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A look at history: Chan House tells tale of early Chinese discrimination

By: Lindy Gervin, Telegraph Staff Writer
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The boarded up Chan House in Historic Folsom may seem like a hole in the wall, but there is actually an important tale behind the House that few Folsomites know about. Jeff Ferreira-Pro, vice president of the Folsom Historical Society, said, “The Chan House has a significant story behind it that many people haven’t heard of.” The Chan House, located in Historic Folsom, is being renovated with the hopes of completion later this year, to be opened as a museum about the Chan family, and the Chinese laborers who lived in Folsom. In the 1880s, Folsom had a Chinese community of about 2,500 which was the largest Chinese community in California — second to San Francisco. Chinese laborers were forced out of many California communities based on their race. The Natomas Company in Folsom used Chinese laborers when building the canal and flume system for area gold mining operations and the company sheltered the Chinese community, enabling the laborers to send money to their families in China. “The Chan family came to Folsom at this time,” said Ferreira-Pro. Oak Chan, often referred to as the “mayor” of the Folsom Chinese community, was respected not only by the Chinese, but by the Caucasian community as well. “The Chinese Exclusion Act, however, did not allow for a Chinese person to own property, so although the Chan family lived in a house on Sutter Street from the 1920s to the 1970s, they did not initially own it,” said Ferreira-Pro. Finding a way to be part of the community was a challenge for the Chinese community. The Chan family purchased the property shortly after the Exclusion Act was overturned in 1943. “Descendants of Oak Chan still live in Folsom today and are donating the property in Historic Folsom in order for the Chinese history of Folsom to be preserved,” said Ferreira-Pro. “Two-thirds of the property is being donated to the city while the other third will be purchased through fundraising.” The Heritage Preservation League of Folsom and the Folsom Historical Society hope to raise about $250,000 to build a new foundation for the House to bring it up to modern building code. “The League and the Historical Society have subsequent fundraising goals,” Ferreira-Pro said, “which include reaching out to the Chinese Heritage in the Folsom and Sacramento regions as well as to locals in Folsom.” Many people have already been a big part of making the Chan House museum possible. The Historical Society has structural engineers and other contractors volunteering their time to look at the Chan House. Ferreira-Pro said, “I suspect very many people in California don’t know about the Chan House history and this justifies having a museum in California.” There have been several contributions and pledges to the project totaling over $25,000 thus far. Bill and Claudia Cummings and Folsom Lake Bank have each pledged $5,000, and Wells Fargo Bank has donated $2,500. The League and Historical Society are in the beginning stages of fundraising, but they have a goal to acquire the property by the end of the year. The museum is intended to celebrate the heritage of the Chinese immigrants who first came to Northern California during the California Gold Rush. “Once that initial goal is achieved, our longer-term goal is to build an extension on the museum to include exhibits on the many other ethnic groups who’ve also had an impact on local history. Among those are the Nisenan Maidu people who were here for centuries before the Gold Rush and the colony of African-American gold miners who settled here in 1849 at a spot still referred to as Negro Bar,” said Ferreira-Pro. Michele David, owner of Great Escape Travel, along with Ferreira-Pro and Claudia Cummings from the Friends of the Chan House, have partnered to offer an opportunity for people to visit China in April 2013. They have organized two trip options (12 day or 16 day) and $100 per person will be donated to the Chan House Museum Project with each tour. Jay Fehan, of Collette Vacations, will present a slide show describing the highlights of both trips at the Murer House Learning Center on Aug. 20 at 10:30 a.m. The Friends of Chan House are continuously looking for volunteers to make this project possible. To learn more, visit friendsofchanhouse.org.