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New exhibit explores Chinese immigrants’ contributions to building of California

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Courtesy Rancho Los Cerritos
A photo from 1872 shows Rancho Los Cerritos’s inner courtyard with a Chinese cook in the background wearing an apron. Sarah Wolk Fitzgerald, who curated the rancho’s new exhibit Building a New California: The Lives and Labor of Chinese Immigrants from 1850 to 1930, said she became curious about the Chinese immigrant in the photo after learning some information about two men who worked at the site— Ying and Fan. The man in the photo’s background is believed to be one of those two workers.

As Sarah Wolk Fitzgerald, who has served as historical curator for Rancho Los Cerritos for a year and a half, was familiarizing herself with the site’s collections, she became increasingly curious about two men she had heard about— Ying and Fan, Chinese immigrants who worked at the rancho in the late 1800s.

Ying and Fan would ultimately become the inspiration behind the rancho’s newest exhibit— Building a New California: The Lives and Labor of Chinese Immigrants from 1850 to 1930— which opens today and will be on view for the next year.

Speaking from the rancho during a phone interview Monday, Fitzgerald said the men lived and worked at the site during the 1870s and 1880s, when it was a sheep ranch.

“I’d heard a lot about Ying and Fan, but we don’t have a lot of information about them,” Fitzgerald said, “but we know that they did the laundry for about 30 people, including the family and the workers here at the site, which was an incredibly grueling and daunting and time-consuming undertaking.”

Courtesy USC Libraries and California Historical Society
Men and women in traditional Chinese costume at La Fiesta in Los Angeles, circa 1901

Fitzgerald added that the men also cooked meals, not only for the Bixby Family who resided there, but also for the other workers.

“Because of the different palates of the Bixby Family, who came from Maine— who came from the East Coast— and also the workers, who were a combination of Native-American, Mexican and the Chinese workers— different styles of eating— they were making food for sometimes 30 people, three meals a day, and different meals for these people,” Fitzgerald said. “So, these guys were working incredibly hard— but we didn’t have a lot of information about them.”

Despite that scarcity of resources related to Ying and Fan, Fitzgerald pointed out that the rancho does have a photo from 1872 that includes one of the men in the background.

“It’s a picture of the rancho courtyard, and, in the foreground, we see a worker— possibly a ranchero— somebody who was working with the cattle or working with the sheep, and then, in the background, you see either Ying or Fan, wearing an apron,” she said. “They’re not really centered in the photograph.”

She said the rancho’s staff members know that Ying and Fan had worked there because of the book Adobe Days, which Sarah Bixby Smith— daughter of Llewellyn Bixby, who co-owned Flint-Bixby Company with his brother and cousins— wrote about her childhood, which partially included growing up at Rancho Los Cerritos in the 1880s.

“She talks about spending some time with Ying and Fan and talks about what she observed and the work they did at the rancho,” Fitzgerald said. “I was just really curious about them, and I wanted to put together an exhibit that really honored and celebrated their contributions. But, seeing that I had very limited information, I had to go bigger than that.”

Courtesy Rancho Los Cerritos
Earthenware incense burner used in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration and traditional Chinese medicine, circa 1890

Taking into account that the rancho has numerous artifacts related to Chinese culture, she connected the dots.

“Even though [the artifacts] didn’t specifically belong to Ying and Fan, they come from the time period and they come from China,” she said. “Putting these two narratives together, I felt that I was able to put an exhibit together that at least attempted to explore the life and work of Ying and Fan.”

Fitzgerald then conducted research and used that of the rancho’s previous curators and interns to get a sense of what life was like for Chinese immigrants living and working in the Los Angeles region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As for Chinese immigrants’ contributions to Long Beach in particular, Fitzgerald points to their work on the railroads, which linked the coastal city to the rest of the country.

“Also, they were really important to agricultural work,” she said. “They really transformed the land to be arable land for growing produce. That really put California on the map and was huge for our economy, agriculturally, for growing food.”

Courtesy Rancho Los Cerritos
Chinese teacups, circa 1890

Fitzgerald pointed out that the Chinese immigrants’ agricultural contributions, coupled with their railroad work, were significant in terms of the production and transport of food to other states.

“And then, in Long Beach, the Bixby Family and Rancho Los Cerritos were really huge for the economy of Long Beach, especially when the owners of the sheep ranch started selling off parcels of land to become Long Beach and the surrounding cities,” she said. “So, I argue that the Chinese laborers really enabled the Bixbys to do what they did.”

“Building a New California: The Lives and Labor of Chinese Immigrants from 1850 to 1930″ opens Sept. 22 and will remain on display through Sept. 28, 2018 at Rancho Los Cerritos, 4600 Virginia Rd. The exhibit’s free opening event will take place Sept. 22 from 5:30pm to 7pm in the visitor center’s lower level, with a brief talk by Fitzgerald. More information is available at and (562) 206-2040.

Courtesy USC Libraries and California Historical Society
An undated photo shows a Chinese boy holding a basket in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.

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New exhibit explores Chinese immigrants’ contributions to building of California