Published in The Vacaville Reporter

Reflecting on the Chinese-American experience in Vacaville

January 8, 2023

Yee Ah Chong, whose father ran a small restaurant and sold lottery tickets in Vacaville in the 1890s, was one of the first Chinese-Americans born in Vacaville.

His father, to ensure that fact could not be disputed, even had certificates of citizenship drawn up and signed by the town's notables, Yee said more than 75 years later.

"My family was the first Chinese family to come to Vacaville," Yee told historian Ronald Limbaugh, starting off the interview. "There were a lot of Chinese at that time, but there were not a lot of Chinese families in Vacaville. We were the first ones to come here."

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Yee died in 1978, within a year after he sat down with Limbaugh in February 1977 to talk about Vacaville’s early Chinese community.

The tapes of the interview are deposited at the Holt-Atherton Pacific Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton along with all of Limbaugh’s other interviews of early Vacaville residents.

Limbaugh conducted the interviews as part of the City of Vacaville’s bicentennial history project which included the publication of Vacaville: The Heritage of a California Community in 1978.

Yee’s father, Yee Gim Wo, his wife and a baby daughter arrived in Vacaville in 1891 from Sebastopol.

The first family member to come to California was Yee’s grandfather, who arrived in the 1850s from a village not far from Canton, now known as Guangzhou, to look for gold.

“He wanted $200 in gold to go back and buy some land. So he did it. He came and stayed a year or so, got his $200 and went home,” Yee said.

The former Hi Chung Laundry in Vacaville. (Courtesy photo, Vacaville Heritage Council)

When railroad agents arrived in China to look for laborers in 1866 or 1867 “my grandfather told my dad, ‘you go over. That’s a wonderful country.’ “

Yee’s father first arrived in 1867, worked long enough to get enough money to go back to China in about 1890 to pick a wife, and then came back in 1891 to San Francisco. After the birth of a daughter, they moved to Sebastopol for a couple of months and then to Vacaville. Yee was born in Vacaville in 1901, the next to youngest of seven in the family.

“Well, my father had a little restaurant (with a noodle factory in the basement). He came here and there were quite a few Chinese and he thought, well, maybe he’d come here and make a kind of little Chinese restaurant,” Yee said.

Yee described the restaurant that was located at the corner of Kendall and Dobbins streets as “not like our restaurants no, but he made noodles and noodle-like tidbits, snack things.” It earned him the nickname of Old Noodle Tom.

Yee’s father made most of his money selling Chinese lottery tickets for one of the two lottery companies in town. Most of the customers were Japanese, Yee said.

“My father, before he got too crippled up, I used to walk with him when I was a little kid. When he could find a buck, he’d hire a cart, a horse and cart from the livery stable and go around to these ranches and sell tickets,” Yee said.

Although Yee described his father as being “belligerent and ornery,” and not well liked by the rest of the Chinese community, “the whites thought he was wonderful as gold.” Yee said that was because he had a reputation for being honest and trustworthy, and spoke better English “than anyone in town so he was the town interpreter.”

His father’s belligerence spurred one person to attempt to kill him, crawling under a high wooden sidewalk to lay in ambush. “He shot him through a crack in the board and hit him in the arm,” Yee said, adding, “He lived and had two or three kids after that.”

Yee’s father died in March 1915 and was initially buried in the Chinese section of the Suisun-Fairfield Cemetery. His remains were later moved to San Francisco where he is buried with his wife.

The east side of Ulatis Creek across from where Andrews Park is now where Yee’s family and a couple other Chinese lived.

“Then in 1892, I think it was when the earthquake hit and shook down the college. In 1895, they took those bricks and built a row of houses on the south side of Kendall (sic) Street and all the Chinese moved there,” Yee said.

Yee described his house as “a big tin roof thing and it was divided off in the middle for two families.” It has a parlor where they sold lottery tickets, a room for his parents and a room for all the kids. There was a yard in the back for a garden and “you could raise a few chickens.”

“Next to us was a big ABC store, the Japanese grocery, the ABC Company. It was a big tin building. They (the buildings) were all tin. In the summer time, they were really hot,” Yee said.

Yee noted that the Japanese lived on the west side of the street while the Chinese lived on the east where “there was us, an old Chinese laundryman, the original Gum Moon restaurant, and another old Chinese man.”

Many of the buildings of Vacaville’s Chinatown were still there when Yee left in about 1930.

“There was a Humble oil station on the corner of Dobbins and Monte Vista,” Yee said. “That was the original Chinatown there you see. There were two or three buildings there.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act and other anti-immigration legislation made things tougher for the Chinese community.

“We couldn’t own land and you couldn’t hold a government job. You couldn’t become a citizen, unless you were born here you know, and that wasn’t taken off the statutes until about 1950,” Yee said.

In order for the family to buy a house in 1923, Yee had to show his certificate of citizenship which stated Yee was born in Vacaville.

“Well, my father was smart. He was pretty well versed in legal things. He had affidavits made,” Yee said of the American-born members of the family.

It says something of Yee’s father’s community connections that the document was witnessed by Vacaville Justice of the Peace H. Bristow, bank cashier Edward Fisher, Wells Fargo agent R. F. Ramers and druggist J.M. Miller.

Yee’s working life in Vacaville was in the fruit cutting and packing business in the orchards around town where he worked for quite a few of the area’s ranchers.

“The agricultural wealth of California, the Chinese started it,” Yee said. “They were the ones that did it.

Dollar a day, ninety cents a day labor. Like through the Delta country, all these levees were put up by the Chinese by hand. A lot of those fruit ranches were started by Chinese you know.”

He graduated quickly from field hand to packer, sorting fruit by size “to make a nice-looking pack,” getting about one to two dollars a day depending on his speed.

Many of the family members had left Vacaville to find better economic prospects, leaving Yee, his sister and mother in town by 1929 or 1930.

“So one day I said, ‘Ma, why don’t you move to San Francisco, as long as my brothers down there now.

Take sister with you because there’s nothing here for her’. So they pulled out about 1929 or 30. So I thought about me too, so I left the area.”

Yee departed for the San Joaquin Valley to work in its growing fruit business. He became what he called “a fruit tramp” working as far away as Phoenix.

He returned in 1950 to work for Ed Uhl before he pulled up his orchards to make way for development.

Yee worked for Uhl in the winter and did welding in the summer. Health problems forced his retirement in 1965 and he lived in a trailer park in Vacaville until his death.

The rest of the town’s Chinese community shrunk, too. By World War II, only three Chinese families remained in Vacaville when a wartime housing project replaced what now-dilapidated Chinese buildings remained, according to Limbaugh’s history of Vacaville.