Jacksonville revelers ring in the Year of the Rat
Near the site of the state’s very first Chinatown, Asian culture and a population’s key role in Oregon history came to life.
A crowd in the thousands packed the sidewalks along California Street Saturday in downtown Jacksonville for a glimpse of “The Mighty One,” the dragon serving as the grand finale of Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association’s annual Chinese New Year Celebration parade.
Although the crowd cheered at the sights of Ballet Folklorico’s footwork, the extravagant 19th century attire of Elegant Bustles and Bows Historical Costume Group and Model A Fords, it was the 61-foot dragon that drew the crowd’s attention.
Mei Pol of Medford, who was born in China, was among the revelers who helped celebrate the Year of the Rat, which began officially on Jan. 25. She loved seeing people around the globe embracing Chinese culture.
“It’s like we are home,” Pol said, standing beside her daughter, Nikki Patterson of Shady Cove, who wore vibrant green traditional Chinese jacket.
The event, hosted by SOCCA for the 15th year, celebrated a wealth of nuanced facets of Chinese culture, including eastern medicine, Tai Chi, Chinese astrology, cuisine, calligraphy and live music performances of traditional Chinese instruments performed by the Who’s Hu ensemble.
The event also served to honor the population of 19th century immigrants who helped build the Rogue Valley beginning a century and a half ago.
Southern Oregon was home to the first Chinese community in the Pacific Northwest, according to a Southern Oregon Historical Society exhibit at the U.S. Hotel ballroom during the Chinese New Year event.
Beginning in the 1850s, laborers from the southeast coastal province of Guangdong traveled overseas to Southern Oregon — primarily to work in the mines during the Gold Rush.
Chinese laborers typically bought previously swept-through mines from white mine owners, and then reworked them.
Workers typically sent money to their families. Railroad workers, for instance, made about seven times the typical wage of an unskilled laborer in China.
Jacksonville was the first community in Oregon to have a Chinatown, according to the historical society, and by 1870, about 13 percent of Jackson County’s residents were from China.
The Chinatown helped the immigrant population find jobs, buy supplies imported from China and socialize, but the community faced discrimination in the state in the latter part of the 19th century.
In the early 1880s, the Chinese immigrant population was decimated by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which the exhibit called one of history’s “most significant restrictions” on free immigration.
By the end of the decade, a neighboring fire at the David Linn Furniture Mill in the 200 block of Main Street took out what was left of the state’s first Chinatown, Jacksonville historian Larry Smith said during his presentation, “Gold Mines to Woodland trails.”
“It was his mill that burned down Chinatown,” Smith said.