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Chinatown's urban legend

A tour will explore the rumored network of underground tunnels.

By Farin Montañez / The Fresno Bee
09/02/07 05:17:01
Tour raffle
What: Chinatown Jazz Fest
When: Noon to 11:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fresno Historic Fire Station No. 3 at Fresno and E streets
Details: Tickets cost $25 for adults or $10 for children under 12. They can be purchased at Chinatown Revitalization Inc., Central Fish Co., Full Circle Brewery, Salaam Seafoods Inc. and Veni Vidi Vici.

Raffle drawings will be held between jazz performances. Raffle tickets will be sold for $1 each during the festival.

One of Fresno's best-known urban legends isn't just a legend anymore: There really are tunnels under Chinatown.

A group working to preserve Chinatown is shining a light on what many considered to be just a rumor, opening the doors to a dimly lit network of basements and tunnels under Kern Street.

For decades, shopkeepers did their best to keep the century-old tunnels a secret after a series of break-ins in the interconnected basements.

Even archaeologists hired by the city a month ago to look for the tunnels were not initially informed that they actually were there.

On Aug. 3, the team began to investigate the possible existence of the tunnels using ground-penetrating radar.

Results from the radar data have not been released.

Officials from the city's Planning and Development Department -- which hired the archaeologists -- could not be reached to explain why they left the archaeologists out of the loop.

But Chinatown Revitalization Inc. officials are going public as part of a fundraiser for the Fresno Fire Department.

The grand prize for the Chinatown Jazz Fest raffle will be a guided tour for four of "Underground Chinatown."

The tunnels are accessed through backrooms of some shops along Kern. They run along Kern between F and G streets, said Kathy Omachi, the group's vice president. They were built as early as about 1880 through the early 1900s, she said.

Underground Chinatown is made up of concrete floors, brick walls and ceilings that vary from about six to eight feet high.

Evidence of what Omachi calls "Chinatown wildlife" -- alley cats, rats and bats -- make some areas reek.

The space is mostly empty, but parts are used for storage -- old boxes, piles of wood, random pieces of furniture.

Lighting is provided by a few bare lightbulbs that illuminate small portions of basements. Gas and water pipes line the walls and hang down from the ceiling.

Most of the slightly arched brick doorways are blocked off -- either boarded up or cemented shut. What lies beyond remains a matter of legend.

But folks have been talking ever since the archaeologists visited.

Rick Lew, 57, said he was taken into a tunnel by his father when he was a toddler. The two entered from the backroom of the family's liquor store and then walked about 20 feet in a tunnel that was about eight feet wide and eight feet tall, he recalled.

It had a dirt floor, and its brick walls were strung with bare lightbulbs.

"It was like a Friday night party atmosphere," Lew said. He remembers recognizing people in the tunnel from his visits to stores along China Alley.

"I remember seeing two ladies that were decked out in bright Chinese dresses," Lew said.

"I can only think now that they were prostitutes. Back then I didn't know what was going on. But I remember guys had smiles on their faces when they came around."

These days the tunnels are used mostly for storage, if they are used at all, but Omachi said there was a time when they were full of much more activity.

Business owners and their families would dig underneath their shops to create storage areas or living spaces, because temperatures were at least 20 degrees cooler underground during the summer, Omachi said.

Families that owned more than one building would build tunnels to connect those basements to make it easier to transport items from shop to shop.

The tunneling system may have also been used to transport alcohol underground during Prohibition, said Morgan Doizaki, president of Chinatown Revitalization.

Regardless of what they were used for, one question remains: How far do the tunnels go?

Oral history tells of a network spreading underneath all of Chinatown -- an area bounded by Fresno, Ventura, H and E streets -- and even extending northeast under railroad tracks and what is now Chukchansi Park, ending at Van Ness Avenue.

"But these are just people's stories and memories," Omachi said. "You need scientific evidence and documentation to prove that they are really there."

Chinatown Revitalization and the city of Fresno are waiting for the team of archaeologists to do just that.

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