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The Original Chinatown: San Francisco

Grant Avenue, in Chinatown San Francisco, 1930’s

A “Chinatown” is defined as an ethnic enclave of people of Chinese background, that is outside China itself. From the 1830’s onwards a large, and growing, number of them have popped up all over the world, in cities like New York, London, Los Angeles and Melbourne. The oldest in the Western world is considered to be in Liverpool, founded in 1834, but shortly after that, in 1848, gold was discovered in California, leading to large numbers of Chinese migrating here in search of a better life. However, in Chinatown San Francisco, many found that their new life was just as tough – or worse – than their old one. A combination of racism, the often lawless nature of early California (even when the law itself didn’t discriminate against them) and the general difficulties of trying to establish themselves in a new country, with a different language and customs, created huge obstacles.

All of these issues, and more, came to a head with the Great Fire of 1906, when most of the original San Francisco Chinatown, burned down. However, out of this catastrophe came a new beginning and it would be rebuilt, with Chinese architectural features, to display a newfound confidence in its place at the heart of SF.

The design and features of this “new” Chinatown then began being copied by other Chinatowns all over the world, meaning that almost all of them are, to one extent or another, copies of our own. So why – and how – did San Francisco’s Chinatown, manage to overcome all the discrimination of its early years and become such a beacon for similar communities all over the world?

California Gold Rush

Large-scale immigration to California (and the U.S.) from China really began with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, in California’s High Sierra, in 1848. News of the find went all round the world and tens of thousands of people began making plans for the arduous journey there, so that they could make their fortune. In China the First Opium War, years of drought and recent political instability meant that interest in “Gam Saan” (meaning ‘Gold Mountain’ in Cantonese and the name used for California by Chinese prospectors then) was high.

Many of the first Chinese immigrants, who arrived in 1849 and 1850, headed straight to the gold fields. Often they would band together and buy up old, unworked claims, since many prospectors had already got there ahead of them. They would try to work these claims harder and more efficiently than the previous owners, in that way hoping to at least make a small fortune to take back home with them.

Needless to say, as time passed, some Chinese immigrants didn’t make it to Sutter’s Mill and ended up staying in San Francisco. Apart from the physical difficulties of getting to Gam Saan, which were considerable in those early days, there were already many opportunities to be found in the booming entrepôt.

San Francisco had only recently got its name and become part of the U.S., in 1848 the population was barely five hundred people. It was to explode with the onset of the Gold Rush though, and by 1850 numbered an incredible 25,000 residents!

And so on August 28 of that year, in Portsmouth Square, San Francisco’s first mayor John Geary officially welcomed three hundred “China Boys” to San Francisco. The warm welcome didn’t last long.

In 1851 2,716 Chinese emigrated to California, but in the following year, driven by large-scale crop failures in China, 20,026 arrived at Customs House in San Francisco. Many of these immigrants ended up staying in the city, living and working in the area around Portsmouth Square and Dupont St (now Grant Street).

In 1853 the neighborhood, having already been named “Little Canton”, began being referred to as Chinatown in newspaper articles. Initially most of the businesses (and people) located there operated out of tents and other makeshift structures, but these rapidly began to be replaced by properly constructed brick and timber buildings.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment

With this new-found prominence came much increased discrimination against the Chinese. First came the Foreign Miners Tax, the levy of $3 per month being explicitly directed at Chinese miners, then courts extended the bar on First Americans and African Americans testifying in court against white people to include Chinese, making it practically impossible to prosecute crimes against them.

Over the following decades other laws were enacted, making life harder and harder for them, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is the only U.S. law specifically aimed at one country. Chinese immigrants could never become American citizens, they could never vote or have their families join them in the U.S. and neither could they marry outside of their ethnic group.

By this time the male population of Chinatown was just over 20,000, of which only 1,000 were female, making it impossible for most Chinese immigrants to even think of starting a family.

During the 1860’s and 70’s thousands of Chinese immigrants worked on construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and, once that was completed, many moved to San Francisco’s burgeoning Chinatown to look for opportunities there. Many stayed.

By the late nineteenth century the neighborhood had become a major tourist attraction, filled as it was with gambling hellholes, brothels and opium dens – as well as laundries, restaurants and many other businesses (including in import-export). The illegal enterprises were run by Tongs, Chinese crime organizations that had grown out of benevolent associations that were originally set-up to help fellow immigrants, but which had been taken over by criminal elements.

By 1900 there were nearly thirty of them and the San Francisco Police Department established the Chinatown Squad, to deal with the growing problem. But then it turned out that many of the police were taking bribes and the city needed the tax revenue for its municipal coffers so, either way, residents and legitimate business owners in Chinatown were powerless and therefore preyed upon.

1885 map of San Francisco Chinatown
Map of San Francisco Chinatown, in 1885, prepared by a city committee trying to relocate it

Effects of 1906 Great Fire

On the morning of April 18, 1906, there was a huge earthquake at just after 5 am. Tremors of it were felt from Oregon all the way down to Los Angeles and inland as far as Nevada. It’s estimated that the earthquake was an incredible 7.9 on the Richter scale. Many buildings in San Francisco were badly damaged by the huge shocks but, even worse, was the destruction that followed, as fires raged uncontrolled for the next three days.

It’s estimated that, out of the 410,000 inhabitants of SF, over a quarter of a million were made homeless, and 80% of the city was destroyed, in what became known as the Great Fire. Hardly any structures remained in Chinatown and many residents must have felt that this was the end for the neighborhood.

Rebirth of San Francisco Chinatown

Such a cataclysmic event had a surprisingly positive effect on Chinatown though. The city was desperate to get San Francisco rebuilt and back in business as quickly as possible, and Chinatown was essential to that strategy. Previously authorities had been trying to move Chinatown to the southern edge of the city, far from the central area where it was, but now Chinese leaders in San Francisco had a massive bargaining chip.

They told the city government: “You want our businesses open again? We do too! But here, where we are, in Chinatown”. Ironically one reason why it would have proved difficult to move anyway, was that residents in other parts of the Bay Area didn’t want Chinatown next-door to them (although other cities, like Seattle and Los Angeles, were courting Chinese businesses and actively trying to get them to relocate there).

Chinese businesses moved ahead and began reconstruction in October 1906, with a directive to incorporate stereotypical “Oriental” features, including pagoda roofs and paper lantern-style street lamps, with street name signs in Mandarin and English. The aesthetic flourishes would be made to otherwise fairly conventionally-constructed brick and stone buildings thereby, it was hoped, giving the area an exotic “Eastern” feel.

The re-brand was indeed key to reestablishing Chinatown as a tourist destination and construction was more or less completed by 1908, a year ahead of an already tight schedule. Another positive aspect of the Great Fire, and subsequent rebuild, was that it dislodged the Tongs and their activities began to dissipate, more or less being eradicated by the 1920’s.

In fact the rebuild was so successful that it even had a further unintended effect, as other Chinatowns around the world began to be redesigned to incorporate the new “Oriental” features of San Francisco’s. One of the first to feel the influence was Los Angeles, where a new Chinatown – complete with pagoda roofs and a large dragon arch – was constructed in the 1930’s (Hollywood’s famous 1927 Chinese Theater, also heavily influenced by this new style, having already proved a huge hit), after the demolition of the nearby “old” one.

Other Chinatown’s followed suit and now, no matter where you go in the world, a Chinatown will always have the same look and feel as our one, here in San Francisco. It’s a testament to the hard work and resilience of this hugely important community.

San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown today

Our SF in a Day tour finishes with a walk through the streets and alleys of Chinatown. The Notorious SF: Scandal & Crime tour also explores Chinatown, with a focus on the criminal activities that took place in the neighborhood in the nineteenth century.

If you have any feedback on The Original Chinatown: San Francisco please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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