Tustin Ranchers Depended on Chinese Workers

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads brought the first Chinese into Southern California to lay track as the companies crisscrossed the area with rail lines.

After the tracks were completed many of the men stayed on. In 1880 Los Angeles had a Chinese population of 1,117. Stephen Gould in writing "Chinese in Tustin" noted that ranchers in Tustin and the outlying areas often took an all-day trip into Los Angeles with a wagon, stayed over night, and returned the next day with 20 to 25 laborers.

These men would work for several months, living in tents provided by the ranchers, moving from ranch to ranch as needed. They were paid a $1.50 a day for doing jobs such as picking up walnuts, stacking hay, currying horses and cleaning barns. The Irvine Ranch employed 40 to 50 Chinese on a regular basis, paying them $9 per week.

When Southern Pacific extended their line into Tustin from Anaheim, they employed between 70 and 100 Chinese. They were housed in railroad cars near the SP section house close to the Southern Pacific station on Newport between Main and Laguna Road.

Some of the men stayed on after they were no longer needed by the railroad. Six or eight of them found work at the Red Packing House next to the depot. William Huntley, who came to Tustin in 1889, recalled this packing house some 75 years later as small for a packing house, probably 30 by 75 feet, but not too small for use in packing the small quantity of oranges grown in the community at that time.

The Chinese workers washed the fruit as needed and packed it, selecting fruit of fairly uniform size for each box.

"These (workers) lived in tents and shacks made of scrap lumber during the packing season. Some people objected to their working here and one of them was shot in the leg one night. I don't think they ever found out who did it."

Other Chinese grew vegetables on 20 or 30 acres on the south side of Main, about where the Saddleback Mortuary stands today. Later they had garden plots known as China Gardens. on Yorba north of First Street. The produce was sold door to door in Tustin and the nearby area.

Old-timers recalled the men as hard working, starting early in the morning and working until dark with a break only for lunch and tea. They lived in small shacks clustered around a mess hall and a bathhouse. They were thought to be extremely clean even though they slept on the floor.

Eight or 10 Chinese men operated a laundry on the west side of D St. (El Camino Real) near Third. The workers were divided into "washers," "hanger outers" and "ironers." Clothes were scrubbed on washboards, washed and rinsed in large tubs and hung to dry on lines behind the laundry. This laundry was later replaced by a much smaller laundry on the corner of First and B.

Laundry workers, like those at the packing house and the truck gardens, stuck together, avoiding the other residents of Tustin and living in small shacks close to their work. They wore long queues and maintained their identity in both clothing including the coolie-type hat and habits. Although it is estimated that as many as 100 or 200 Chinese lived in Tustin during the late 18880s, they moved on, leaving little trace of their existence.



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