November 15, 2022

The city of Red Bluff, California became home to millions of people from all nationalities as they made their way to Mount Shasta a.k.a. “Gold Mountain.” Over 150 years later, and as the last person from one of the original Chinese families to settle in Red Bluff, Jessica Chew (SPS ’22) (she/her/hers) has made it her mission to restore an almost forgotten Chinese American history of California’s early formation to statehood.

Jessica Chew

One of the greatest honors of Jessica Chew’s (SPS 22) (she/her/hers) life is being Joe You Chew’s granddaughter. “The story of [Red Bluff’s] long lost Chinatown is so fragile and so close to being forgotten in history. The stories from Chinatown's 125 year reign are so remarkable that I feel it is my duty to my ancestors to memorialize it while I am still alive,” she says.  Through her close relationship with her grandfather, Chew learned about Tehama County’s rich Chinese history and the impact Red Bluff’s Chinatown had on the community over its 125 years of existence. Unfortunately, in 1973 her grandfather’s restaurant closed down due to the construction of Interstate Highway 5. Nearly 50 years later, Jessica took on the challenge of restoring and revitalizing the city’s Chinatown.

Below, Jessica gives us a look into how NYU shaped her work today and the inspiration behind starting the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation.

What were some of the challenges involved in your quest to preserve and revitalize California’s Chinese American history?

The easy part is uncovering the rich history. I naturally understood the economic development of Chinatown; it has all of the principles that I learned from NYU related to urban planning and good development.  

The hardest part is changing the narrative that exists today. In 1936 William Zimmerman reported to the Federal Writers Project that Chinese people built “mysterious tunnels'' consisting of illegal activity such as opium dens, smuggling, gambling, and kidnappings. This became a successful propaganda tool used to destroy our community’s character and minimize Chinese American contributions in history. 

Today, I am frequently asked about these tunnels, which in reality are old subterranean basements that haven’t been used in years because of California’s climate. However, throughout the West, this rumor lives on that there are “Chinese tunnels” whenever you see brick arch doors that lead to the subterranean basements. 

The other challenge that I face is time and cultural stigma. The third generation that remembers specific family stories from the 1850s are passing away. Many Chinese American families do not know that much about their great grandparents because it was not appropriate to discuss the past and there was great shame for being a “paper son” or “paper daughter” all of which was a ripple effect from the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

Tell us about the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation and what inspired you to start this non-profit.

Whenever my grandfather and I spoke, he would say his life was remarkable and it was touching the way he acknowledged himself. We talked in-depth about his legacy and our community. I could tell in his reflections that it hurt him that his sisters, nieces, and my grandmother never had the opportunity to go to college, since, like most Chinese American families, only boys were afforded the opportunity. 

I was fortunate enough to go to college and the women in my family expressed how they wished to have had that opportunity. Ultimately, our discussions inspired me to establish a scholarship fund to give back to the community who gave us 157 strong years.

The Helen and Joe Chew Foundation (HJC) was established last year with its core mission to provide a scholarship for high school students who are residents of Red Bluff. Tehama County, where Red Bluff resides and is the county seat, is an underserved community that deserves resources for generations to come. We hope to achieve preservation and awareness regarding the history of Chinese Americans in Tehama County.  

What was it like receiving a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on behalf of your grandfather Joe You Chew for his service in WWII? 

There were so many emotions. Three of our 17 veterans received a Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal through a formal ceremony. This is the highest honor ever received in recognition of their service. Unfortunately, none would live to witness this honor. My grandfather, being one of them, died just one month shy of the ceremony. The fact that it took seventy-six years for my grandfather to be recognized breaks my heart.

I think about my grandfather’s legacy, having been born in a segregated Chinatown because Chinese people weren’t allowed in hospitals, and how my entire family is buried in the once segregated “Chinese” section of the cemetery. It amazes me how if it weren’t for China’s allyship with the U.S. government during WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act might never have been repealed. It used to be that anyone could live in Chinatown but Chinese people couldn’t live anywhere else. I never fully understood the full meaning of all this until I accepted the honor on behalf of my grandfather. 

What did you study at NYU and how has your NYU education helped you in your career?

I received an M.S. in Real Estate Development and it was through my class with Professor Manish [Srivastava] that I began understanding what makes good, viable real estate development with consideration to land use, zoning, urban planning, and long term economic feasibility. I applied this knowledge to my town’s rich Chinese history and was able to articulate Chinatown’s 19th-century urban environment as something to be proud of. Through my education on the principles for city building and development, I was able to get a permanent street named Historic Chinatown Alley in Red Bluff. 

NYU helped me understand the history of Chinatown from a real estate point of view and I used this to explain the history to the Mayor, City Council, and Planning Department. I was able to explain the microeconomics of how our Chinatown thrived for 125 years and how Tehama County’s access to different modes of transportation offered a variety of job opportunities for Chinese immigrants, allowing them to implement centuries of knowledge and innovations from China such as the creation of dredging methods, using black powder instead of dynamite for the expansion of the railroad, and subdividing parcels with rock walls. By the mid-1860s, there were over two thousand Chinese families living in Tehama County with descendants from all over the United States. Overall, my education really helped with strategizing how I was going to restore Tehama County’s Chinatown.

Through all of this, the City of Eureka and the Humboldt Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidarity (HAPI) nonprofit were huge supporters of what I was trying to do. They essentially gave us their Eureka Chinatown Project playbook for us to mirror and use as a guide. Vicki Ozaki from HAPI guided me on deliberations and best practices for integrating a humanities program into the community in an impactful and sustainable way. 

You’ve made such impressive and important strides in the maintenance and revitalization of your family’s history, as well as in the preservation of California’s history. What are you most proud of?

I am working on my book Images of America: Chinese in Tehama County that is scheduled to be released June 2023. In working on the book and expanding my scope to the entire county, I feel incredibly humbled by the fact that so many families that I have reached out to are willing to trust me to share their stories, especially since some of these stories are painful and hard to recount. Furthermore, the friendships I have made this past year feels more like a family. 

I am most proud of our 2023 one year series coming up, which we have started to fundraise for. This is something that was organically put together because so many people were excited to hear that I convinced our city’s government to create a Historic Chinatown Alley and officially name it. 

Do you have any advice for NYU alumni who are on their own quest to learn and embrace their own family history and are maybe looking for ways to contribute to their family’s legacy in one way or another?

I would share the Jesuit mission of “educating hearts and minds to change the world from here,” which is so deeply ingrained in me. Also as a Californian, what having lived and gone to school in the Northeast has taught me is that our country is a community full of stories and rich histories.

I always told myself that the things I cannot understand today, I’ll save for later to revisit when I am older and wiser. This has been so helpful for me to keep an open mind and allow history to unfold as it will at its own pace. 

For example, my Auntie May Yee turned 99-years-young in October and I have started recording my conversations with her. I recommend recording family conversations with your elders and looking at family photo albums together. Use this time to write each person’s name on the back of each picture. This makes it an organic conversation with a series of stories that can be prompted from each photo. Some of these stories are incredibly complex, especially when you place them onto an American history timeline. It’s unbelievable what our individual families have experienced in the last century.

Lastly, I would recommend reading Chinese American: History and Perspectives 1991, which has a great chapter on how to interview family members, particularly family members who had experienced the period during the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Each of us has a unique social role and our collective stories shine a light that we are all the same regardless of our ethnicity, national origin, education, income, or any other identifier.