By Bruce Crawford
Isleton Historical Society
In Isleton, in the Sacramento River
Delta, resting on a strong foundation there stands a building—a beacon
leaning over the river. Called the Bing Kong Tong, it is an edifice that
stands as a memorial to the prominent presence of the early Chinese.
Our beautiful state is a lesson in
contrasts...from the cool majestic Sierra to the searing sand of the
Mojave...from the isolation of the northwest to the congestion of the
southwest...from the technology of the Silicon Valley to nature's abundance
of the Delta.
These contrasts quickly became obvious to early settlers. The gold and
riches that beckoned required strong backs, endless hours of hard labor and
The need for cheap workers came early to
the California scene. The first attempt to capture a labor supply was made
by the Spanish Padres. The priests compelled the native population to bear
the burden of Mission toil which soon resulted in the state's first
labor-management conflict. The natives were neither suited to forced labor
nor to European diseases which soon decimated the population.
The next labor pool came from a distant
and unlikely source—China. With the discovery of gold, thousands of Chinese
men came in search of "the Gold Mountain." Early immigrants were merchants
and traders but economic development required cheap labor. The Chinese
Contract System was developed to provide unskilled labor for mining,
railroad construction, agriculture, canneries, etc.
Chinese consolidated benevolent
associations such as the Six Companies, formed in the 1860s in San
Francisco, became the go-between with the white community. The extreme
differences between the western culture and the Chinese culture—language,
clothing, food, customs, a general lack of understanding along with physical
separation—led to suspicions and hatreds. Negative stereotypes emerged on
both sides. For the Chinese, the most misunderstood and negative views
revolved around opium, prostitution and gambling.*
The Six Companies were able to keep these
activities under control in the Delta area until the 1880s when they lost
control as a result of social and political events. The vacuum was filled by
These were Chinese profiteers who used
extortion, fear and the violence of "hatchet men" to gain and maintain
control. During the next 20 years, Chinese communities were subject to
clashes of Tong gangs. The gambling, opium and prostitution created a drive
for wealth and power that would rival any turf war today.
It wasn't until the 1906 San Francisco
earthquake and fire that these wars abated. With their buildings and other
places of revenue destroyed, the Tongs had to shift their emphasis. Slowly,
they became social and benevolent societies dedicated to developing the
Tongs were secret societies with
initiation rites, passwords, oaths of allegiance, religious rituals and
designated styles of clothing. They maintained an educated and informed
membership. All news, including national, Chinese and local was carefully
monitored. English classes were given.
A particularly strong Chinese community
emerged in the Sacramento Delta. Jobs in levee construction, agriculture and
service fields helped create towns such as Locke and Isleton.
In Isleton the Bing King Tong arose and
was kindly referred to as the "Chinese Masons." It was strong also in
Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In its heyday, the Bing King was
headed by Wong Du King also known as Kai Yee or "Godfather."
The Isleton Tong helped merchants and
provided social events, making their building—which they erected in 1926—the
community center. Eventually, the success of agriculture, increased river
traffic and population growth began to provide the strong economic base for
which immigrants had come.
However, the cultures were still miles
apart. Discrimination was rampant. Chinese were prevented from owning
property. The Federal government passed immigration laws that excluded them
from entering the United States, and worse, other welcomed immigrants
replaced them as laborers. Over time, the Tongs became a lost page in many
Meanwhile, the Isleton Tong building
still stands. Today it looks sad with its tin siding flapping in the wind,
broken window panes, empty flag pole and pigeons roosting in the attic.
Thanks to changing time—and state
voters—this rare structure will be restored to its past stateliness and,
hopefully, become the museum for the Isleton Historical Society.
After hearing that this was possibly the
only building of its type (covered in tin plate) in the nation, members
became more determined than ever to restore this "one of a kind."
Then along came Proposition 12, the bond
measure that dedicated 81/2 million dollars to the California Heritage Fund
which included restoration of historical and archaeological resources. IHS
applied for and was selected for a grant. Along with Housing and
Redevelopment funds Bing King Tong is coming back to again serve the
community. This time it will be for all the people. There will be no
* Gambling was a social outlet and, as
with opium, the Chinese indulgence was moderate—few ever became addicts.
** Tongs in this instance refer to members of particular Chinese fraternal
societies whose primary interests from about 1870 to the 1920s were in
territorial control of gambling, prostitution and opium.
(Source of both footnotes is SAMFOW, The San Joaquin Chinese Legacy
by Sylvia Sun Minnick.)
NOTE: If others among our member
societies have received restoration help through the passage of Proposition
12, we would like to hear from you.— Editor