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A History of Chinatown

The eighteenth-century Spanish Presidio quadrangle underwent many transformations over two centuries. By the late 1800s, the few surviving portions of the Presidio's northwest corner abutted Santa Barbara's bustling Chinatown, one block further West on Canon Perdido Street. Chinese immigrants began arriving in Santa Barbara as early as the 1860s and worked in industries as diverse as abalone fishing, farming, laundry enterprises and domestic service. The block of Canon Perdido Street between State Street and Anacapa Street served as the cultural and residential hub for this community. It included rooming houses, several businesses, a school, place of worship and community meeting spaces. During the rebuilding that took place after the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, prominent local property owners dismantled old Chinatown in the attempt to create a cohesive Spanish colonial revival look for the city’s downtown commercial district.


Joss House, Santa Barbara 1927, by H.M. Davidson. Courtesy of the Presidio Research Center, gift of Elizabeth Hvolboll.

In the 1920s, local real estate owner and contractor Elmer Whittaker built a series of structures one block away, the south side of the 100 block of Canon Perdido Street, with the intent of encouraging the dwindling Chinese population to remain in downtown Santa Barbara. By 1930, the remaining residents of Santa Barbara’s Chinatown had moved to this New Chinatown, firmly situated within the Presidio quadrangle, and adjacent to a small and active community of Japanese residents. Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, built in 1947 by Whittaker for restaurant owner James Yee Chung, was the last piece of New Chinatown to be constructed. 


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