Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters

A collaborative, community-based archaeology project about the history of Chinese workers at Stanford

About the Project

The Site

The Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters site (ACLQ) is located in the Stanford University Arboretum. Chinese employees lived there as they worked in the Stanford vineyards and winery operations, built and maintained the Stanfords’ orchards and gardens, and were instrumental in the creation and maintenance of the University’s iconic landscapes: the Arboretum, Palm Drive, the Oval, and the gardens of the Main Quadrangle. The site was occupied between the 1880s and 1925. When the last resident left, the buildings were demolished.

Finding the ACLQ

One important source was a 1908 fire insurance map, which clearly labelled these buildings as the “Chinese Labor Quarters.”

There is a major advantage in researching the ACLQ — the residents were working in an area that has a substantial historical record. Research in the University Archives and in the campus Maps and Records archives yielded a series of historic maps, which showed buildings in this area of the campus. One important source was a 1908 fire insurance map, which clearly labelled these buildings as the “Chinese Labor Quarters.” While the historic maps were incorporated into a digital model of the site, few landmarks contemporary to the ACLQ have survived, which made the determination of a precise location difficult. Further, these historic maps were, unfortunately, not detailed or consistent in the number and arrangement of buildings at the site, or in the precise location of the Quarters.

The ACLQ site was first identified during the excavation of a utility trench in the 1980s and was later surveyed, in 2016, by Stanford alumnus Chris Lowman (Class of 2010), then a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Beginning in 2017, Stanford UnStanford University’s Campus Archaeology Program used a grid system for investigations, which they laid over a search area determined by historic maps.iversity’s Campus Archaeology Program implemented a grid system for site investigations, which they laid over a search area determined by the historic maps. The investigation used this grid in two ways: first, archaeologists conducted pedestrian survey, during which artifacts on the ground surface were observed, documented, and collected; second, they conducted systematic Shovel Test Pit (STP) excavations, in which they dug test pits at intersections of the net-like grid.

In the spring of 2017, work within the grid located a trash midden, likely associated with the Quarters’ kitchen. Archaeologists hand-excavated a small trench through the midden, which yielded Chinese ceramics and food remains that were typical of Chinese-style meals. This confirmed the historic records of a Chinese occupation site in the vicinity. The discovery of the ACLQ site shows how the study of historical documents, when combined with scientific survey methodology, can aid in location archaeological sites whose locations have been lost to time.

Excavation: Opportunities and Expectations

As it is located on campus, the Arboretum Chinese Labor Quarters presents a unique and important opportunity to engage scholars, students, and members of the Chinese American community in the investigation of the role of Chinese employees in the operations of Stanford University. Research at the ACLQ also contributes to important themes in the history of the American West and U.S.-China relations. Located in an area of open space, the site is expected to be relatively intact, especially with regard to subsurface archaeological features, such as privies, building foundations or footings, and additional middens.

The archaeological information in these deposits is expected to yield crucial information on the lives of Chinese workers during this important historical period, which can be used in comparison to other archaeological sites to address larger questions about Chinese immigrant communities. The excavations at the ACLQ also create an opportunity for community-based archaeology in collaboration with the local Chinese American community. Descendants of Chinese employees may be able to share information passed along in their families to supplement existing archival records. The perspectives of the Chinese American community will help shape research questions, interpretive approaches, and preservation strategies at the site.

ACLQ team members tour the Chinese American Historical Museum

In October 2018, ACLQ team members toured the Chinese American Historical Museum at the Ng Shing Gong building in San Jose.