Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Mysterious Chinese Castle of Jacumba: Episode I

As I was digging through boxes of family photos and memorabilia, I came across a small, square photograph of a house on a hill.  Details were few of the spooky, old house but the structure, trimmed in Asian-inspired woodwork, cut quite an imposing figure against the rocky desertscape.

Chinese Castle wacky tacky

Dutifully scrawled on the back of the photo was a basic description of a few outbuildings and the home's rock-solid foundation.

"There is a small 2 rm guest house on left beside garage
and another one on right just across the fence below the
 Juniper tree.  In front at top see the sun dial on that big stretch
 of rock.  That rock extends into the house & forms the living
room floor."

But that was it.  Sure of neither the home's location nor the penman, I saved the photo for several years, actually scanning it and creating a blog draft in case I stumbled upon more information.  For years, the draft sat patiently, quietly awaiting the day the home's mystery would be solved.

I had heard rumors of a strange castle along the California-Mexico border that had once been a family landholding; as all the potential players had long since crossed the life-afterlife border, however, it seemed my geneo-real estate questions would forever remain unanswered - until, I kept digging for more family history.  One scorching day, I found myself in the garage, elbow-deep in a musty box loaded with photographs spanning eight decades.  Inside, I discovered a beautiful, spiral-bound album with a handwritten label taped to the cover that read, "Chinese Castle."  When one finds a family album labeled "Chinese Castle" and the contents have nothing to do with a trip to the Far East, it is obvious that a vein of pure wacky tacky gold has been struck!

As with everything, they sure don't make photo albums like they used to.

Between the dusty, floral covers was a twenty-plus-year pictorial history of the Chinese Castle of Jacumba, CA.  As it happens, the house belonged to my paternal grandmother's aunt , Velma by name (an eccentric school teacher with a history of nude photos, multiple marriages, and a penchant for wearing safety whistles in her later years).

Chinese Castle wacky tacky
Chinese Castle (pictured in the mid-1950s) - Jacumba, CA

With her then husband, British novelist Harry Lee, Velma used the Chinese Castle as a vacation home and artist retreat (he for writing, she for painting).  As they had no children, they eventually sold-off all of their real estate...but not before taking a multitude of snapshots of their stony pride and joy, painted Empire Red.

The only dated photo in the album comes from September , 1962.
The characteristic woodwork frames Aunt Velma at the
screen door and the castle's signature wind chime.

The terraced yard is a maze of steps and pathways winding all around the castle and through the desert landscape.

The pan-Asian influence is apparent all over the castle, both inside and out;
 Japanese torii-styled railings once surrounded the second-floor deck.

Chinese Castle wacky tacky
Built on a solid-granite foundation, local stones were collected to build the walls of the ground floor.

A Japanese symbol of the physical transition from the profane world onto
sacred ground, full-size torii gates mark the path to the castle entrance. 

Based on the sheer number of photos, they were quite proud of the multi-colored, graduated wind chime.

The perimeter of the property is delineated by an undulating series of railroad ties.

At some point, Velma thought it necessary to document the history of her home in a brief, two-page essay.  I'm rather grateful she did.

Included in the album was a mimeographed copy of a page from a book (source unknown) that featured a line drawing of the castle and a one-sentence description.

"One army officer settled here with his Chinese war bride and built
a superb Chinese Castle on a rocky hill overlooking the town."
According to Aunt Velma, it was all wrong.

Selling the house in 1976, Velma kept in touch with the new owners, keeping tabs on the decoration and maintenance of the Chinese Castle.  She was even invited back for a visit.

A partial letter from the woman to whom Harry and Velma sold the house was sent on Chinese Castle stationery.

Seeing the photographs and ephemera, Mary realized that she had actually been to the grounds of the castle on a long ago road trip; completely unaware of the family history, she definitely remembered making note of its wacky tacky magnificence.  With the discovery that our heritage included the Chinese Castle, the only thing to do was chow down on some chow mein and hit the highway to Jacumba.

Famed for its hot springs, Jacumba all but became a ghost town when
Historic Route 80 was circumvented by the new Interstate 8. 

We drove into the sleepy border town armed only with hopes that the castle was still standing and a disk to which I had saved every bit of Chinese Castle history that we had.  I figured that at the very least, the local historical society might have an interest.  Directionless, and completely unsure if the castle was still standing, we slowly made our way down the main road and wondered what would happen next...

Chinese Castle wacky tacky
STAY TUNED to see if the mysteries of Jacumba's Chinese Castle will be revealed!!!


Mr. Tiny


  1. What a fascinating piece of family history. I wish I had scads of photos and memorabilia to wade through. Lucky guy!

    1. Thanks, Patricia!!! I do feel lucky but there is so much of it that still needs to be organized. I'm drowning in family history. Hahahaha!!!

  2. i grew up in that town an never once herd that version of the story.
    we were always told storys of some strange chinese internment camp around the same time the corrizo gorge railway was built early 1900.
    there were plenty of ghost storries for kids an the fact that nobody ever lived in the main house in the 12 years i lived there didnt help.
    you could sneak up anytime you wanted an go inside. it was always empty other than a few boxs of decorative chinese things. couldnt reallyi magin living in it there are no ammedites really the kitchen type area is like added to it. the house is like 1 big room with loft an a pond/bath thing in other.
    there is how in fact a a trap door in kitchen type area, with a ladder leading down about 3 ft in solid concrete. was once told it originally had a dungeon with cells an everything. but it started to collapse so they filled it in. sopposibly some of the old locals have pictures somewere.
    any ways its still there. i think somebody bought it an did a tacky paint job a while back. but other than that just lots of storys.