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Photo courtesy of the Folsom Historic Society.
No history of Folsom can be complete without embracing the activities, contributions and culture of its Chinese community.
By the 1880s, Folsom’s bustling Chinatown became the second largest in California outside San Francisco, numbering around 3,000 residents. The once-vibrant Chinese community, however, fell victim to prejudice, adversity, fires and urban development, its history almost forgotten.
For the past two years, the Folsom Historical Society and the Heritage Preservation League of Folsom have been working to preserve one of the last remnants of Folsom’s Chinese heritage. Their common goal is to restore the Chan House, located at 917 Sutter Street. There they plan to display Chinese artifacts found during the 1999 excavation of Folsom’s Chinatown on land below Lake Natoma Crossing. The historic dwelling will not only tell the story of Folsom’s Chinese community, but will also tell the important story of the family that lived there.
Sixteen-year-old Chan Oak Chin (Americanized to Oak Chan) arrived in Folsom in 1852. Like thousands of other Chinese, he came to seek his golden fortune. After prospecting for two weeks, he opened a grocery store called Wing Sing Woo (located at River Way and Reading Street) and stocked it with dry goods shipped from China. In addition, he sold live fish from a horse trough in front of his establishment. Eventually, the congenial Chan sold and delivered homegrown vegetables throughout the area.
With his profits, Chan later opened a restaurant and hotel for Chinese miners and railroad workers. He often took in older Chinese men who could no longer work, offering them room and board in exchange for light duties. An educated man, Chan served his community as a translator, scribe, labor agent, banker, and all-around liaison between the Chinese and other cultures. Because of his trusted abilities and honesty in managing the affairs of the Chinese community, he became Chinatown’s first “mayor.”
The Chinese community where Chan operated his successful businesses once extended between Leidesdorff Street and the American River, from just below the Folsom Powerhouse to where the sewer plant now stands. Three major cemeteries, numerous laundries, benevolent associations, a joss house and a Buddhist shrine once stood on the bluff. Tragically, the devastating fires that swept through Folsom’s Chinatown in 1908 killed Chan’s wife, Chin Woo, and destroyed his businesses.
Most Chinese left Folsom, but Oak Chan remained to raise four children alone. With his death in 1924, his son, Howard, took over his meat peddling business. With his wife, Mabel, Howard opened Chan’s Market on Sutter Street in 1931 and operated it until 1955. The Chan family rented their home at 917 Sutter Street because they could not purchase property until the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Today, the house remains one of the only Chinese-owned homes in Folsom’s Historic District.
“Restoration of this structure will enable the Historical Society to tell the story of the Chinese community in Folsom,” Candy Miller, a member of the Chan House Project committee, says. “It is the last building along Sutter Street’s business district that has not been restored or improved. It is the last remaining part of the Sutter Street Revitalization.” Chan House Project Manager Jeff Ferreira-Pro adds, “The Chinese have an incredible history that has not always been adequately told. This is the best place to tell it.”
Visit friendsofchanhouse.org for more information.