An Endangered Main Street Chinatown: Hanford’s China Alley

The 2011 list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places had a special significance for one Main Street community in central California. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named China Alley, a street that served as the hub for Hanford’s Chinese population beginning in the late 1800s, to its list in recognition of the aging and precarious state of its buildings and the importance of its revitalization. Nominated by the Taoist Temple Preservation Society, a tireless advocate for the district, the listing generated a wave of regional and national media attention and has energized local preservationists, politicians and citizens concerned for the Alley’s survival. The listing comes at an opportune time as Main Street Hanford, the City of Hanford and other local leaders begin the next phase of planning to make China Alley an integral piece of downtown Hanford’s future.

When Chinese immigrants arrived in 1877 to build railroads and later work the fields, the newly established San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford, Calif. offered no reminders of home. In fact, the Chinese faced cultural barriers and often out-right racism. Despite these obstacles, the Chinese community in Hanford flourished and developed a vibrant Chinatown, known as China Alley, which soon boasted restaurants, herb stores, laundries, gambling houses, grocers and a Taoist temple—all constructed of local California redwood and brick fired on site. Reaching its peak in the pre-World War II years, China Alley came to be one of the largest Chinatowns in the state, and remains today one of the most intact rural Chinatowns in California.

The Chinese population in Hanford started to decline in the 1950s, and, with it, most of the historic buildings along China Alley. Today, the Alley’s buildings, including Chef Richard Wing’s famous Imperial Dynasty restaurant (popular among foreign dignitaries and President Ronald Regan) and the L.T. Sue Herb Building, sit vacant and suffer from rain damage, vandalism and years of deterioration and disuse. Though China Alley is located in a local historic district, the City of Hanford has neither trained preservation staff nor a historic preservation commission, leaving the buildings vulnerable to insensitive development or reuse. In addition, redevelopment funds from the City of Hanford’s Redevelopment Agency, which supports the revitalization of China Alley, may no longer be available due to state budget cuts.  

Despite the disrepair of its buildings, China Alley remains a valued centerpiece of Hanford’s multi-ethnic, now predominantly Latino, Downtown East neighborhood. China Alley comes to life the first Saturday of every month when the Taoist Temple Museum, lovingly restored by the Taoist Temple Preservation Society, welcomes visitors from around the world. Several times a year, Main Street Hanford and the Taoist Temple Preservation Society put on special free and celebratory events that light up the Alley, including the Downtown East Street Fair held the first Saturday in May and the Moon Festival the first Saturday of every October. Live music fills the air and ethnic food and craft booths fill the alley with hundreds of people. Tours of the Temple and Museum include a chance to taste tea, almond cookies, and bits of Moon Cake in the Temple Garden. 

These much-anticipated events have helped Main Street Hanford recruit a large volunteer corps that is essential for the organization’s future growth and visibility, but Main Street Hanford is doing much more than promotions to draw attention to the district. Their Economic Restructuring Committee partnered with the City, the Chamber of Commerce, business and property owners, the Taoist Temple Preservation Society and others to initiate last year’s Downtown East plan which includes China Alley. These partners are also playing a major role in the soon-to-begin “precise plan” process, which will involve the community in crafting a more detailed blueprint for the area, with a specific focus on China Alley’s revitalization. The creation of a pedestrian-friendly district and a fast-tracked permitting process to attract developers to Downtown East are two of the ideas on the table for discussion.

And political will seems to gelling. At the public announcement of the 11 Most listing, Hanford Mayor Dan Chin addressed a crowd of enthusiastic supporters and expressed his renewed commitment to the preservation of the city’s heritage. City Manager Hilary Straus remarked that he hopes the designation will pave the way for funds to flow into the China Alley.

"This is really the epicenter of downtown east, so as we move forward in the next phase of our planning, we hope this increases the visibility of this site and attracts developers who believe in historic preservation," Straus said. "We look forward to our continued work together."

All of us dedicated to illustrating and communicating the power of preservation-based economic development sincerely share that hope for China Alley's future.