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Chinese New Year, Heinlenville, 1896

Heinlenville was one of the original Chinatowns in San Jose. It was located near 6th and Jackson St (currently Japantown). It is striking to read a San Jose Mercury article from 1896 describing Chinese New Years celebrations and notice the less than subtle racism that pervaded.

San Jose Chinatown (Heinlenville), Near 6th and Jackson in San Jose
San Jose Chinatown (Heinlenville), Near 6th and Jackson in San Jose

San Jose Mercury News, February 12, 1896
All Heinlenville was hustle and excitement last evening. The residents of the Oriental addition to San Jose rushed to and fro, from store to store, and from the size of the bundles that some of the more wealthy Celestials carried to their quarters one would imagine that preparations were being made to fortify against an expected famine.

The excitement was due to the near approach of the Chinese New Year, the celebration of which began at midnight with a general fusilade of the best brands of Chinese fire-crackers. The necessity of laying in a quantity of supplies becomes apparent to the curious American only when he learns that all stores suspend business for from three to five days.

A brief era of brotherly love distinguishes each recurring celebration, and last night in Heinlenville every native of the Flowery Kingdom had a beaming smile for even the most lowly of his countrymen. Even the enmity of the rival societies of See Yup and Sam Yup was temporarily forgotten and the most bitter partisans nodded in a friendly way as they shuffled by each other on their way from store to store.

During the early part of the evening there were quite a number of white visitors, who plied the Chinese merchants with all manner of questions. Each inquiry, however, was answered graciously, provided the questioner’s English was not too deep for the Oriental understanding. At many of the places orchestras endeavored to entertain the visitors with those ear-piercing, nerve-rasping strains, which the Chinese, not being able to distinguish between concord and discord, call music.

After the first grand chorus of explosives, which took place as the clocks chimed the hour of midnight, every self-respecting Chinaman repaired to the joss-house and humbled himself before the graven image, which represents the power whose pleasure or anger makes the weal or woe of the followers of Confucius. The religious introduction to the observance of the New Year did not call for any extended ceremonies, and by 3 o’clock the only persons abroad in Heinlenville wore the watchmen making their weary rounds.

History San Jose Photographic Collection

The Chinese have a weakness for making New Year calls, and that part of the celebration will be the principal feature today. Many will make calls before breakfast, taking New Year cards along and receiving a card front their friends in return. Cards with hieroglyphics conveying greetings of the festal occasion will be sent to San Francisco in great numbers.

During the New Year season the doors of the stores are not locked, but nothing can induce the merchants to break a time honored custom by selling any of their wares until they are satisfied that they celebrated for a length of time in due proportion to the prosperity they are enjoying. The poor welcome the New Year, for it means to them a new blouse, a paired slippers, plenty of delicacies to eat and many other things for which their hearts have been yearning. For that reason the lean, impoverished heathen smiled as blandly last night as the portly merchant who lives in luxury from year to year, and the only unhappy looking individual in Heinlenville was an Italian peanut vender, whose stand, for some unknown reason, didn’t seem to be doing a holiday business.


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