Early Stories of Ojai, Part III (Chinese in Ojai) by Howard Bald
Note: Howard Bald was an early Ojai resident. His reminiscences were written in the early 1970s.
Many Chinese as well as Italians were employed in wood cutting operations in the valley around the first of the century. Some Chinese lingered on as domestics or in other capacities for a decade or so.
My grandmother had one who baked delicious bread. The loaves were always a beautiful deep brown. But the Chinese and my grandmother suddenly parted company when it was discovered that he would fill his mouth with water and squirt it over the loaves during the baking.
There was always a Chinese vegetable wagon pulled by two horses, or sometimes one horse, that came around once a week. (There were never fresh vegetables in the grocery story that I remember.) A carrot or a turnip to each of us youngsters was always a treat, but the Chinese vendor didn’t always have them.
At this period no one can tell me where the vegetables were grown, probably near Ventura. A special treat that we youngsters looked forward to about Christmas time was Chinese nuts, or litchi nuts. They were delicious.
And there was the Chinese laundry that at one time was operated by Wah Lee. It was located east on Ojai Avenue just west of the bridge, and on the north side of the property on Mrs. Gally’s property, mother of Howard Gally. Wah Lee went about with a covered wagon drawn by one horse. His business survived on into the second decade. In fact, during prohibition times, he probably made more money bootlegging than doing laundry. I faintly remember a little stir that was caused by Mrs. Gally refusing to put him out when the local officers were unable to catch him.
Chinese were said to have built the first stone walls in east Ojai valley. It seems to me that the walls looked as old at the turn of the century as they look now. Those walls don’t include the ones on east Ojai Avenue, east Grand, north Carne and the one on the Twin Peaks Ranch. I have been told that these Chinese received 50 cents a day.
There was not too much law enforcement in that day, and the poor Chinese sometimes had a pretty rough time of it. I have heard my mother tell of her brother Tom roping (lassoing) one as he plodded along the dusty road. Tom was riding a colt and couldn’t manage the rope and the colt at the same time, with the result the Chinaman climbed up the rope and took it away from him. Tom dismounted, my mother (Katie) held the colt, while Tom tussled with the man and retrieved the rope.
Later the fellow returned with a shotgun, but Tom had ridden off to the Upper Ojai, while Katie’s mother hid her in a clothes closet and locked all of the doors. That house was the two story, yellow building south and east of the Ojai lumber company yard, a mile and a half east of Ojai.
Well, that fellow had the last laugh. Some time later the boys who had taken his laundry were swimming in the creek beyond what was Clausen’s dairy on the Pirie ranch. This same laundryman slipped up and stole all of their clothes. Needless to say, they were not returned nicely laundered.
There were many other incidents of that nature, some funny, some not so funny, dependent largely on one’s point of view. But just one more Chinese anecdote: A group of rowdies one dark night surrounded the wash house and began firing guns into the air. The occupant of the house opened the door and returned the fire. In the rowdies haste to clear out, one was almost decapitated on a clothes line.
“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973