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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 the city.

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 the challenges of its early years and become such a beacon for similar communities all over the world? With this month marking the date of the Lunar New Year (as celebrated in China and much of Asia) I’m going to take a look.

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 traveled like wild-fire around 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.

San Francisco had only recently got its name and become part of the U.S. with the conclusion of the Mexican American War of 1846-8. At the beginning of 1849 the population was barely five hundred people, but it exploded with the onset of the Gold Rush, and just a year later numbered an incredible 25,000 residents!

The first Chinese immigrants, who initially arrived in small numbers, 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.

Birth of San Francisco’s Chinatown

And so on August 28, 1850, San Francisco’s first mayor John Geary officially welcomed three hundred “China Boys” to San Francisco at a ceremony in Portsmouth Square. The warm welcome didn’t last long unfortunately. In 1851 2,716 Chinese emigrated to California, but 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 Street (now Grant Street). Apart from the physical difficulties and expense of getting to Gam Saan, which were considerable in those early days, there were already many opportunities to be found in the booming entrepôt.

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

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.

As an example of how bad, and deadly, discrimination against Chinese people could get, exhibit A is the Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre of 1871. Not only is it one of the largest recorded mass lynchings in U.S. history, but not a single person was convicted for their activities on that night, in spite of more than twenty people being charged with a crime and put on trial.

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 the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and, once it was completed, many moved to San Francisco’s burgeoning Chinatown to look for opportunities there.

The neighborhood had become a major tourist attraction by the late nineteenth century, filled as it was with gambling hellholes, brothels and opium dens – as well as laundries, restaurants and many other businesses (including in import-export with Asia). 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 find work and accomodation, but which had been taken over by criminal elements over time.

As the twentieth century dawned there were nearly thirty of them and the San Francisco Police Department established the Chinatown Squad, to deal with the growing problem. But then many of the police were taking bribes from the Tongs 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 uncontrollably for the next three days.

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 standing in Chinatown and many residents must have felt that this was the death knell of the neighborhood for good.

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 essentially told the city: “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 a 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, after the demolition of the nearby “old” one. Hollywood’s famous 1927 Chinese Theater, was also heavily influenced by the new style and was already proving a huge hit by then.

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.

Our SF in a Day and Icons of SF tours both finish with a walk through the streets and alleys of Chinatown and either one is a great introduction to the neighborhood. The tour finishes there at 5.30-6 pm and the guide can make recommendations for dinner.

The Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime tour also explores the area, with a focus on all the illicit activities that took place there in the nineteenth century. The tour also stops at a bar or two in Chinatown, giving guests a great chance to get a better experience this historic neighborhood.

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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