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Who was the ‘Asparagus King’ at the heart of Palo Alto preservation dispute?

An archival photo shows the facade of the Bayside Cannery at 1290 Hope St. in Alviso in Santa Clara County and an inset photo of Thomas Foon Chew, known as the “Asparagus King.” | Source: Courtesy Library of Congress

A Bay Area suburbs’ debate on plans to redevelop a century-old commercial complex resurfaced the little-known history of the building and questions about its place in Asian American history.

In 1918, Thomas Foon Chew, a young Chinese immigrant and entrepreneur in the canning industry, purchased the land in Palo Alto and built a cannery. Two years later, it grew to become the third-largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world, powered by a large and diverse workforce of Chinese-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking workers.

Chew’s success turned him into a legendary and well-respected multimillionaire businessman whose company is thought to be the first to can green asparagus, earning him the moniker “Asparagus King.”

Chew died in 1931 at the age of 42, and it is believed that 25,000 people attended his funeral in San Francisco’s Chinatown. After his death, the cannery thrived until 1949.

Now, more than 90 years since his death, a controversial plan to tear down parts of the former cannery site sparked a contentious debate within the local community members, and some of them want to preserve it as a rare piece of Asian American history.

Cannery magnate Thomas Foon Chew is second from right in this 1916 photo. His wife is at far left and his mother at center. | Source: Courtesy of Historic Bay Area Visionaries

Monica Yeung Arima, a board member of Palo Alto History Museum, said this is a golden opportunity to save a critical part of both Chinese American and the city’s history.

“Asian American history is not well documented, and not well taught to our next generation,” Arima said. “This historical site tells us that we belong here from a long time ago.”

The historic building, with the address of 340 Portage Ave., stretches more than half a block as part of a 14.65-acre property in the Ventura neighborhood. It was the home of a Fry’s Electronics store, which closed in 2019. Now some research and venture capital firms are stationed there.

The site’s owner, Silicon Valley real estate and philanthropy firm, the Sobrato Organization, is planning a partial demolition to build houses and a park there and has reached a deal with the city after years of negotiating. Sobrato will also donate multiple acres of land and millions of dollars to the local affordable housing fund.

Activists seeking to preserve the historic cannery building speak at the Palo Alto City Council meeting on Sept. 5, 2023. | Source: Courtesy photo
A "Save The Cannery" sign is seen at the Palo Alto City Council meeting on Sept. 5, 2023. | Source: Courtesy photo

Palo Alto City Council heard hours of public comment in an early September meeting as people against the redevelopment plan held signs that read “Save the Cannery.” The council will vote on whether to proceed with the plan next week.

Community members are also pushing for the site to receive official recognition as a California historic place, Arima said. A consulting firm hired by the city concluded that the building is qualified. If the state recognizes the site as a historic place, more restrictions will be put on such redevelopment plans.

“The Asian community is growing, and it is of great significance to preserve a Chinese historical site that can resonate with the Asian community,” Arima said.