Fresno’s Underground Chinatown

The LA Times ran a story about possible tunnels in Fresno’s Chinatown. Urban legend says that there is a system of tunnels under the streets, that extends for blocks and once led to speakeasies and brothels in the late 19th century through World War II. Right now the evidence consists of a recently discovered crawl space, boarded up archways, and oral history from a few survivors of the time when the tunnels would have been active.

In addition to the historical preservation and archaeological aspect of “underground Chinatown,” the article also addresses criticism of the urban legend. Skeptics say that the tunnels are merely “connected basements” and that the tales told abet xenophobia. They cast the Chinese as a “population of undesirables” and make them mysterious. The population of the Fresno Chinatown, founded in 1872, consisted largely of California railroad workers.

This is certainly a concern- one hopes that the tunnels, or whatever one wants to call them, could be used to promote understanding, not engender racism or prejudice. Perhaps the tales could be reframed so as to not be xenophobic. The very idea of xenophobia assumes the point of view of the mainstream looking at the outsider. But what about the outsider looking in- what was it like to be that underground person, what did the world look like from that perspective?

If they do exist, they could be used to illuminate some truth of the times. And there’s something inherently fascinating about tunnels aside from the allure of secrets. One thinks of other things also; of burrowing, of the womb, of the inexhaustible theme of appearance versus reality. At any rate, one hopes that the historical preservationists capture what pieces of the story they can from remaining septuagenarians, rather than let it slip away. It’s a much better one than that of Manhattan Chinatown, where the underground lives today, and is used to cache faux designer handbags.

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About Lily Huang

Lily Huang is a writer of Taiwanese descent, who lives on the East coast. She grew up in suburbia completely oblivious to Asian culture, and is making up for it now.
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