical of the times. But Littlefield also conducted an interview with Ah Fook with a formal interpreter present that elicited some fascinating information about his familial roots in Santa Cruz. It also underscored the fact that the often nameless, faceless elderly men who lived in the shadows of Chinatown had fully rendered and complex lives of their own.

According to Littlefield’s interview, Ah Fook’s father arrived in Santa Cruz on the sailing ship Alexander in February of 1857, and later worked for railroad baron Leland Stanford as a foreman on the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1876, Littlefield asserted, “the elder Fook… procured Chinese labor gangs to build [Frederick Augustus] Hihn’s railroad from Santa Cruz to Watsonville.”

I wasn’t able to verify any of these precise details, but in respect to Littlefield’s assertion about Hihn, I asked my friend Stan Stevens—a librarian emeritus at UCSC, and an expert on all things related to Hihn—if he was in possession of any such records, and he sent me back the transcript of an agreement from 1881 between Hihn and an “Ah Kay,” in which the latter agreed to supply Hihn with a “gang of [C]hinamen of about twenty eight (28) men for five months” for the purpose of “building roads and grubbing land.”

 Eight months later, in November of 1941, Littlefield reworked his Ah Fook story, this time for the Santa Cruz Evening News, with banner headlines in the Sunday paper declaring “$1200-a-ton Soup Fin Sharks Tempt Ah Fook.” The subhead proclaimed: “Ancient Fisherman In Tiny Skiff Promises ‘Me Catch ’Im Big One.’”

Once again, a large portrait of Littlefield’s smiling subject accompanied the story —this time with him mending chairs—and there were similar references to his father, his history with Hihn and his love of fishing. This time, he was aiming to make big money by landing the prized shark.

From that point on, Ah Fook was a local media maven. Littlefield promoted him yet a third time, in September of 1942, with headlines proclaiming “Now He Can Fish Once More.” In the early months of World War II, with anti-Japanese (and anti-Asian) sentiment in the region at a fevered pitch, Ah Fook had been prohibited from fishing in local waters (or even off the local pier).

Fred Castagnola of the General Fish Corporation took him down to Monterey to meet with the regional military commander, who cleared Ah Fook for fishing—making him, according to Littlefield, “the only Celestial fisherman in California coastal waters” thus permitted.

The second Santa Cruz scribe to pick up Ah Fook’s cause was Ernest Otto, the dean of not only Santa Cruz journalists, but of all California newspaper reporters. Born in Santa Cruz in 1871, Otto started his career as a 10-year-old delivery boy at the Santa Cruz Surf in 1881, advanced to a reporter while still in his teens, then continued with the Sentinel in 1919, where he remained until his death in 1955.

Otto’s regular “Waterfront” column kept close tabs of Ah Fook’s activities. He reported his catches regularly—mostly jack smelt, perch, mackerel, king fish, gopher cod and lingcod—and also on his health. If he didn’t fish, Otto reported that as well. On July 31, 1952, after a hiatus of nearly three years, Otto reported: “Ah Fook, the well-known Chinese fisherman, was at the end of the wharf yet again yesterday—his first visit there for a long time.”

Three months later, in October of 1952, Otto noted: “Some jack smelt were caught. The high catch was by Ah Fook, the Chinese, who had a pail of jack smelt as usual.”

That was the last time Otto, or anyone else, reported on Ah Fook while he was still alive. There was never an obituary under his name, nor a death notice.

Ah Fook vanished without a trace.

DESERVING OF A CLOSER LOOK Ah Fook, circa 1941, as photographed by legendary Santa Cruz photographer George Lee. Courtesy Chinatown Dreams.

Ah Fook, circa 1941, as photographed by legendary Santa Cruz photographer George Lee. Courtesy Chinatown Dreams.

More than a decade later, on July 21, 1963, a familiar face reappeared in the pages of the Sentinel, this time in an article on the history of Chinese fishing in the region by Mildred Ann Smith. Smith mentioned the varied accounts of Ah Fook fishing on the Santa Cruz waterfront, and in the last line of her story mentioned that he had “died a few years ago at the county hospital.”

That was the only reference to his death I ever found.

For several decades now, I have been trying to figure out what happened to Ah Fook. None of the old residents of Chinatown could remember.  “I don’t have a last memory of him,” Ow recalled. “The memory of him just faded away.”

Finally, out of a sense of final desperation in putting together this story, I went to search the County Recorder’s archive of vital records. The Death Index had been upgraded significantly since I had last been there in the early 2000s, and I decided to broaden my search to include any Chinese men older than 70 who had died within five years of the 1963 date referenced by Smith. I also added the last name of Cheung—or a close facsimile thereof—to my search.

I came across several possibilities, and one that initially seemed a good shot named Ying Chong Chin, but he was only 65 when he died and had lived in Santa Cruz County only 35 years. Just when I was about to give up, I discovered the name of Chung Git, who had died in Santa Cruz in September of 1958.

The information about his life corresponded in general terms with the outline established by Littlefield two decades earlier. I then recalled another brief newspaper clipping from 1942, in which Otto referenced Ah Fook by a slightly different name: “Gin Chet Ah Fook, the Chinese character who spends much time about the wharf and also mends chairs, is the proud possessor of his commercial license and proudly shows the card with his picture and finger prints.”

“Gin Chet” and “Chung Git” were close enough in the Chinese name game. I was all but certain this was him.

His listed cause of death also explained why his demise might have gone unnoted and the details of his life unexplained: he died of heart disease caused by “generalized artereosclerosis with senile dementia.” Emphasis added. Ah Fook had outlived all of his generation, and he had lost his memory. He could not tell his story. Ernest Otto had died. And there was nobody else to tell it.

The death certificate listed the burial site of the person identified as Chung Git (and I believe Ah Fook) as Oakwood Memorial Park, on Paul Sweet Road, just west of Dominican Hospital. I have many friends and a handful of family buried there, so I am fairly familiar with the terrain. 

 On Monday of last week, I went out to visit Oakwood, where memorial counselor Leonard Robideaux kindly checked to see if there were any records listed under Chung Git’s name. He returned with “both good news and bad news.” The good news was that he had found the decedent’s burial record, but that he was buried in a large, unmarked area of the cemetery where the indigent had been laid to rest without grave markers. The site was listed as “Block#6, Division B, Grave #318 (County).”

A couple of oak trees cast shade over portions of the site, but other than a trio of scattered markers, the site is unimproved. The weeds that grow there are mowed occasionally throughout the year to abate fire hazards.

I walked the entire grounds, looking for ghosts, and somewhere beneath my steps rested the grave of Ah Fook. His site may be unmarked, but his spirit remains strong and tenacious. Someday soon, I sense, he and the other forgotten Chinese men and women of his generation are going to receive their due. The prized soup fin shark may have eluded him, but respect and recognition will not.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Jeanne Marvine

    December 2, 2019 at 6:53 am

    Dear Mr. Dunn,

    I just read an article that you wrote in 2007 titled Brick At Bat about William “Brick” Devereaux. I wanted to write to you and thank you for the care and research you put into this article. William Devereaux was my Great Grandfather. I never really knew him as I was born in 1957 and he died in 58’, however I grew up with my mother telling stories of her famous grandfather the ball player. It was really fun to read the stories and have confirmed what I had always been told. Brick was evidently quite a character and my mother loved him dearly. She actually spent several years living with her grandparents and had very fond memories of her time with them. I believe they were living in Richmond at that point in time. Anyway, I hope this email gets to you and thank you again for bringing this to life for me. Our connections to the past disappear unless someone takes the time to write it down. Perhaps one day that red hair will pop up in one of my grandchildren and I will know exactly where it came from and I can tell them all about their famous ball playing great great great grandfather!

  2. bardo

    July 14, 2019 at 10:44 am

    What a wonderful, informative and touching article! Thank you for your continuing dedication to the history of the Chinese in this area and your sensitive, evocative writing. I imagine Ah Fook smiling in reply.

  3. Hai Pan

    July 11, 2019 at 10:50 pm

    Dear Mr. Geoffrey Dunn,
    Your article is so touching that it rouses my interests in pursuiting this period of history as a Chinese immigrant. I did finish reading Sandy Lydon’s book of Chinese Gold ( both English and Chinese versions) couple months ago. So we might have a lot of common sense to share with and if you feel continent any time you are welcome to contact me both by my cellphone ( 8312392286) or email [email protected],yahoo.com ).
    Thank you !

    Sincerely,
    Hai Pan

  4. Tony

    July 10, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    Sarah Burke’s husband was from Santa Cruz. Sarah was given a sanity hearing when she wanted to marry a Chinese man. http://www.frederickbee.com/sarahburke.html

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