.Before Downtown Ice There Was San Jose’s Chinatown

A torched Chinatown, City Hall and an expanded Fairmont occupied the site of SJSU’s next dorm

The east side of Market Street across from Plaza de Cesar Chavez can be understood as a history of fire and ice, a location once housing San Jose’s Chinatown.

Right now, despite the noticeable glaring absence of Kristi Yamaguchi this time around, the downtown ice rink has officially returned to glory, welcoming families from throughout the land for evenings of skating revelry to complement Christmas in the Park. Even as this welcome news emerged earlier in the week, I felt compelled to contemplate the grand sweep of history.

In the 1880s, the most prominent of San Jose Chinatowns occupied this entire block until it was burned down by an arsonist in 1887. A plaque on the front of the Fairmont, I mean, the Signia by Hilton, still notates the history, which went underreported for most of the 20th century. It was not until Connie Young Yu wrote a fantastic book in 1991 that we learned a more detailed story. 

In its heyday, Chinatown consisted of Market and San Fernando streets and a long alley in the middle of the block between San Fernando and San Antonio, including at least a dozen grocery stores, a fish market, a temple, three restaurants, numerous barber stands, clothing shops and general merchandising.

Unfortunately, the Chinese were considered a threat in those days. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned any more immigration from China for at least ten years. San Jose was about to build a new City Hall in the middle of Plaza Park—now Plaza de Cesar Chavez—and most likely ignored the percolating racism. After the Chinatown was torched, it was then discovered that the nearby water tower had been emptied right before the fire. 

We are very lucky that Andrew Hill, one of the heroes behind the effort to preserve the redwoods, a man who was also a painter and a photographer, captured a few glorious photos of the Market Street Chinatown from a nearby rooftop, just a few months before the fire. Yu incorporated several of these photos in her book, but they’ve always deserved additional eyeballs. 

You can see the tops of the shantytown-style buildings where all the commerce unfolded. The water tower is present, as is the San Jose Foundry. Nothing from this photo remains today.

Following the fire, the Chinese relocated after which a new city post office was built. The post office later became the San Jose Public Library, where my mom worked in the ’60s, that is, before it became the Museum of Art. Same building.

Then, exactly 100 years after the Chinatown fire, the Fairmont opened for business, in 1987. By the mid-1990s, it was already going under, so Lew Wolff partnered with a Saudi prince to save the place, which he did, but not without some serious handouts. A few years later, the city gave Wolff millions in public money to build an additional Fairmont tower, a process that famously required moving the Montgomery Hotel 200 feet down the sidewalk. Both of these buildings have been underutilized ever since, so people should be debating this for decades to come, if they even care at all anymore.

Then, by sheer coincidence, just as I was sitting in Bijan Bakery in the said Fairmont extension writing this column, another major development was announced. The same building would undergo yet another transformation.

Last week, the day before the ice rink opened for its 2023 season, it was announced that Wolff’s former hotel extension would now be leased to SJSU so that it could be used for much-needed undergraduate housing. Gone were the days of six roommates sharing a $1,200-dollar a month crumbling Victorian with a beater ’50s-era fridge and peeling linoleum—not that I’m speaking from experience.

Yes, this deal is a good thing. A very good thing. Until recently, every downtown policy effectively ignored or even dismissed the needs of students, who absolutely should be among those driving the neighborhood, if not the priority. This development is good for the campus, good for the SoFA District, certainly good for the future of Plaza de Cesar Chavez and any major event downtown.

In any case, from fire to ice, such are the threads of history. Stories exist underneath every building, if you just know where to look.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


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