Chin Lung and the Great Western Potato Mart

The story of George Shima, the Japanese immigrant who became known as the "Potato King" of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is fairly well known. But did you know there was an earlier, Chinese immigrant also known as a "Potato King?" Here’s the story of Chin Lung.

Unidentified Asian laborer with sacked potatoes, Woodward Island, ca. 1928

At the turn of the twentieth century (1901) the grain market had fallen on hard times, but Los Angeles investors, wealthy from citrus, real estate, and oil—as well as other investors from the East and from Europe—began reclaiming the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These investors were soon leasing the Delta peat lands to energetic farmers, many of them Asian immigrants. A major crop planted on these rich peat 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 San Joaquin Delta farmland. In September 1901, he planted a crop of potatoes on his eleven-hundred-acre lease just west of Stockton. Chin’s potato crop hit the Eastern markets almost two months ahead of all 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 also be grown in the rich peat soil with little or no fertilizer, and they had a pale skin that Eastern customers found attractive.

Potato yields in the San Joaquin Delta were significantly higher than elsewhere in California or the United States. The 1910 Agricultural Census reported the average potato yield in other regions of California to be 147 bushels per acre, whereas the San Joaquin County yield was between three hundred and eight hundred bushels per acre!

In 1901, when Chin first planted potatoes, there were almost two thousand 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.

In spite of racist editorials and exclusionary laws, the Chinese were generally liked by the Whites of this 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.

Census records show that in 1910 Chinese farmers were leasing 5,381 acres of San Joaquin County farmland. By 1920, the acreage leased by Chinese had increased to about 13,500 acres.

Between 1901 and 1925, Chin Lung farmed at least one thousand acres each season and was the principal employer of Chinese laborers in San Joaquin County. In 1910, Chin purchased twenty-two hundred 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 a store he owned on Sacramento Street in San Francisco. 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.

If any readers have additional information about the life of Chin Lung or photographs of him or his operations, please comment or contact me at davidstuart@sanjoaquinhistory.org. I hope the Museum can tell his story in an upcoming exhibit.

David Stuart is the executive director and CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.

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