Preserving China Alley: A Conversation with Arianne Wing and Steve Banister
In the early 1870s, the Southern Pacific Company (and the Central Pacific Railroad, which the Southern Pacific Company controlled and later acquired) was in the process of building a railway line that would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. In the mid-to-late 1870s, the town of Hanford—conveniently located about halfway between the two cities—began experiencing rapid population growth due to this railroad construction. It is here that China Alley originated.
Chinese workers played a crucial role in the construction of American railroads, but faced stifling racism and oppression, often being tasked with the most dangerous jobs and receiving significantly lower wages than their Irish and Euro-American counterparts. Those in Hanford—many of whom hailed from the larger Canton region, known today as Guangdong and home to the metropolitan port city of Guangzhou—began to settle down in the area to pursue careers in farming and agriculture after the railroad construction was complete.
As the population of Hanford continued to grow, China Alley became a vivid “city within a city,” sporting homes, boarding houses, groceries, restaurants, assorted shops, laundries, gambling establishments, a Chinese school, and a Taoist Temple—the latter of which was built in 1882.
During World War II, the population of China Alley began to decline. In 1972, the nonprofit China Alley Preservation Society (CAPS) was founded by a host of individuals, including: Dennis Triplitt, Laurence Sue, Stan Ham, William Ying, Van Low, Charles Young, Bill Dunn, Lloyd Christensen, Robert Grunwald, George Takeda, Lawrence Alexander, and Claude Hinkle, and Richard Wing. Their goal was to preserve and revitalize the heritage of Chinese and Chinese Americans in the larger Hanford, California area.
Over time, a number of the buildings in China Alley became vulnerable due to disuse, deferred maintenance, water damage, and vandalism. In 2011, China Alley was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Today China Alley features eleven historic buildings, many of which are unaltered and look just as they did over a hundred years ago.
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Unfortunately, China Alley suffered a blow in May of 2021 when the Taoist Temple Museum was heavily damaged by fire. Though the building is structurally stable, heat and smoke damaged the temple room and numerous artifacts, which continue to require significant clean up and conservation efforts.
The National Trust has supported the recovery of the Taoist Temple through a $5,000 intervention grant following the fire, and more recently the China Alley Preservation Society received a $25,000 grant from the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund grant program.
We caught up with Arianne Wing, President of the China Alley Preservation Society (CAPS), and Steve Banister, who is directing the Taoist Temple arson restoration project, to learn more about how China Alley is recovering and what their plans are for the future.
The Taoist Temple Museum was heavily damaged by fire on May 12, 2021. How extensive was the damage, and how have you been working to restore the museum over the past year?
Arianne Wing: The building, for the most part, is structurally stable, but has severe smoke and fire damage. Most artifacts suffered the same, others were completely destroyed, gone forever.
Steve Banister: All of the pewter items upstairs melted due to the high lead content. The fire started in the main stairwell. Everything above the stairwell went up in flames.
Wing: The aftermath of the fire has been a full-time job. We are dealing with insurance companies, conservators, and contractors on a near daily basis. The National Trust has been, and continues to be, immensely helpful in advising us how to move forward.
How have you been working to conserve the artifacts that were damaged in the fire, and what role has the California Preservation Foundation played in conserving these artifacts?
Banister: The day after the fire, we contacted the California Preservation Foundation for advice on how to proceed. They were able to provide us with the name of an architect and conservationist. We retained Johnson Architecture, out of Fresno, and RLA Conservation from Los Angeles. All of the relics have had an initial on-site cleaning from RLA and have been transferred to Los Angeles by Cook’s Crating for continued conservation. With the artifacts removed, Chris Johnson is able to work on a construction plan to restore the Temple and museum.
It must have been extremely upsetting to discover the extent of the damages that the fire caused. How did you cope with this initial loss?
Wing: My mother, Camille Wing, passed away six weeks prior to the fire. She was truly a dedicated and generous local historian and China Alley Preservation Society docent. She helped to open the Museum’s doors to the public in the early 1980s. Watching her love of history and preserving old buildings and their stories while growing up, planted the seeds of the importance of historic preservation—saving places—in my own soul. I wasn’t finished grieving over the loss of Mom when the fire occurred.
Watching the Temple Museum burn, smoke and fire pouring out the windows and doors is a nightmare that replays in my mind every day. The following morning when it was deemed safe enough for us to enter the Museum, Fire Chief Steve Pendergrass wanted to show us photographs so we would be aware of the extent of the damage. We declined; we were anxious to get inside the building. Nothing, not a thing, could have ever prepared me for what I saw. The first thing we saw was so much smoke and fire damage. As I began to look around and saw all that was destroyed, I could only whisper, “gone.” Then I fell to my knees and sobbed. I was torn. I wanted Mom’s comfort but at the same time I was grateful she did not have to witness the arson.
We are trying to cope with the loss every day. Community support has been wonderful. I’m thankful for my family, and I have a loving husband (Steve is my husband!).
Banister: Several weeks before the fire, our fire chief requested a tour of the Temple and other China Alley buildings for himself and his crew. Because of this tour, the fire department was intimately aware of the layout and contents of the building. Because of this, they asked our county fire department for assistance to protect the rest of China Alley. Their judicious use of water meant that there was minimal damage caused by fire suppression.
What is the best way for people to help in your restoration efforts?
Wing: We have a “donate” button on our website. Last November, the Society was the recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Trustees Emeritus Award for Historic Site Stewardship. This recognition brought much needed attention to our plight.
Banister: Also, on our website are before and after photographs of the irreplaceable relics inside the Temple.
What else is the China Alley Preservation Society working on right now?
Wing: In addition to the Temple Museum, the China Alley Preservation Society owns six other buildings and three vacant lots in Chinatown. This includes a sundries/gambling house, an old Chinese café, the Kings Hand Laundry Buildings, and an herb store.
Before the fire we were focusing on the restoration of two of these buildings. One of them was the primary Kings Hand Laundry building, a Japanese laundry that was established in 1911 and served the area for over a century. The historic site depicts the history of the Japanese in California, but desperately needs repair and preservation.
The other is the 114-year-old L.T. Sue Herb Co. building. Dr. L.T. Sue was the first Chinese herbalist in the area. This building is a museum, it is much the way it was before the shop closed in the 1950s. However, it needs a new roof. There has been considerable water damage caused by the rainy seasons.
Evelyn Yin, a Los Angeles-based artist, is creating a documentary for us. This short film will focus on the aftermath of the fire and our continuing restoration efforts. It will collect oral histories from Chinese/Americans from the region and discuss what the loss means to the community.
My roots in China Alley begin in 1883, when my great-grandfather opened his noodle house. My family has had restaurants in the Alley since 1883, until we closed our Imperial Dynasty restaurant in 2006. We had a great ride in the restaurant business, and people came from all over the world to dine in the Imperial Dynasty and visit China Alley. My uncle, Richard Wing, was the head chef and one of the founders of the China Alley Preservation Society. With the restaurant closed, the Alley seemed deserted, and yes, endangered.
Banister: In 2011 China Alley was named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” We feel we will soon not be endangered. In 2019, Arianne and I were able to purchase six buildings—the old restaurants—and vacant lots in China Alley from Arianne’s family.
The Taoist Temple Museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and the China Alley Preservation Society is currently in the process of applying for the entirety of China Alley to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Their vision is a revitalized China Alley serving as a vibrant historic destination, not an endangered place.
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