Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:20 PM

Kern's vibrant Chinese past comes to life

By Robert Price

Bill Leong Sr.'s most indelible memory of Charlie Ping begins with the sound of gunfire. It's 1915 or thereabouts, and Leong is playing in front of a store in Bakersfield's New Chinatown district with two young friends.

The boys hear a burst of shots --bang, bang, bang! -- and a moment later, Ping runs right past them.

Leong races home and tells some adults, including his father, what he's seen. It earns him a slap across the face.

The lesson: Young Chinese boys don't talk about certain things. Charlie Ping is one of them.

Today, Leong, 97, is finally talking about Charlie Ping -- and a whole lot more. And he's in good company. Ninety interview subjects -- Chinese-Americans from Bakersfield's two Chinatowns, and their descendants, have gone on record, sharing a century's worth of the heroism, heartbreak, fear and perseverance.

"The Chinese of Kern County, 1857-1960," due for release June 14, is a meticulous history, told primarily in the words of the people who lived it.

The book, a publication of the Kern County Historical Society, tells the story of Bakersfield's early Chinese community -- Cantonese immigrants who arrived in the 1870s to work in Kern's mines and on its railroads.

By 1880, Bakersfield had 250 Chinese. By 1889, the number had soared, and Chinatown was bursting at the seams. Finally, with waves of Chinese continuing to pour in, immigrants built what came to be New Chinatown.

The people of Old and New Chinatown worked side by side, laying down rails, mining for gold and tungsten and, later, working in the fields. They rarely mixed socially.

The groups came from two distinct areas of Canton province about a day's walk from one another, and they spoke different dialects. Those in Old Chinatown (generally located between 20th and 22nd, and between L and K streets) spoke sam yup; those in New Chinatown (the vicinity of 17th and 18th, Q and R streets) spoke say yup -- Cantonese variations just different enough to be obvious to the Chinese.

Many of the Chinese worked for Yen Ming, who owned hundreds of acres south of Bakersfield and lived on the spot now occupied by Valley Plaza mall. That was "out in the sticks," according to Leong, who worked on Ming's farm and, much later, co-founded Bakersfield's Rice Bowl restaurant in 1948.

Ming, for whom Bakersfield's Ming Avenue is named, was the only Chinese man in town who could afford a two-horse buggy (with a fringe on top, no less), Leong says.

The most feared man in Chinatown was Ping, a "highbinder" or gangster, who, from the pre-World War I days until the '30s, was an enforcer. Ping was a member of Bing Kong, the "tong" (or street gang) with authority in Bakersfield's New Chinatown.

He was thought to have been involved in the murders of at least two members of the rival Suey Din tong, which held sway in Bakersfield's Old Chinatown.

The two tongs, part of larger gang structures with affiliations across the state, protected the gambling houses -- men's social clubs, really -- in their respective neighborhoods. For the Suey Din, that was Old Chinatown. For the Bing Kong, it was New Chinatown. They were rivals, and, at several points, their rivalry escalated into war.

The tong wars got so bad in the 1920s that Lee Hong Sing -- whose son, Bill Lee, would eventually open Bill Lee's Bamboo Chopsticks -- packed up his entire family and went on an extending camping trip into the Kern River Canyon. As often as not, the killers they hoped to avoid were from other cities; sometimes victims were chosen at random.

"The Chinese had a way of extracting revenge," said Dan Kimm, whose grandfather, Ng Hon Kim, was gunned down at 18th and Q streets one day in 1917. "If somebody did something bad to you in Fresno, you didn't go up there to Fresno and bump off one of their clan. You'd go to another city where the clan had an office or ... temple, and you'd bump off one of their people (there). And the police would never understand why this person died ...

"The Caucasians felt ... if the Chinese killed their own, we won't bother them. They were just taking care of their own business."

Ping became a respected businessman and lived to a ripe old age. Maybe personal charm was a factor.

"He was a nice guy," Leong said, "but he was a killer."

The two Chinatowns were devastated by disease at least twice. In 1913, a scarlet fever outbreak prompted city authorities to march Chinese children home from school and quarantine the entire district. Some families lost most of their children: The Jung Sing family lost six of its seven children; only the youngest, Ed, survived.

"All you hear is (the) ambulance back and forth, back and forth" for several days, said Leong, who credits his survival to the fact that he and his sister, Ella, were smuggled out of Chinatown to Yen Ming's ranch.

Their father, who ran a gift shop on K Street, went to work one day and was not permitted to return.

For days, he was left to wonder about the fate of his wife and youngest daughter, still quarantined inside Chinatown. They survived.

Many of the families hardest hit by the epidemic, however, were forced to start all over again. They essentially raised second families.

There's much more to the book: the legend of Chinatown's tunnels; the reasons most Chinese had two, three or even four names apiece; and their wartime contributions.

"The Chinese of Kern County, 1857-1960" was assembled from an all-but-forgotten volume of work by esteemed local historian W. Harland Boyd and three years of supplementary interviews by Jerry Ludeke, Ellen Miller, Kimberly Loke Whitaker and the late Eleanor Kimm Peterson. Mary Ming, Yen Ming's 89-year-old daughter-in-law, wrote the foreword and Blake Loke wrote an epilogue focusing on the post-1960 Chinese of Bakersfield.

The book's big coup is the inclusion of 11 new paintings by the 91-year-old artist who helped bring "Bambi" to the big screen five decades ago. Tyrus Wong, whose background paintings are credited with giving the 1942 Disney film its ethereal, Oriental quality, is Peterson's "Uncle Ty."

The research team's only regret is that Peterson couldn't live to see the final product. She died in March 2001.

"We realized very quickly into it that we were interviewing some people whose own children hadn't heard some of the stories," Ludeke said. "Once they realized it was a sincere effort, they opened up. Eleanor was the key to that. She was so loved in the Chinese community."

The book has a foreword by 89-year-old Mary Ming and an epilogue by Blake Loke, who picks up the story in 1960, following the Chinatowns' disappearance.

The book sells for $24.95. To order a copy, call 332-2992 or drop by the Kern County Museum.

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