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.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

An Oral Historian’s (and Former Archaeologist’s) View of Heinlenville

It is always bittersweet for me to go into the field and watch archaeologists do the work I did in my youth. Due to injuries I no longer excavate. I miss it. I miss grubbing around in the dirt. As a child my mom would compare me to Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip. As an adult working on a dig, I often had the distinction of having the dirtiest face at the end of the day. I miss the anticipation and hope of what the next shovelful of dirt will uncover. Usually it was more dirt; but when I found an obsidian flake, a pottery sherd, or a bone fragment I felt like I had discovered a treasure. I miss the camaraderie of working with a crew. And yet, being an oral historian has rewards of its own.

I feel the same sense of discovery when I interview “old-timers” about their lives. What will a former resident of Heinlenville remember about going to temple? About playing games in the streets? About celebrating with the community? Combining peoples’ memories with the archaeology and the historical research can bring the story “alive” by adding a richness, a vibrancy, a tie to the next generation that archaeology alone can lack.

When cousins Edward Chin and Vincent Chan were reminiscing about their childhood in Heinlenville, Edward Chin laughingly told me about the mischief of his youth. As a prank the boys would get rotten eggs and place them on their teacher’s chair in Chinese school. When the teacher chased them with a switch they would run like the dickens. The boys were prepared for this event, explains Mr. Chan, they would wear heavy clothing like leather jackets to protect their backs. A person’s more mundane memories are equally valuable. Tad Kogura, for example, remembered where residents dumped their trash, which is of vital interest to archaeologists.

Several months ago, due to the much appreciated effort of Hatsue Shiroyama, I had the opportunity of interviewing some members of the Japanese Reunion group about their memories of Heinlenville and Nihonmachi. (Ralph Pearce videotaped this interview, a copy of which is archived in the Japanese American Museum in San Jose.) Interviewing six people at once—a first for me—was quite an experience. It was fascinating to watch and hear the members bounce their memories off each other. Hatsue Shiroyama, for example, recalled the experiences of her family running the bathhouse an important institution in the Japanese community.

Elaine-Maryse Solari
ASC Oral Historian