GEORGE SHIMA, THE JAPANESE IMMIGRANT who became known as the “Potato King” of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was profiled in a prior Soundings Magazine article . But did you know there was an earlier, Chinese immigrant also known as a “Potato King?” Here’s the story of Chin Lung (Chin Hong Dai).
At the turn of the twentieth century, the grain market had fallen on hard times, but Los Angeles investors—wealthy from citrus, real estate, and oil—and San Franciscans, wealthy from the Comstock Lode, and other investors from the East and from Europe, began purchasing and reclaiming the rich peatlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These investors were soon leasing the lands to energetic farmers, many of them Asian immigrants. A major crop planted on these Delta farmlands was potatoes and Stockton became known throughout the United States as the “great western potato mart.”
Chin Lung was one of the first Chinese farmers to lease Delta farmland. In September 1901, he planted a crop of potatoes on his 1,100-acre lease just west of Stockton. Mr. Chin’s potato crop hit the Eastern markets nearly two months ahead of his competitors from other areas and he suddenly became wealthy.
Delta potatoes not only reached the market before those from other growing regions, they could be grown in the rich Delta soil with little or no fertilizer, and they had a pale skin that Eastern customers found attractive.
Potato yields in the Delta were significantly higher than elsewhere in California or the U.S. The 1910 Agricultural Census reported the average potato yield in other regions of California to be 147 bushels per acre, while the San Joaquin County (Delta) yield was between 300 and 800 bushels per acre!
In 1901, when Chin first planted potatoes, there were nearly 2,000 Chinese in San Joaquin County—the fourth largest concentration in California, surpassed only by San Francisco, Alameda, and Sacramento counties. Half of them were farmers or farm laborers.
Despite racist editorials and exclusionary laws, the Chinese were generally liked and supported by the whites of the Delta region. The Stockton City Attorney, for example, spoke in favor of further Chinese immigration and he and his law partner helped Asians ineligible for citizenship form corporations, so they could continue farming. Although racism clearly existed in the Delta, the violent incidents of racism that occurred elsewhere in California were less common here.
Census records show that in 1910 Chinese farmers were leasing 5,381 acres of San Joaquin County farmland and by 1920 the acreage leased by Chinese had increased to about 13,500 acres.
Between 1901 and 1924, Chin Lung farmed at least 1,000 acres each season and he was the principal employer of Chinese laborers in San Joaquin County. In 1910 Chin purchased 2,200 acres of Delta farmland of his own, northwest of Stockton near White Slough—the first agricultural property in San Joaquin County purchased by a Chinese. Two years later Chin purchased the nearby Shin Kee Tract, named after the Sing Kee Store (correct spelling) that he owned on Sacramento Street in San Francisco. He grew potatoes, beans, onions, asparagus, and hay for seventy work horses. The “Chinese Potato King” attributed his success to his fluency in English, access to credit, openness to new methods and technology, and hard work.
Chin lost the store and his agricultural holdings in California and Oregon by 1923 as a result of the Alien Land Acts of 1920 and 1923. He farmed in Oregon until 1933, after which he retired and returned to his native China.
Chin Lung’s story is included in an exhibit panel along the Delta Water Path exterior exhibition at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in Micke Grove Park.
David Stuart recently retired as the executive director of the San Joaquin County Historical Society. Previously, he directed the Sacramento History Museum, the Sacramento Science Center, and museums in Ventura. His family settled in the Delta in 1860.