Violet's Dining Room
Story by J. Rubio

Violet Wong opened "Violet's Dining Room" in 1945 in El Cerrito on San Pablo Avenue. Not only was she a pioneer in culinary arts and an entrepreneur but she has now become known as a pioneer in the film industry in the U.S. The silent movie she starred in, The Curse of Quon Guon: When the Far East Mingles with West (1916/1917) was rediscovered and placed in the National Film Registry and catalogued at the the Library of Congress.

Violet's story begins in Kwangtung, China where she was born in 1895. In 1910 L. Albert Wong went to China with his brother and sister in order for marriages to be arranged for them. Albert's sister was Marion E. Wong. The Wong family were early pioneers (1860's) in San Francisco. Albert's family moved to Oakland around 1903. On their way to China, Albert and his siblings had to carry identification cards, even though they were third generation Americans. They would only be able to stay in China for one year according to the U.S. law at that time. Albert met Violet on that trip to China. They married and Violet immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 with her new husband, his brother and sister. Violet became very good friends with his sister, Marion. This friendship led to Marion asking Violet to star in the movie Marion wrote, directed, acted in and produced five years after they had returned from China. Albert and Violet were living in Oakland at the time. Albert was the manager of his father's restaurant and Marion was the cashier. Violet was caring for their 2-year old daughter, who was also in the film. The following article came out in the Oakland Tribune in May of 1916:

Oakland Tribune
OAKLAND, May 11.–Los Angeles may be the center of the motion picture world, but Oakland has the honor of producing the first Chinese film drama, acted entirely by Chinese, produced by Chinese with with Chinese scenery, and Chinese costumes designed by Chinese, and with a love tale running through it written by a Chinese girl. Mary K. Wong [sic], talented niece of Lim Ben, wealthy Chinese merchant and landowner, is the maid who is responsible for it all. She conceived the idea, wrote the play, designed the scenery and costumes, drilled the actors, directed the filming of the production, managed its details–and took the leading part. The Oriental drama–called by its creator the Mandarin Photo Play–was filmed near Hayward. There are seven reels of it. Miss Wong is the villain. Her sister-in-law, Mrs. Violet Wong, one of the prettiest Chinese girls in Oakland, is the beloved one of the play. There are thirty Chinese men and women in the cast. “I had never seen any Chinese movies,” Miss Wong said today, “so I decided to introduce them to the world. I first wrote the love story. Then I decided that people who are interested in my people and my country would like to see some of the customs and manners of China. So I added to the love drama many scenes depicting these things. I do hope it will be a success.” The film is to be given its first production at the Kinema Theater tomorrow morning–a private production for the benefit of Miss Wong and her friends. This is not the first time Miss Wong has brought her race to the attention of the Americans. She recently surprised her white sisters by appearing in concert, singing operatic airs in English and Italian. She was for a time a student at the University of California, where she took up special work."the first Chinese film drama, acted entirely by Chinese, produced by Chinese with with Chinese scenery, and Chinese costumes designed by Chinese, and with a love tale running through it written by a Chinese girl. Mary K. Wong."

The film only had two screenings and was not purchased by a distributor in order to make to the big screens. Both Violet and Marion raised their children and opened businesses. Violet and Albert eventually moved to N. Berkeley . Many descendants of Marion and Violet still live in El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland or the surrounding area. They often attend the showings of the film and talk about it after the show. Some of the family members came to El Cerrito when the "Paver" for Violet's Dining Room" was unveiled in 2011.

Violet's - Historic-Cultural Paver
(To listen to an audio podcast of the historical pavers dedicated to Violet's Dining Room and other historical landmarks that were located on San Pablo Avenue, visit the City of El Cerritos Pavers Audio Tour page at:, mouse over "The Avenue" and click Play. This will prompt you to download ITunes. (Subscription to podcasts, is free.)

Grace Castner - Elected to Office Before the Nineteenth Amendment -
Story by Rich Bartke

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed as of August 18, 1920, giving women nation-wide the right to vote.

Grace Castner was elected to public office in August 1917, and re-elected on April 8, 1918.  Was she elected while being barred from voting for herself?

What we should not forget is that California, and many other states west of the Rockies, gave women the right to vote in state and local elections many years prior to the Nineteenth Amendment.  That Amendment, then, affected only federal elections in those states.  California was not the first, but it did adopt women’s suffrage in 1911.  Still, it was rare for a woman to be elected to public office then and for more than fifty years after that.  Grace Castner was one of those pioneering women.

The territory which is now El Cerrito grew slowly after the Gold Rush, because of law suits over land titles.  Its lands were part of the Castro Mexican land grant, and when squatters began to occupy his lands in the early 1850s, Victor Castro took legal action.  Unfortunately, his land grant title, like most of them, was not very exact, and it was not until the early 1890s that final settlement was achieved.  Then land titles could be given which were valid under California state law.  Up until then, there were only a few homesteads in the El Cerrito area, probably between a half-dozen and a dozen.

Starting in the mid-1890s, however, settlement advanced rapidly, and the population began to swell.  The territory included a strip of more than two miles of land along the road to San Pablo, between the Santa Fe tracks on the East and San Francisco Bay on the West, and included the communities of Rust on the South end, and Stege Junction to the North.  After fifteen years of growth, the residents voted on August 23, 1917 to incorporate.

It was in that election that Grace Castner was elected as the first City Clerk.

Until state law required the change in 1927, the City Fathers were a “Board of Trustees” rather than a City Council, and chose a Board Chairman instead of a Mayor.  For nearly three years, Grace Castner took all of the meeting Minutes, and prepared all of the Resolutions.  Typical topics, on almost every Agenda, were liquor licenses, the scarlet fever epidemic, the state highway (San Pablo Avenue), and attempts to get the Santa Fe Railroad to post warning signs at the thirteen street crossings in town.

At the very first meeting, on August 27, 1917, the salary of the City Clerk was debated, and the vote seemed split between $50 a month and $1,000 a month, since there was deemed a lot of work for a Clerk in starting a new city.  At the next meeting, September 6, 1917, however, the Clerk’s salary was set at $30 a month.

On November 1st of that year, the Clerk was authorized to purchase books for city records.  On November 22nd, the Clerk was directed to order two telephone lines for the city, but since the city did not have a building, the lines were to be installed in the home of the City Marshall.  Another of the recurrent themes heard at many meetings were complaints to the State Railroad Commission, which licensed phones then, about the “exorbitant phone rates and poor service” by the telephone company.

On December 20, 1917 the city finally got the Clerk bonded.

The next municipal Election Day in California was April 8, 1918.  At that election, Grace Castner handily carried both precincts, (one North of Moeser Lane and one south of it), and was sworn in on April 15th for a full two year term.

The Board of Trustees on April 18, 1918, set the Clerk’s office hours for 2:00 to 5:00 PM, but on November 29 of that year, increased them to 9 to 12 AM and 2 to 5 PM Monday through Friday, and 9 to 12 AM on Saturdays.  There must have been some trouble with Grace Castner keeping those hours, because in a Resolution shortly thereafter, the Trustees found that she had failed to keep the designated hours.  The Resolution changed the hours to 10 to Noon on Monday through Saturday, and 1 to 4 PM on weekdays.

In the next municipal election, the City’s first recall attempt was made on one of the Trustees, (unsuccessfully).  In that election, Grace Castner did not run to retain her job as City Clerk, but rather ran for City Treasurer.  The record gives no hint for her reason; (the pay for either was still $30 a month).

On April 12, 1920, Grace Casnter lost to J. F. Walsh, 191 to 245.  There were at least 471 ballots cast, but 35 of them did not vote for either Treasurer candidate.

In the City Clerk election, Alice M. Morris beat Forest Wright, 293 to 158.  Another woman political pioneer, she went on to serve El Cerrito as its City Clerk for a dozen years.

Laura McNeil,   El Cerrito's First Council Woman
Story by Rich Bartke

The City of El Cerrito was incorporated in 1917, and for its first two dozen years, “men only” sat on its five-member City Council.  But in 1941, that changed, although briefly.

In the municipal election of 1940, Mr. E. Blake McNeil of 6407 Fairmount Avenue was elected as Councilman to a full four year term.  He became the City’s Fire & Police Commissioner. However, according to newspaper reports, he became ill, and surgery was scheduled. (Some reports suggest he resigned from the Council.)  The last council meeting he attended was on April 7, 1941, and on the Agenda of April 14 was an item to send condolences to his family.  He reportedly died before the operation could be performed.

Beginning with the Council meeting of May 5, 1941, a number of persons were nominated to fill that seat by appointment.  Two large labor unions nominated C. J. Alveras, and Councilmen individually nominated the prominent  Alfred Baxter, druggist D. S. Moore, and leading Italian-American Frank Nicoli.  Also proposed was the late Councilman’s widow, Mrs. Laura McNeil.  None of the nominees could garner more than two votes, and so the Council adjourned without making a decision. 

One week later, C. J. Alveras and Laura McNeil were again nominated.  But candidate Frank Nicoli, according to the Minutes, wrote a letter to the Council saying he was supporting Laura McNeil.  A vote was taken, and Mrs. Laura McNeil won, by a vote of three to one.  She was assigned the “Lights & Water” portfolio.

(Also on that agenda was opposition to a proposal by local realtors that El Cerrito be annexed to Richmond.)

Laura had been born on July 10, 1892 in Canada and came to the United States in 1918 and became a naturalized citizen.  In 1920 she married Edwin Blake McNeil, also from Canada.  By 1923 he was working as a millworker for Standard Oil and they were living at 456 Richmond Street with their daughter Janet.

Although by custom and state law, members of city councils in California were called “councilmen”, the city record always referred to Laura McNeil as “councilwoman”. At least one council observer from those days recalls that the Councilmen were solicitous of Mrs. McNeil, but in no way treated her like a second class citizen.  As Councilwoman, Laura attended all council meetings and took part in all votes for seven months,

In mid-December 1941, Laura McNeil missed both a regular and a special meeting.  She was present, and took part, in the full agenda of the meeting of December 22, 1941.  At the end of the agenda, she submitted her resignation, which was promptly accepted by the remaining four councilmen.

The record is silent as to what prompted Laura McNeil to resign, but this was two weeks after Japan had attacked the United States, and Germany and Italy declared war on the U. S.  The Council voted immediately to appoint Ex. E. Linthicum to serve the remainder of the term, suggesting that the Council knew the resignation was coming.  Then, in a final act that night, the Council hired former Councilwoman Laura McNeil as a city switchboard operator for the mid-night to 8:00 AM shift, at $90 a month, which may suggest that the widow McNeil needed the income.  It is believed that she stayed less than two years in that post, and one report says that she was a city clerk in 1942, still living with her daughter at 6407 Fairmount Avenue.  Daughter Janet is listed as a secretary and with the Board of Education.

Druggist D. S. Moore, another May 1941 nominee, finally got appointed to the Council in March 1943 to fill another vacancy.

In the Spring of 1946, the only incumbent running for re-election was defeated, and the other three incumbents were recalled.  This ended a colorful era in the history of Contra Costa County’s then second largest city. 

It would be more than fourteen years after the brief term of Laura McNeil before Doris Hormel, the second woman to sit on the El Cerrito City Council, was elected in 1956.

By 1956 Laura, still a widow, was living at 645 Yuba Street on the El Cerrito-Richmond border, and working as a clerk in the Post Office.  She became the Post Master of El Cerrito in March 1958.  Laura died in El Cerrito on August 18, 1973 at age 81.

Thus ends this tale.

Sally Rand's and her El Cerrito Night Club
Story courtesy of Chris Treadway, Contra Costa Times

Sally Rand was a nationally known fan and bubble dancer whose risque act had been a popular attraction at three World’s Fairs, including the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40 on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, as the GGIE attraction was called, closed after one year and was replaced by Billy Rose’s Aquacade, starring a young Esther Williams.

Rand may have performed at the It Club, though I’ve yet to see an account of the time saying she did.

She did, however, have her own night club at 204 San Pablo Ave., right at the county line in El Cerrito, from 1944-46.

Rand had previously opened a night club, the Music Box, in San Francisco at the historic theater that is now known as the Great American Music Hall. The website for the music hall says she opened it in 1936 and “swanky city dwellers would dance the night away there for the next decade.”

More than a famous dancer, Sally Rand was an astute businesswoman who jumped at the opportunity to lend her name to the former Hollywood Club operated by “Big Bill” Pechart on a corner of the Rancho San Pablo property at the county line. The area had seen an influx of thousands of war workers, which assured there would be ample clientele nearby, though the area still drew heavily from Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont. During the war years most of the rancho property had been turned into an auto camp for defense industry workers.

Pechart was glad to have a known name to draw in patrons and Sally Rand’s Club did a good trade during and even after the war, as a 1946 newspaper article noted her club was “still packing them in.”

Not all of the trade at Sally Rand’s was of the above-the-table type, however, and the club was closed by the IRS in ’46 for failure to report revenue and pay taxes. It was a common fate for operators of such businesses.

The location was reopened the next year by Lu Watters as Hambone Kelly’s, a mecca for lovers of Dixieland jazz that operated from 1947-50 and remains something of a legend among music lovers.

Violet Grace Sally