A bowl from a grocery store?
Archaeologists found this bowl in a trash pit lined with redwood. The trash pit was located near an adobe (mud brick) building that a Mexican-era family, the Bernals, built in the 1830s. Around 1873, the building was leased to Chinese business owners, most likely to the Tuck Wo grocery store.
Why was this bowl found near a grocery store? In the 1800s, most merchants lived in the upstairs rooms of their store buildings, along with their family members and employees. We think this bowl probably was used by the people who lived and worked in the store.
Turning clay into a bowl
This bowl is a type of ceramic that archaeologists call porcelaneous stoneware. It can be decorated like fine porcelain, but it is not as brittle so it is stronger for everyday use. Potters made dishes like these in huge numbers in their workshops in southern China. They used special clays and heated them in scorching hot ovens up to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. These dishes were very popular in China in the 1800s, and they are found all over California and other places where Chinese immigrant laborers lived and worked.
A bowl for food and for long life
This bowl probably meant more to people than just something to eat from. The decorations are not just to make the bowl pretty — Chinatown residents would have recognized them as symbols of long life.
It isn’t easy to see what these drawings are. Since potters made so many of these bowls at a time, they drew the symbols very quickly. However, people who knew the tradition of these symbols probably recognized them easily. Below, see what these symbols mean.
What do those drawings mean?
This part of the bowl shows bamboo, a plum tree, and a rock. All of these things can survive a harsh winter, so they symbolize strength and long life. Chinese immigrants in California probably appreciated this symbolism since they were often unwelcomed and mistreated here.
We don’t know exactly what this swirl of blue lines means. Many archaeologists think it is a firefly, but art historian Siliang Kang believes that it is a kind of mushroom that is said to bring long life. This would make sense, since the bamboo and the plum tree have the same meaning. What do you think it looks like?
These three circles resemble a Chinese character (品) for the word pin. Pin can mean “quality,” so perhaps the potter wanted to tell people that the bowl was of highest quality.
What can microscopic bits of food tell us?
Fanya Becks is an archaeologist who analyzed tiny bits of food that survive in the cracks of bowls like this. She found that many bowls contain traces of rice, a common food among Chinese Americans.
In traditional Chinese cuisine, people eat an entire meal out of a bowl, so this bowl probably held more than just rice. In the soil samples from the Market Street Chinatown, archaeologists have found microscopic traces of a rich diet that included soybeans, pumpkin, winter squash, bitter melon, blackberries, strawberries, eggplant, meat, and fish. They also found traces of several kinds of grain, including wheat, which was probably used for noodles.
Imagine all the tasty foods that someone may have eaten out of this bowl over 120 years ago!
Phil Choy: How we eat from a rice bowl (video)
“There Was a Chinatown Here” by Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project (Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, Stanford University, and History San Jose) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.