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Tuesday, Feb 25 2014 02:51 PM

'First Look': What's underground? Resident remembers tunnels, Bakersfield history

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    Jim Murray, 92, talks about Bakersfield history and the tunnels under parts of Bakersfield with Californian President and CEO Richard Beene on "First Look with Scott Cox."

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By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN

Californian President and CEO Richard Beene has been writing in his "Bakersfield Observed" blog about the old Chinese-made tunnels under parts of downtown. Ninety-two-year-old Jim Murray remembers visiting the tunnels as a teenager with his Chinese friend Billy.

Beene invited Murray to talk about the tunnels and Bakersfield life during the Depression in a Tuesday segment of "First Look with Scott Cox." Here are excerpts from the interview between Beene and Murray. Watch the entire interview in a video at bakersfield.com.

Q: "Tell me about the old Chinatown around Mexicali."

A: "My father had a dry-cleaning establishment about two doors west of Goose Loonies and this was during the Depression years. My dad and I lived in the back of this place so Chinatown was right there. We made some real good friends down there.

"The Chinese people were so polite, so humble and their family values were great. (They lived) one block west of Mexicali and they were on both sides of 18th Street and there were four Chinese restaurants. The buildings were right up against the sidewalk on the street. When you walked by, you would see these little stairways going down, ever so many feet, and that's where a lot of people lived. . . ."

Q. Murray describes the living environment underground.

A: "There was one that was a gambling spot. The Chinese were always great gamblers. And if you wanted to gamble you went to Chinatown. And this particular one underground, I remember we went down the stairs and there were quiet a few people. There were card games, games with little wire baskets and so forth. It was very interesting.

"That's when I asked Billy about the tunnels. I said, 'Billy, are there tunnels under the street here?' and he looked at me and said, 'Why do you ask,' and I said, 'Well I heard,' and he goes 'Yeah,' and I said, 'How about going across the street?' and he said 'No, they are just not used like that, only the people here are the ones that use them.' Now I didn't go through the tunnels, and I didn't go up to look at them but according to Billy who lived there, there they were and it was intriguing. . . ."

Q: "What was Bakersfield like back then (1930)?"

A: " Bakersfield was in my way of thinking was a wide open town. We had good law enforcement. Good fire department. And everything was under control. People could walk the streets at night without worrying about being mugged, or robbed. People at night used to go walk up town and do what they called window shopping. And these stores all had big windows and they displayed all their goods and that was quite an evening pastime. We had no problems. It was an exciting town."

Q: "In 1941, when Pearl Harbor hit, what was that like here in Bakersfield. Were you ready to go into the military immediately. . . ."

A: "I don't think you'll ever see this again. Everybody, all of us, couldn't wait to get into the service. Myself, I got out to Minter Field as soon as I could and enlisted out there in the Air Force. And all my friends, we were all just sitting around our mailboxes waiting for that letter to come, calling us to duty. Patriotism was really something. You wouldn't see that today."

Q: "Where was the best meal in town?"

A: "We weren't in the position to eat in the best places financially but the best place I think we did eat was the French Cafe next to The Southern Hotel downtown on Chester Avenue."

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