Heinlenville was one of six San José Chinatowns. Archaeologists from the Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University and local San José historians are working with the Redevelopment Agency, City of San José to unearth selected areas of Heinlenville and early Japantown. The test excavation took place from the 11th to 17th March 2008, and data recovery excavation was conducted from the 14th to 23rd of April 2009. Work continues now back at the ASC lab, as we process artifacts and soil samples recovered from the site.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Going Around Aground

We’re getting down and dirty and finding not only the buried Chinatown and Japantown structural beginnings but also a sense of the communities once so vibrant on this site. I have been entrusted with being one of the community volunteers “embedded” with the archeologists and historians working on this project. Though unschooled in the procedures, I’m learning from the archaeologists how a project is approached, what careful steps are required in handling the material, how information is analyzed, and … how very hard it is on your knees.

This first phase is the sampling of potential fruitful sites in the historic Heinlenville and Nihonmachi areas. The archeologists and historians have targeted some of the most likely sites from the old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps – and like buried treasure, things are being found where the maps have indicated. The first site dug was on the Sanborn map identified as a “Chinese Theater.” No theatrical paraphernalia was found but many chips of porcelain, chunks of stoneware (what I have taken to calling “the brown stuff”), glass medicinal bottles, rusted nails, bone bits, and even a few mystery pieces were. The major artifact find was a half of a millstone. The question now being asked used by whom and for what? Chinese or Japanese use? Or someone else?

Nothing could be more personal than Chinese Historian Connie Young Yu’s watchful wait as the backhoe scooped up dirt from the area where her Grandfather’s store was located and the excitement of finding part of the wall from the building. Seeing Connie’s family pictures of Heinlenville really made the connection between the bricks buried in the dirt to a place where people lived and worked.

In another site (where I got to do a little archeological troweling, and found out where archeologists get carpal tunnel syndrome) drainage pipes and sewer drains were found and I learned more about the history of trash and sewer lines than I think I want to know.

The prize site was where Ng Shing Gung, the temple, was located. A portion
of the wall was found and from that Archeologist Julia Costello and Historians Charlene Duval and Connie Young Yu began to outline the building’s layout. As probably the center of much of the community’s activities and the last building standing, it is hoped that this site will yield a great deal more information.

This is a great project for the community for not only through the archeology are the physical remains being unearthed, but as the project has continued, the living community has begun to unearth their personal histories. Individuals are bringing photographs and other materials to share and conveying the stories of what they remember or what their parents or grandparents recalled. Truly the re-discovery of the history through these many layers will make our forgotten communities become alive.

So, off to more moving of dirt with hopes of finding more great stuff, but maybe this time with a pair of kneepads.

Leslie Masunaga