• Home
  • Bicycling in Fresno - Ch. 10

Chapter 10: Chinatown

There is a Class II bike lane on Elm Avenue that will get you to Chinatown from the south side of Fresno.  The bike lane starts just north of North Avenue, and you can proceed north for two miles.  Turn right on Ventura Avenue and proceed for just a block, and then turn left to C Street, which is just before the State Route 99 freeway.  Travel three blocks to Kern Street, and then make a right turn and go over the freeway to arrive in Chinatown.

Fresno’s original settlers located their new community along a new railroad line in the 1860s that was built by Chinese workers.  Many of the Chinese workers were expert brick makers, and they were employed to begin building the city.  But due to the racist practices back then, they were not allowed to live in the city and were forcibly relocated to the west side of the tracks. 

Racially segregated residential enclaves were common in California in the 19th century.  There was much racism and discrimination against the Chinese.  They were mistreated, but Fresno still needed their reliable labor force in the agricultural fields, so Fresno created Chinatown in 1872, and the Chinese community was relocated there.  The Chinese people were allowed to work in the nearby farms, but they were required to return to Chinatown when the work was done.  The population of Chinatown increased during the agricultural season and diminished at the end of the season when the harvest was completed.  Many immigrant Chinese and Mexican families met in Chinatown early in the morning to be hired by “contratistas” or labor contractors and then trucked off to farms where their labor was needed. 

Most of the cultural and ethnic communities in Fresno got their start in Chinatown.  West of the tracks was a lively and thriving area that offered goods, services and all kinds of entertainment day and night.  The residents were entrepreneurs who ran shops, hotels, theaters, restaurants, and service businesses.  They were farmers of figs, grapes, cotton and wheat.  

There was a great diversity of immigrants who made Chinatown their home when they first arrived in Fresno.  They included Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Armenians, and Mexicans.  As they began to earn enough money to have their own homes, they moved to the north side of Fresno, and thus they made room for new immigrants.  

Fresno was ruled from the east side of the tracks by a select group of white men who controlled City Hall, the business, and the police.  But they traveled to Chinatown with its maze of underground tunnels, built to offer protection from the hot Fresno summer and to house brothels, opium dens, and gambling parlors.  This was an underground world that not too many were exposed to.  

Chinatown was the place to be from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s.  With urban renewal in the 1960s, Chinatown began to lose its businesses and residents, and its historic buildings began to be torn down. Other buildings were abandoned, and vagrants began to congregate.  Chinatown suffered decades of neglect.  Poorly implemented and inadequately funded attempts for improvement didn’t help any. 

The arrival of the High Speed Rail construction began to provide much needed attention and potential development monies in Chinatown.  Property and business owners in Chinatown began to see an opportunity to benefit from a potential influx of people who will be boarding trains for travel to the rest of the state, as well as people traveling to and through Fresno.  But the High Speed Rail construction created a new challenge in that the three primary streets into Chinatown were temporarily shut down.  

There are other sites of historical interest in Chinatown.  St. Genevieve’s, the Chinese Catholic church located at 1127 Tulare Street, was established as a place of worship for Chinese laborers in Fresno.  The red brick building has many Chinese design features, and one of St. Genevieve's parish’s claims to fame is that it is the smallest parish church in the world. 

There is also an historic, three-story Buddhist temple in Fresno’s Chinatown, built by the Japanese Buddhist community in Chinatown many years ago, and it is now coming to life again. On the top floor of the Betsuin Buddhist Temple is a large meditation room with antique pendant lights hanging from the high ceiling and intricate woodwork decorating the room.  Multi-paned windows let in lots of light.

First generation Japanese immigrants, the Issei, built the temple.  They were mostly field workers paid very little, but they still managed to fund the elaborate temple.  In 2011, the Japanese-American congregation put the property up for sale and moved to North Fresno.  Fresno’s small Burmese-American community raised the money to purchase the temple in 2021, and it’s now known as Mrauk Oo Dhamma.  Their goal is to make it a monastery and a meditation center.   

At the front of the hall is a colorful shrine with a very big Buddha statue. It’s hand carved and covered in gold leaf.  It was recently shipped from Burma, or what’s now called Myanmar.  

To the left of this Buddha is a smaller Buddha.  When the Burmese-American community bought this property, they found the smaller statue of Buddha in the storeroom.  It turns out a mayor from a small Burmese town presented this Buddha to the city of Fresno in 1961.  The city then gave it to the temple, where it was stored after the Japanese-American congregation left.   

Behind the temple is a large fellowship hall with a kitchen that hosted numerous weddings and festivals and served thousands of meals over many generations. 

Outside the building is a large tree with heart-shaped leaves.  The banyan tree was sacred for the Buddhists because Buddha was enlightened under a banyan tree.  This tree apparently grew from a seedling that was transported from Sri Lanka and is related to the original tree.  

Cuca’s Restaurant is one of Fresno’s oldest establishments from a bygone era when people regularly traveled to Chinatown for entertainment, excitement, and good food.  The original establishment is still at its original location at 907 F Street, although there is a newer location at 936 East Olive Avenue in the Tower District.  

And there is also the yearly Chinatown parade and celebration that is sponsored by the Chinatown Merchants Association. 

We hope you enjoyed this chapter from Juan Flores' Bicycling in Fresno.

Return to Table of Contents

Fresno County Bicycle Coalition

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software