By 1856 Chinese merchant Sam Choy was assessed for a store and fireproof store room (valued at $450) on the east side of Main Street in Angels Camp, on the site of the present Mercantile Building. His enterprise must have been successful for, in August of 1860, he purchased a lot from Henry Mathews for $75 and commenced building his new brick store in Chinatown. The single-story, rectangular brick building was completed by May of 1861 (most likely by non-Chinese) for Sam Choy and his partner Yim Kee. From its inception, the Sam Choy & Co. enterprise served as a mercantile store for Chinese patrons. Sam Choy owned several other businesses and gambling houses in the Angels Camp Chinatown, as well as a store at Bostwick’s Bar on the Stanislaus River, which had a booming Chinatown in the 1870s. He also managed groups of Chinese workers, contracted to local mine owners, furnishing them with food, clothing, lodging, tools, and, reportedly, women, collecting their pay from the contractors and controlling their finances.
It is difficult to follow Sam Choy through the Federal census, as he appears with vastly different ages, and with differing spellings of his and family names, but always in the same location and working as a retail merchant. In 1860 he was listed as aged 53, a merchant from China, with real estate valued at $200 and personal property at $1000, and residing with Ay Foy and Hoc Sho. By 1870 he was aged 35 and residing with business partner Ah Kin, aged 28, and both noted as retail merchants. By 1880 Sam Choy had been joined by his wife Leong and the couple had two daughters: Annie (Ah Nee) and Ellen, aged 10 and 8 respectively, both born in California. Sam Choy was listed as 45 years of age, and Leong as 31. By 1900 he was evidently boarding with shopkeeper Luen Sing, but aged 40, undoubtedly an error.
During their tenure in Chinatown, Sam Choy’s wife and children lived with him in a frame house west of the store until they returned to China in 1883, undoubtedly as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiment in California. When the family departed Angels Camp, a poem was written by a young lady who, with others, regretted to see Ah Nee leave her father’s home on Chinatown Road.
The most extensive records of Sam Choy’s tenure in Angels Camp were the assessment rolls, enabling one to trace his years of prosperity and decline, closely paralleling the vicissitudes of the Chinese miners in Calaveras County. The boom years for Sam Choy were the 1860s -1880s; by the late 1860s he owned not only the brick store and the frame building on Main Street, but two other houses on the north side of China Street, and three gambling houses on the south side. The value of the store, however, declined from $1000 in the 1860s to $600 in the 1870s, $500 in1881, and $800 in 1887. In 1892 the store was sold to Walter Tryon, owner of the adjacent Angels Hotel and was depicted in 1895 as a Chinese Merchandise Store on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. By 1900 Sam Choy’s only properties were the store at Bostwick’s Bar and a few lots in Chinatown. Sometime between 1905 and 1909 he moved away, as Luen Sing began to act as his agent, and by 1914 there were no longer any assessments in his name.
Dave Cassaretti, who lived across the creek from Chinatown, described the Sam Choy Store in about 1905:
When I was five years old I started coming over here for the celebration of Chinese New Year. Everyone would be out in the street. They gave all the kids candy and leechee nuts. Whites and Chinese would both be there. (The Sam Choy Store) was a general store. I never bought anything from the store. I wasn’t inside of it even. They just sold all the same stuff they sold in all of those places.
He also described other aspects of the Angels Camp Chinatown:
There was another store on the same side of the street…Across the street and up a bit was a laundry. Across the creek a Chinese man grew peanuts. We would carry a bag to town and sell them. Up on the hill behind the store and down some (east) – there, behind that bit of stone wall – was a Chinese graveyard. The Chinese would cook pork and leave it and other food on the grave of the newly buried person. The Whites would go up there at night and eat the food! Later, when they had enough money, the Chinese would dig up the bones of their dead and send them back to China (most of which were returned ca. World War I, but some not until the early 1930s).
Mr. Cassaretti never recalled any Chinese women or children in town, other than one old woman.
Five years after he purchased the property (1897), Walter Tryon sold the store building to Fred Pareto for $10. In 1898 it was still depicted as a “Chinese Merchandise Store,” so was apparently still in use by Chinese. The adjacent buildings, however, were depicted as “Female Boarding” houses. In the 1890s, Angels was a booming, bustling town and the “Girls of the Night Life” became numerous and were forced from their quarters on Rasberry Street and took up residence in Chinatown, gradually taking over the better buildings and displacing the Chinese.
Pareto sold the store building to A. Barry in 1903, with a mortgage to Bastian Solari, who acquired the building in 1903 for $989, noting that it was a two-story property known as the Fred Pareto Building. In 1905 the building was depicted with the frame second story, vacant that year, with a Chinese store on the first floor; more female boarding houses had been added by that year.
In 1908, the Sam Choy Store property was purchased by Joseph Monte Verde and from this date through the mid-1910s it housed a bordello owned by the Monte Verde family. Pioneer resident Joe Carley recalled that in 1910-1912, Chinatown was the “redlight district.” He remembered that the Sam Choy Store had a board fence around it, with a “Bull Durham” sign in front, and that a Chinese girl was residing there. This information, however, is in conflict with the 1910 census data, which listed 18 prostitutes, in seven different abodes, residing in Chinatown; none were Chinese.
We are indebted to Dave Cassaretti, however, for the description of the building’s interior during its use as a “sporting house:”
…The downstairs was cut up into small rooms. There was a parlor in the front under the window. There was a sofa there and carpets on the floor. It had electric lights. There was a stairway going up where the stovepipe is now. The beds were in the rooms upstairs. I think there was another stairway on the outside in the back.
…In the back there was a little dance floor – a little corner by the back corner where the back door is now. The girls would dance with you. You had to put five cents or ten cents into the electric piano to get the music. You danced alone with the girls. They always put people in different rooms and didn’t allow a group back here. I was fifteen when I learned how to dance (ca. 1914).
…There were four girls living here and the landlady. They were Americans, but never local girls. They’d stay awhile and then there’d be a different girl. The landlady was Lottie Wilson. She had a sign with her name on it above the front door outside. She worked upstairs too.
… Only beer and whiskey (were served) – no wine. You could wait in the parlor and have a drink. But they wouldn’t serve me any when I first came here. They said I was too young. There was a curfew, too, at 9:00 p.m. I would stay till 10:00. The night watchman (for the town) knew me and let me do it…My folks didn’t know where I was!
There were, however, other sporting houses on the street:
…Down the street farther next to the creek was a long wooden building that was also a sporting house. We called it the “steamboat” because during a really wet year the creek flooded – this was the next time after the 1909 flood – and moved the whole building off its foundation. They say this flood washed two Chinese down the creek.
…I remember they built a wooden plank fence along the creek so people walking by wouldn’t be able to look at the street. That’s because all the girls would lie outside in hammocks half naked during the day. Although he denied it, Joe Monte Verde was the owner of a building that was a sporting house. It had a dance hall and a billiard room. The woman who ran it was Hattie Gray.
The bordellos were closed in 1915 following the passage of the 1914 Red Light Abatement Law.
By 1922, after the brothels closed, all the buildings in Chinatown were noted as vacant, except for the Luen Sing store, a Chinese dwelling. In 1928, the Sam Choy Store was sold to Attillio Gainsetto, who sold it to the County of Calaveras two years later to serve as the Angels Camp Jail; informants recalled drunks singing there all night long. Eventually the wooden second-story was removed and the roof-line changed, although the original ceiling and its layer of insulating earth were left undisturbed. A concrete slab was poured in 1941, and the interior space divided into two cells, a holding tank, and a front room. Dave Cassaretti, however, was never inside the building again. Luen Sing’s store, also erected in 1861, was converted to a residence by the Bird family in the 1920s.
NRHP and Restoration Funding
The building was abandoned in the 1950s and remained vacant until Angels City Councilman Tad Folendorf noticed that it was deteriorating and vandalized, and neighbors were complaining. He then looked into it to see if there was a way to preserve the building. It was then determined that one-half of the property belonged to the Pache family, so, with Folendorf’s assistance, it was acquired by the City.
In 1983, Sacramento architect Bob McCabe, who had restored the Altaville School, as well as much of Old Town Sacramento, was contracted to design the restoration plans. He suggested that if the property were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, grant funding might be available for its restoration. A nomination form was submitted by Judith Marvin and the Sam Choy Store was placed on the NRHP on September 20, 1984, upon recommendation by the State Historical Resources Commission.
In early 1985, the State Office of Historic Preservation awarded a $50,000 grant to the City of Angels Camp for the stabilization and preservation of the 1861 Sam Choy Store. Judith Marvin prepared the grant application which included a summary of the historic use of the property as well as an assessment of the physical aspects of the building.
Prior to restoration activities, the archaeological remains on the site needed to be investigated and in the spring of 1985, the Archaeological Field Class at Columbia College, under the Direction of Julia Costello, conducted an historical archaeological investigation at the property. Field work consisted of test excavations inside and outside of the structure, recordation of the painting and wallpaper remains on the interior, and an oral interview with Dave Cassareti, a knowledgeable local resident.
Archaeological excavations revealed that the original vernacular Greek Revival brick building with stone sidewalls had been constructed with lime mortar and a stone foundation. The façade contained three sets of folding iron doors, as well as a simple decorative cornice. The original floor was wooden, supported on joists and vertical posts, and appeared to have remained in use during the tenure of the Chinese store and the subsequent bordello.
The original exterior ground level of ca. 1861 was identified about a foot below the present ground surface in front of the building. Evidence was found that the exterior stone surface of the building was initially covered with a lime plaster. The interior would have been one large front room with items for sale and a stove for heat, some chairs and perhaps a small table, and a counter over which business was transacted. The walls would have held rows of drawers and shelves with numerous tins, boxes, and jars – all containing Asian or European items in demand by the local Chinese community. Several smaller back rooms would have been used for storage and for the residence of an owner or manager.
Few artifacts relating to the early history of the building were recovered from the archaeological excavations, but stabilization work conducted to the rear of the building revealed numerous Chinese and 19th century items. Included were nearly 50 fragments of brown-glazed stoneware jars in which different kinds of food had been shipped from China, including rice wine or other liquids, wine, and various pickled or preserved foods. A fragment from the lid of one of the large barrel jars contained impressed Chinese characters that translate as a company trademark: “Abundance Forever.”
Fragments of porcelain eating vessels were also found. Rice bowls with the distinctive “Bamboo” design are represented, as well as pieces of green-glazed Celadon porcelains from a cup and spoon, while saucers and serving bowls with the “Four Flowers” motif were also identified. Pieces of a blue-decorated sauce pot, a type commonly found on 19th century Chinese sites, were also recovered, as was a piece of a porcelain jar with a previously unidentified design.
A study of the building’s interior walls revealed a series of decorative surfaces. Mud plaster liberally mixed with cow hair was initially applied to the brick walls. No Chinese elements were identified on the walls, as the few exposed wall surfaces were typically covered with Chinese calendars, and illustrations clipped from American publications.
Following the change from a store to a bordello, the walls were hand painted with murals; a cowboy and dance hall woman, each about three feet in height, on the rear wall and a landscape scene on the south wall. These murals were then covered by a sequence of at least four wall-paperings between 1908 and the 1910s, all associated with the use of the building as a brothel, and with colorful, heavily detailed designs. During jail renovations, green paint was applied over the previous surfaces and the configuration of the rooms was altered.
In September of 1980, the Matuca Chapter of E Clampus Vitus erected a monument to Chinatown on the west wall of the Sam Choy Store, commemorating those numerous immigrants who ventured to “Gold Mountain” to make their fortune, so let us not forget the important role they played in the history of Angels Camp.
By Judith Marvin
Presentation on the Sam Choy Store, Angels Camp Museum, March 1, 2012