Community Voices Series event remembers Santa Cruz's fourth Chinatown

Rebecca Hernandez, community archivist at UC Santa Cruz, and George Ow discussed Ow's experience growing up in Santa Cruz's fourth Chinatown and how it shaped his perspective of the city into the present. (Photo credit Andrew O'Keefe/

While walking along the San Lorenzo Riverfront off River Street and Soquel Avenue, visitors and locals alike will come across a seemingly out-of-place, but beautifully decorated and stationed passageway. A mosaic-adorned red and gold dragon, measuring nearly 21 feet, appears to welcome us to come up, explore, and learn more about how it fits into the city’s history.

Installed in November 2020 by the Coastal Watershed Commission with the support of the City of Santa Cruz, the Patagonia Foundation, and the Ows, a local philanthropic family, the Santa Cruz Chinatown Memorial Archway symbolizes an important, albeit long forgotten, group of Santa Cruzans from years past.

Local developer George Ow Jr., who with his family shepherded the dragon into existence, remembers the city’s Chinatown fondly. In fact, it was where he grew up in the city of Santa Cruz, from 1943 to 1955, back when Santa Cruz’s Chinatown existed near the archway’s current location.

“This area feels like home to me, I feel very comfortable here,” Ow said, acknowledging the large expanse of the city’s current downtown. 

On Thursday, February 15, Ow took to the stage at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, sharing personal stories of growing up in Santa Cruz’s fourth Chinatown and how it shaped his perspective of the city into the present. The free 90-minute event was packed, with approximately 200 attendees standing throughout the museum space including along the staircase, to hear Ow’s story and his conversation with UC Santa Cruz’s own Community Archivist Rebecca Hernandez

The event was the second in a newly established annual series, headed by Hernandez, called the Community Voices Series. Since taking on the role in January 2022, Hernandez has diligently worked with local community groups and individuals alike to share their oft-overlooked histories in the area.

“The basis of what I do is to encourage people to think about the value of their history and their community’s history, and consider how we can preserve it,” Hernandez said. “The absence of those stories means we might never know about the contributions of individuals and community groups, whose hard work made it possible for us to enjoy what they never could.”

Ow’s Life in Chinatown

Ow was born in Santa Cruz in 1943, in the city’s Chinatown that was located just across the San Lorenzo River, near the county office building off of Ocean and Water streets. This location was the city’s fourth iteration of Chinatown, established in 1894 and dismantled in 1955. But, for the first 12 years of Ow’s life, he ingratiated himself in the community, and found a great deal of joy from his upbringing in Santa Cruz.

His father, George Ow Sr., had arrived in Santa Cruz to live with his uncle, who owned and operated the Canton Market supermarket at the corner of Cathcart Street and Pacific Avenue. That was the process for many members of the Ow family to arrive in Santa Cruz, Ow shared, with one person offering another a business opportunity and housing. It led to a large swath of Chinese immigrants arriving to the city, and raising first- and second-generation children and grandchildren to carry on in the family’s name.

“Santa Cruz was a ghetto, but I didn’t know it. I thought it was the greatest place because my aunts and my uncles, and my grandparents, were here,” Ow said. “I thought it was just a place full of love — this was a great area to grow up.”

And from his upbringing, it sounded like Santa Cruz was entirely full of love. Ow was one of seven children, but his parents — who graduated from Santa Cruz High School in 1940 and 1942, respectfully — never denied them love, adoration, and bonding. 

“I'm so happy that this is where they ended up, because they had a head start,” Ow said. “They bought land, and what a heck of a difference that makes for us to stay here.”

Sharing historical realities in the present

As Ow entered adulthood, he moved around and away from Santa Cruz — attending school at Monterey Peninsula College and UCLA, then entering the draft and heading to Vietnam — before returning to his long-time home. Since returning to Santa Cruz, Ow has delved more into learning about his past, and worked with locally based historians to garner more information about his family and that of the city’s Chinatown.

On Thursday, Ow gave a special shout-out to two Santa Cruz based historians who have helped to further uncover much of his family’s history, Geoffrey Dunn and Sandy Lydon, and released books such as Santa Cruz Is In The Heart, Chinatown Dreams, and Chinese Gold to elaborate on those histories.

One of his continued favorite aspects of Santa Cruz is returning to the San Lorenzo Riverbed in the summers, and seeing all of the mosaic tiles that local artist and retired teacher Kathleen Crocetti and her Mission High Middle School students have installed throughout the area. Crocetti was also the primary artist behind the 21-foot dragon above the Chinatown Memorial Archway back in 2020. 

Gail Michaelis-Ow, Ow’s wife of nearly 45 years, shared that one of her husband’s top passions is history and the history of his own family: “He’s spoken in different places and in front of a lot of different classes, including at Cabrillo and UCSC, but this was certainly the largest venue that I remember.”

As she said, event attendees were excited to hear about his family’s history and that it meant a lot to him. Based on the support and encouragement from Thursday’s event, Michelis-Ow said that Ow would be interested in sharing more about his background to additional groups in the future.

Ow is grateful to other Santa Cruzans like Crocetti, Dunn, and Lydon for their continued work to remember his heritage and past.

“There wouldn’t be the history without them — it would be lost,” Ow affirmed. “What they’ve done for somebody Chinese like me, it’s given me a lot of pride, and showed so much that was unknown.”

The February 15 event was further supported by the UCSC Asian-American/Pacific Islander Resource Center, Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Flex Kids Culture, and staff from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. The event was recorded and will be made available on the UCSC Special Collections & Archives Community Archiving Program webpage in the coming months.