Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Details: Jue Joe , Potato Farmer

Auntie Soo-Yin writes :
POTATO FARMING IN VAN NUYS AND CHATSWORTH: Jue Joe probably started to farm on his own around 1896. He had time to save up money to lease land by then. He also had time to gain experience in dry farming, etc., in order to know what he was doing. Otto Brant's land syndicate had gained considerable control by then, affording Jue Joe access to choice plots.

"I.N. Van Nuys Ranch: Grub time on the I.N. Van Nuys Ranch, 1895. In Jue Joe's time this is how the south portion of the San Fernando Valley looked, all wheat farms. Later, Jue Joe purchased 300 acres of this land and that portion became the Jue Joe Asparagus Ranch. (Title Insurance and Trust Company.) "

Jue Joe, with help from Otto, tried to lease 20-acres in Van Nuys, then successfully leased 40-acres in Chatsworth, and later 60-acres in Reseda at today's Balboa and Roscoe Blvds. He farmed potatoes. That was his main crop. He probably added a few other minor crops. Then he drove a team of horses hitched to a buckwagon ladened with produce over Cahuenga Pass to the L.A. Plaza, which served as an early produce market. Later, when the Produce Exchange on San Pedro Street was built, Jue Joe leased a warehouse there. It was to Joe's neighbor at the Produce Exchange that Jue Shee sold his brother's business, after Jue Joe had returned to China in 1902 to marry. In that year Jue Joe was 42-years old."

"Cahuenga Pass, 1897: This is what the wagon trail looked like for Jue Joe. He drove a team of four horses hitched to a buck wagon filled with crates of potatoes. And it took him three hours each way to drive his wagon from the San Fernando Valley and over the Cahuenga Pass to the Los Angeles produce market. The Pass is now the Hollywood Freeway. (Title Insurance and Trust Company.) "

The Los Angeles Times has always been known for fine investigative reporting . In January 1, 1896 the Times published a very long over 5000 word article on what was at the time called "Chinese Vegetable Gardening". They sent a reporter to investigate the Chinese vegetable industry with a letter of introduction written by a Chinese interpreter in Chinese characters:
"To whom it may concern: This white man come for the purpose to examine the production of the land, maybe in each place or the whole county: how the production going on during the year,so he publish it to the public. Therefore Chinamen must receive him the same as gentleman for that purpose; whether he asks about how much during the year in producing , and how much profit you make, and then you can inform him without fear; or whether he wish to take a picture of your land, or of your loaded wagon you let him do so. I am yours,
"Law Ark Fawn"
The article is invaluable in giving us a snapshot of Chinese farming just as Jue Joe was getting started in the business. Unfortunately , the Chinese farmers were very shy about having their photos taken , so the reporter had to illustrate his article with drawings ! I have transcribed some of the most interesting material from the article.

"There is possibly no separate rural industry in Los Angeles city or county which is productive of more annual wealth or is of more general importance than is the Chinese vegetable industry. It might be said in a general way that the production of vegetables in this county is given over wholly to the Chinese. There are in some spots a few white persons engaged in raising vegetables along with fruits and other products, but these are for the wholesale market. In the field of vegetable production for the retail market the Chinese obtain exclusively. "

Some Chinese farmers grow and haul their own produce to market and have their own wagons , whereas others hire wagons to carry their product to the vegetable exchange . Here produce is exchanged between farmers to retailers and wholesalers.

"One of the most interesting sights to be witnessed is to be found every week day morning at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets , which is the sort of exchange point for Chinese vegetable wagons , as many as thirty congregating there some mornings. This scene takes place very early in the morning-usually about 530or 6 o clock. There the several retail wagons from the farms exchange vegetables with retail wagons from other farms, while wholesale wagons from farms which do not run retail wagons, and from those which do , sell to retail wagons belonging to vendors wholly, and which have no connection with any farm. This business is dispatched with great directness and celerity and in half an hour after the first wagon heaves in sight , the ground is cleared of every vestige of a Chinese, for they have all started out on their several routes and the wholesale wagons have gone back to the farms .

The most democratic equality appears to exist on a Chinese ranch. You may closely scrutinize every Chinaman on the place in search of some exterior evidence that would suggest which of several individuals bears the distinction of boss and you will find absolutely none. A Chinaman is a Chinaman and everybody works; they all , in some way to the eye of the Caucasian look much alike; they certainly are all of one complexion and of the same hue of hair; and their faces are all smoothly shaven, and whether in the clouts of a laborer or in the fatigue attire of a holiday, they all dress about alike. On the farm each man appears to know his duties, and they work with a steadiness and persistency ,from daylight to dark , which would be unedurable to a farmer of the Anglo-Saxon stock.

Chinese do not own land ; they all rent . They are particular about the grade and character of the soil, the presence of water and the locality of the land in point of contiguity to the city. All these points being favorably resolved , the Chinaman is ready to pay the highest rent for the land and when he has possession of it he puts it to the best use. On a Chinese ranch there are no idle acres; even areas of sand and alkali are turned to some sort of account . The Chinese farmer raises nothing but vegetables; he does not raise cereals nor live stock nor fruit; potatoes and onions are his stables, with cauliflower and cabbage; many of them raising nothing but these. Land owners complain that the Chinese will rent a piece of land for a few years and then move off after they have exhausted the soil so it is not possible to grow crop on it .

The philosopher says " We cannot all be doctors and dentists and lawyers, and editors , but we can all be farmers" It is through the fact that we can " all be farmers" that the Chinaman is a farmer. He does not assume the role out of mere choice ; he does it from necessity; many of them do not know, when they first commence , the first principles of farming ; but it is so easy to learn , and the secret of success is hard animal work .

The Chinese operate their farms upon two systems; either as an individual, who hires his own hands and pays them wages , the same as any other employer, or in the form of companies. The wages paid Chinese farm laborers by Chinese employers are the same as paid to them by any other employer. These average about $25 a month with board . (For comparison a Chinese cook gets $40 a month)

The Chinese as a whole are poor farmers. It appears mainly due to their inability to properly apply water for irrigation. They water the land too much . A Chinese farm is almost always soaked with water , and the result is that vegetables are watery and too frequently flat in flavor. The vegetables , owing to the excess of water in their composition do not keep well and will rot oftener than they will dry.

As cultivators of the soil, however, the Chinese are diligent , untiring . A Chinese farm is a model area of well stirred ground. Its long rows of growing vegetation run straight in their furrows as surveyors lines , their tops of various shades of green showing strongly against the black earth. When you look toward the farm buildings , however, you are shocked...
The Chinese ranch houses are worse than "shacks"... They are merely heaps of old wood debris nailed together to make some kind of an inclosure with a roof and four sides. Pieces of oil boxes,of tin cans here and there a shingle, here a rotten board, one door and frequently no windows and you have a Chinese ranch house. The stable is the same , and these two buildings constitute the entire structures on a Chinese farm.

Long strings of red pods of the chile pepper hang outside the outside of the house, certain flitches of dried fish strung on sticks and stretching between two poles with some slabs of jerked beef shriveled in the density of its hardness, tell of the foods on which the toilers of the farm subsist. The chief item of the Chinese fare , on the farm as elsewhere is rice. They are also great consumers of pork both fresh and dried; these substances , with an abundance of vegetables from their own lands, constitute their daily diet. They are not fastidious over the number of dishes with which they are served. In fact , they eat about the same dish during the entire day . In the morning some one of their number, anyone-there is no special cook on the ranch-prepares a quantity of fresh or dried pork, chopped fine with green peas or beans, and fried like a saute; this and boiled rice is the food for all hands for the entire day, taking a swallow of tea after each meal , and at night a glass of red wine. On this fare they work six and a half days of each week , from daylight to dark, quitting at noon on Sunday and spending the balance of that day lolling around or in an excursion to the city and a visit to their friends in Chinatown.

The domestic life of the Chinese is a very humdrum, animal one. There are no females on any of the ranches. Most of the Chinese, however , are married, but their wives are in China. Thither Chang or Sing ultimately hopes to return . His remaining in this country is a period spent in prison , save that it is endured not for penance or punishment but for the reward. He can earn far better wages here than in his native country and he lays up his savings against the day when he shall start for China , never to return. There, with the few hundred dollars he has accumulated here, he can live almost as a nabob , measurably free from the drudgery of his American existence.

Where a ranch is operated by a company , the partners have equal shares. These companies comprise from four to six individuals. Usually the holder of one or more shares is some merchant in Chinatown. When such is the case , the merchant supplies a man , whose wages he pays to work in his place.

Farms run all the way in size from twenty to 189 acres. The average farm is about 100 acres and employs four men. The gross annual income to Chinese farmers as shown from the wagon receipts and the railroad estimates of the wholesale sales is about $85 dollars to the acre. The expenses per acre might be estimated as follows ; labor $18 , food for man and beasts $1, rent $10, water $1, total $30 . This leaves a net balance of $55. A certain margin , must be deduced , however, for interest on investment which when it is borrowed is invariably high ; for loss of crops by too much water or too little water, and for losses attendant on the ravages of insects; also a slight deduction for bad debts as before related. All of these items it might be reasonably said would cut the net profits of farming to the Chinese to $50 dollar per acre, and this is about what the Chinese themselves account it to be.

The accumulated property of the Chinese farmer is in money. He makes no investments in property of any kind. He can leave the country almost on a day's notice and take with him all his possessions . Their checks being few, they become valued customers of the banks , for they leave their money untouched on deposit for long periods. They have full confidence in the banks which are all of the American sort, and it is notable that during the financial panic which closed so many banks in this city two years ago , very few Chinese disturbed their deposits. "

Since the Chinese are doing so well , the author wonders why Americans do not chose to emulate the Chinese in vegetable farming . "There are certain elements in connection with this kind of farming that do not appeal to the American and chief among these is the fact that he does not like to go upon leased land. The Chinaman knows no better; he has been a serf of the land in his own country and it is but natural that he should not take umbrage at becoming such here. But the American who has come down from an ancestry of tillers upon their own lands, does not like the idea of taking a yearly lease from someone upon a bare tract of land with the feeling that his tenure may not last later than the end of the year and therefore he is precluded from planting a tree or driving a nail , for the law will say that his improvements belong to the owner of the land . He cannot buy land, for the price asked is too high . It would seem wiser for the out- of -work man to rent a piece of land , if he can find a landlord who will forego collecting rent in advance-and get to work on the land after the Chinese fashion . He can work better than they do, though he may not work so hard, and he can make a good living and clear $50 per acre per year, which if he has ten acres of land , will give him more money at the end of the year than is possessed by most men "

Jue Joe's annual income :
Marysville and St . Helena Wineries at 50 cents a day 6 1/2 days a week : $168 dollars a year
Southern Pacific Railroad at $1 a day 6 1/2 days a week : $336
Houseboy at $40 dollars a month : $480
Farming 40 acres of potatoes in Chatsworth : pay self $25 dollar a month because he works himself , plus profit of 50 dollars an acre a year x 40 acres
=$300 +$2000= $2300

As we can see , Jue Joe is our first successful family entrepreneur and it is no wonder that by 1902 , at the age of 42 , he feels it is time to reap the rewards of a life of hard work and go back to China forever, get married, have children , and build a house . He is secure in the knowledge that he has given the business to his younger brother Jue Shee who has a PHD from Pomona college and who will run the farming/produce business and send money back to Jue Joe and the rest of the family in China. Unfortunately , that was not to be., and Jue Joe had to leave his family in China and come back to America again in 1906 to rebuild his family's fortunes .


  1. Fantastic article! It gives a clear picture of Jue Joe's life in his early farming days. And calculations of Jue Joe's ROI at each step of development reveals a man reaping reward from years and years of toil. The land was everything to him because it took so much of his life. San Tong recalls that in 1918 he and his brother San You rode the L-line of the Big Red Cars from Ferguson Alley, Downtown, to Witmer St in SFV, and then walked over half a day to Chatsworth. When they saw their father's 40-acre potato ranch--there stood Jue Joe's "Chinese-style" bunkhouse. It was a clapboard box that had 10 bunkbeds: five stacked high on each side of the room. The bunkhouse had no heat and no water. It had no toilet, too. That night the boys slept with the ranch hands and it was freezing cold. As a child I remember seeing Jue Joe's hand plow. It had one big wheel, and it rested against a barn on the Van Nuys ranch. I asked my father about it and he picked it up and showed me how he could still plow a straight line to make a furrow in a field. San Tong said that Jue Joe could do this all day. He could also do it with a plow hitched behind a single horse. And San Tong said that Jue Joe taught him how to do it too. One day he told me about Jue Joe's Pierce Arrow car. This was the only luxury that Jue Joe ever bought for himself. The 1932 or '33 Pierce Arrow towncar was black with chrome detailing. Its interior upholstery was red-tufted velvet and had a chauffer's seat separated by a glass window. There was a phone inlaid with Mother of Pearl that connected the chauffer to the passenger seat in the rear. And the Pierce Arrow model had two chrystal lamps on each side of the exterior front, near the windows. Jue Joe was a pragmatist: With the Pierce Arrow's 125-horse power engine, he ripped out its backseat, he tied ropes to its back fender, and he used the car to uproot trees in order to clear his fields for cultivation. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  2. Jue Shee, who was 15 years younger than Jue Joe, thought that his older brother would never return to the USA. This is what he told Leong Shee upon his arrival in Sum Gong Village years later as an old man. He thought of himself as a mining engineer, not as a farmer. Jue Shee was an intellectual, a social activist. He'd desegregated L.A.'s Orpheum Theater when he was a Ph.D candidate at Pomona College. He had no interest in running a produce business. Finding no other work for a Chinese in California, he wanted to see Paris, France, and beyond in hopes of finding a place for himself in the world. This is why he sold Jue Joe's business. Not being the oldest brother in the family Jue Shee did not feel the degree of responsibilities that Jue Joe felt in maintaining the economic and political life of a Chinese family. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  3. San Tong said that after Jue Joe's work as a houseboy on the Chatsworth ranch of the Johnsons, he was able to lease a 40-acre ranch in Chatsworth to farm potatoes. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  4. JEW SHEE/ORPHEUM THEATER: The Orpheum was located at 110 S. Main St. It had been the Grand Opera House, then became the Orpheum Circuit vaudville theater from 1894 to 1903. In 1896 the Orpheum premiered its first film festival (called, "exhibition") in Los Angeles, featuring films from the Edison Studios (Thomas Edison). This was a very big event for "Angelinos." It marked the transition from vaudville to silent films. And everyone wanted to see this new technology, including Jew Shee. San Tong said, "Jew Shee and two Chinese students from Pomona College dressed up in suit and tie. They walked passed a sign in the Theater's opulent lobby that read, 'No Chinese allowed,' they walked passed the manager, Charles Schimpf, who yelled and ran after them, they parted the red velvet curtains and entered to take their seats. At once a fight broke out. Jew Shee and his two friends were arrested. At the jailhouse Jew Shee's attorney had been waiting to post bail for them, the attorney had been paid in advance by Jew Shee. A discrimination suit was filed against the Orpheum and Jew Shee won his case. Thereafter, the Orpheum had to allow all people regardless of race to attend the theater." The dates that I saw on Jew Shee's textbooks from Pomona College correspond to the date of the festival's premier at the Orpheum. They ranged from around 1896 to 1898. Recently I found photos of the old Orpheum Circuit in which theater seats cost 10 cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents at the time that Jew Shee desegregated the Orpheum. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  5. ADDITION TO JEW SHEE/ORPHEUM THEATER: The date of the Orpheum's film exhibition was July 6, 1896. The Theater's seating capacity was 1500. By this time Jew Joe was making good money from farming and he could afford to send his younger brother, Jew Shee, to Pomona College, a private school. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  6. Correction concerning Jue Shee :
    Jue Shee (aka Jew Shee) obtained his undergraduate degree at Pomona College , and then went to UC Berkeley where he obtained his PhD in mining engineering according to San Tong (thanks Auntie Soo-Yin for clarifying Jue Shee's college career !)