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Forgotten Contribution of Chinese Laborers in California’s Wine Country

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Women and Men in California during Gold Rush. Wikimedia
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  • California Gold Rush caused the migration of Chinese
  • Contribution of Chinese workers in helping build Buena Vista Winery
  • Sonoma-Penglai Sister City Committee is raising funds to build a Chinese pavilion to honor their contribution

California, July 13, 2017: 

Role of California Gold Rush in Migration of Chinese

Discovery of Gold in 1848 by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in California sparked almost mass hysteria as it brought thousands of immigrants to the American west.  The New York Herald is said to be the first newspaper to confirm about the news of gold rush in California (on August 1, 1948). More than 300,000 people thronged from the United States and abroad seeking to strike it rich. The California Gold Rush also included the Chinese who stayed back even after the gold rush ended in 1855. The Chinese worked as unskilled labor mainly in construction of the railroads.

Contribution of Chinese workers in laying the foundation of Wine Industry

Very few people know that these Chinese workers played a vital role in laying the foundation for the famous California wine industry. People who visit by the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County get surprised when they learn about the forgotten past of Chinese laborers. Founded in 1857 it is the first premium winery of California. The people who helped in building it came from far off places while some of them also traveled north of San Francisco to work in the infant vineyards.

“From the late 1850’s to the 1870’s, they primarily were Chinese laborers. They actually built our building and played a huge role in the founding of Buena Vista,” said Tom Blackwood, general manager of Buena Vista Winery.

“They did all of the work of the fields, the plowing. The actual digging, planting and then the management of all the vineyards,” said Blackwood. “They definitely worked at the other properties, but Buena Vista was known to have the largest Chinese labor camp north of San Francisco.”

The Chinese laborers also dug the cave at Buena Vista Winery for the purpose of storing wines so they could age. But what still remains there, are the pick marks on the walls of the cave. The rocks which were dug from the cave were used as building blocks for the wine-making facilities at that time, and of those original buildings, two of them still remain to this date.

“A couple of my friends showed me, the so-called ‘Chinese rock fence,’” said Chinese American Jack Ding, pointing to a low fence made of rocks at the side of a busy road. “Local people, they still remember Chinese laborers did something for them.” “They worked here, lived here and most of them died here. They didn’t have a place to be buried,” said Ding to VOA.

 

Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County, California. Wikimedia

Story of Chinese Laborers still a mystery

Stories of the Chinese laborers passed down by word of mouth among the locals. Historians knew about them, but what happened to them isn’t certain. Immigrants from China experienced violent anti-Chinese sentiment, boycotts, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricted their immigration into the United States.

“We don’t understand where they went after they left the city of Sonoma. We don’t know a whole lot of names,” said former Sonoma city historian George McKale.

“This was sort of the forgotten history of Sonoma. We had sort of a shameful history regarding the Ancient Exclusion Act and people want to make things right,” said resident David Katz.

Wine Country Chinese Legacy Project, an effort to honor their contributions

To honor these nameless laborers, the Sonoma-Penglai Sister City Committee is raising money to build a Chinese pavilion, in the city of Sonoma. Katz and Ding who are the members of this Committee said that it would also be a piece of history for the new Chinese who are here. While the project aims to raise a total of $75,000, the Chinese sister city of Penglai has pledged $25,000 for building the outdoor structure, thus it will be called the Penglai Pavilion.

“We can see a lot of investors from China. They purchase wineries. They purchase properties. That is the reason why we want to build this kind of physical structure, to remind the people, remind them of the history, who we are and where we came from.”

The pavilion would help in educating the new generations of Chinese who visit the wine country learn about the history of their fellow citizens, said Ding.

– by Sabnam Mangla of NewsGram, Twitter: @sabnam_mangla


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California Cuts Coffee Off From Cancer Causing Chemicals

The state’s action rejects that ruling.

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A posted Proposition 65 warning sign is seen on display at a coffee shop in Burbank, Calif., March 30, 2018.
A posted Proposition 65 warning sign is seen on display at a coffee shop in Burbank, Calif., March 30, 2018. VOA

California officials, having concluded coffee drinking is not a risky pastime, are proposing a regulation that will essentially tell consumers of America’s favorite beverage they can drink up without fear.

The unprecedented action Friday by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to propose a regulation to clear coffee of the stigma that it could pose a toxic risk followed a review of more than 1,000 studies published this week by the World Health Organization that found inadequate evidence that coffee causes cancer.

The state agency implements a law passed by voters in 1986 that requires warnings of chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects. One of those chemicals is acrylamide, which is found in many things and is a byproduct of coffee roasting and brewing present in every cup of joe.

Win for coffee industry

If the regulation is adopted, it would be a huge win for the coffee industry, which faces potentially massive civil penalties after recently losing an 8-year-old lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court that could require scary warnings on all coffee packaging sold in California.

Judge Elihu Berle found that Starbucks and other coffee roasters and retailers had failed to show that benefits from drinking coffee outweighed any cancer risks. He had previously ruled the companies hadn’t shown the threat from the chemical was insignificant.

The state’s action rejects that ruling.

“The proposed regulation would state that drinking coffee does not pose a significant cancer risk, despite the presence of chemicals created during the roasting and brewing process that are listed under Proposition 65 as known carcinogens,” the agency said in a statement. “The proposed regulation is based on extensive scientific evidence that drinking coffee has not been shown to increase the risk of cancer and may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.”

A barista pours steamed milk into a cup of coffee at a cafe in Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2017. State health officials proposed a regulation change Friday that would declare coffee doesn't present a significant cancer risk, countering a California court ruling.
A barista pours steamed milk into a cup of coffee at a cafe in Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2017. State health officials proposed a regulation change Friday that would declare coffee doesn’t present a significant cancer risk, countering a California court ruling. VOA

Unprecedented move

Attorney Raphael Metzger, who won the court case on behalf of The Council for Education and Research on Toxics, said he was shocked the agency would move to nullify the court decision and undermine its own report more than a decade ago that drinking even small amounts of coffee resulted in a significant cancer risk.

“The takeaway is that the state is proposing a rule contrary to its own scientific conclusion. That’s unprecedented and bad,” Metzger said. “The whole thing stinks to high hell.”

The National Coffee Association had no comment on the proposed change. In the past, the organization has said coffee has health benefits and that the lawsuit made a mockery of the state law intended to protect people from toxics.

Scientific evidence on coffee has gone back and forth over many years, but concerns have eased recently about possible dangers, with some studies finding health benefits.

Big Coffee didn’t deny that acrylamide was found in the coffee, but argued it was only found at low levels and was outweighed by other benefits such as antioxidants that reduce cancer risk.

Coffee beans
Coffee beans, Pixabay

Congress

The state agency’s action comes about a week after bipartisan bills were introduced in both houses of Congress to require science-based criteria for labels on food and other products. One of the sponsors, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, alluded to the California coffee lawsuit as an example of misleading warnings.

“When we have mandatory cancer warnings on a cup of coffee, something has gone seriously wrong with the process,” Schrader said in a news release. “We now have so many warnings unrelated to the actual health risk posed to consumers, that most people just ignore them.”

The lawsuit against Starbucks and 90 companies was brought by the tiny nonprofit under a law that allows private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties for failure to provide warnings.

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, better known as Proposition 65, requires warning labels for about 900 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.

Also read: What Does Your Coffee Say About You?

The law has been credited with reducing cancer-causing chemicals, but it has been criticized for leading to quick settlement shakedowns and vague warnings that are often ignored. (VOA)