Deconstructing La Chinesca: Part 1
This past week I spent Sunday through Friday in the Imperial Valley doing some footwork for my research project about Asians in the U.S./Mexico borderlands. The next few posts will cover some of the highlights and some reflections on my experience. Over the past year I have tried to dig up all that I could find on the Chinese population in Mexicali, the state capitol and bordertown with Calexico, CA. Because so little has been written about Imperial and Mexicali Valley's Asian population after 1940, I wasn't entirely sure that there would be a significant population still in existence.
I arrived in El Centro, CA around 7pm rounding off 9 hours of driving from Oakland. The entire Imperial Valley seemed to be ensconced in a thin fog or fine dust. In addition, only a few cars and trucks shared the road with me as I found my way to the hotel. After cleaning up and putting myself back together, I decided to try one of Imperial Valley's Chinese Restaurants - Lucky's on 4th and Orange. As I drove around looking for Lucky's I wondered where El Centro's residents hangout? The parking lots I passed were all empty and the, seemingly recent downtown "revitalization" had not produced a night life to speak of. I turned south on 4th and found Lucky's parking lot full of cars, nearby street parking was also taken up. As I approached the building, a family of seven was just leaving, as I held the door open for them to exit I noticed pieces of paper taped to the entrance window advertising daily specials in English, Chinese, and Spanish. I felt that I was in the right place. Inside the restaurant waiters were running plates of Chinese food to a large group having a baby shower. Some old vaqueros were digging into their lo mein and others families we busy with food and conversation. I heard all three languages being spoken that night.
After eating my "combinacion equis" (mounds of lo mein, char sui, beef broccoli, and fried rice) I went to the counter to pay and introduced myself to the Chinese woman behind the counter operating the register. I told her that I was in the Imperial Valley to research the impact of the border situation on local Asians communities and to learn about their more recent history (1940-present). She immediately perked up and introduced herself and began sharing little-known facts about the Chinese community in Calexico, CA and Mexicali, BC. She proceeded to find her husband who worked in the kitchen. After meeting Jenny and Roman Zhou I found that they own Lucky's and have been in El Centro for 17 years. Prior to settling in Southern California they lived up North near Oakland's East 14th Avenue upon arriving from China's Provence of Canton, a major site of Chinese emigration for the last 200 years. As Roman return to the kitchen, Jenny began to list off other local Chinese Americans I should speak with who's families have been in the valley for several generations. I couldn't have hoped for a better beginning to my research trip - great Char Sui and enthusiastic locals!
Some how I forgot to snap a photo of the place. I'll put some photos up for the next post.