I went looking for the ghosts of Heinlenville and instead found the author Jim Fellom.
These days, as always, if the citizens of San Jose want anything interesting to happen here, they have to fight for it, so after years of battling culturally bankrupt people who considered it their job to stop anything interesting from happening, a gorgeous new dedication plaque to the old Heinlenville Chinatown emerged a few months ago. It was long overdue.
In the late 19th century, the area around Sixth and Jackson became known and celebrated as “Heinlenville” when businessman John Heinlen allowed the Chinese to build a new Chinatown on five-and-a-half acres of his pasture land. It should have been a slam dunk, but it wasn’t.
In 1887, City Hall was filled with countryfolk beholden to the upmarket racists of the neighborhood, so everyone—the neighbors, the mayor and city council—all protested Heinlen’s plan, fearing those dirty Chinese would bring down the property values. It was an ugly situation.
Nevertheless, Heinlen persisted. With the help of his son, the attorney Goethe Augustus Heinlen, he fought off the City Hall buffoons and the neighborhood wankers to get the Chinatown built. As the years rolled by, Heinlenville flourished despite xenophobic policies requiring the Chinese to carry papers wherever they went.
Unfortunately, by the time of the Great Depression, Heinlenville was starting to fade away and people began to filter out into the surrounding area, which by then was already morphing into a thriving pan-Asian community, with Japanese and Filipino immigrants driving much of the commerce.
The plaque succinctly explains the entire history. It’s a great read. In fact, it is quite rare for something this justified to actually succeed around here. The whole project is a pleasant memorial, especially the 18-foot Roger Stoller sculpture as one enters the space. There’s even a brick path with more historical Heinlenville references. San Jose actually got this one right. I don’t get to say that very often.
According to a few old Mercury-News columns, Heinlenville was so intriguing that it even later appeared in the short stories of local author Jim Fellom (1880-1940). Fellom wrote novels, published dozens of stories in pulp magazines, worked as a Mercury-Herald newspaperman and even spent time as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. These were the good old days when literary types often crossed over into such professions, so it is to Fellom’s ghost that I will now turn.
I do not know the specific titles of the stories Fellom set in Heinlenville, but according to Eugene Sawyer’s legendary book History of Santa Clara County, “the record of his ancestry is itself romance.” This appears to be true.
If there was ever a “royal bloodline of Gilroy,” the Felloms might have been the ones. Before the Americans even showed up, when Gilroy was still called San Ysidro, Matthew Fellom arrived from Elsinore, Denmark, making him among the first handful of European settlers in the area. By the time his two sons, John A. and Sinfriano grew up, the Felloms owned massive tracts of land all around what’s now old Gilroy. Sinfriano then sired Jim Fellom, who grew up in San Jose but later moved up and down the coast, from Mexico to Reno to Idaho and San Francisco, working in mines, running cattle, and various other jobs before returning to settle in San Jose.
Fellom’s most famous novels were “The Rider of the Mohave” and “The Devil’s Crucible,” but he also contributed short stories to several publications including Munsey’s Saucy Stories, the Western Story Magazine, the Pictorial Review, Argosy All-Story, Peoples, McClures, the People’s Home Journal and many others. He was the founder of the “Plotwrights,” a San Jose-based literary club, and at one point was the treasurer of the Markham Home Landmark Association.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column suggesting that fiction writers setting their stories in San Jose neighborhoods was the right way to “put this town on the map.” I stand by those words. Forty-thousand tech workers will do absolutely nothing to give San Jose name recognition. Authors will.
I am proud to walk in Fellom’s footsteps at Sixth and Jackson. Long live Heinlenville. Long live Jim Fellom.