Chinatown

Chinatown Resource Guide

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THE STORY OF CHINATOWN

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Chinese Marching Band The story of Chinatown is the story of a neighborhood; an American neighborhood, an old neighborhood, an immigrant neighborhood, where the old country still lives inside the new one. The past and the present are inseparably woven together in this neighborhood defined by Broadway, California, Kearny and Powell streets.

In the mid-1840's, following defeat by Britain in the first Opium War, a series of natural catastrophes occurred across China resulting in famine, peasant uprisings and rebellions. Understandably, when the news of gold and opportunity in far away Gum San, (Golden Mountain- the Chinese name for America) reached China, many Chinese seized the opportunity to seek their fortune.

The Chinese were met with ambiguous feelings by Californians. In 1850, San Francisco Mayor John W. Geary invited the "China Boys" to a ceremony to acknowledge their work ethic. However, as the American economy weakened, the Chinese labor force became a threat to mainstream society. Racial discrimination and repressive legislation drove the Chinese from the gold mines to the sanctuary of the neighborhood that became known as Chinatown. The only ethnic group in the history of the United States to have been specifically denied entrance into the country, the Chinese were prohibited by law to testify in court, to own property, to vote, to have families join them, to marry non-Chinese, and to work in institutional agencies.

The success and survival of Chinatown depended a great deal on the family and district benevolent associations which served as political and social support systems to newcomers. The members strove to meet the basic needs of the community, and represented a united voice in the fight against discriminatory legislation process.

"CHINATOWN" offers a revealing look at how a group of people bound geographically, culturally, linguistically and economically during hostile times has flourished to become a vibrant, courageous and proud community for Chinese Americans and greater San Francisco, referred to as Dai Fao (Big City) in Chinese.

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FROM MOTHER LODE AND RAILROAD TO A NEW ECONOMY

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Depression followed the completion of the railroad. In 1869 twenty thousand Chinese were suddenly out of work. Many traditional means of wage earning were inaccessible to the Chinese.

Their farm laboring skills produced superior varieties of rice, oranges, apples, cherries and peaches. The Chinese filled the need for domestic services in white homes and developed laundry businesses. They became successfully involved in the restaurant business, fishing and shrimping industries, and leather goods manufacturing. As soon as their new businesses flourished, they were targeted as unwelcome competition to the struggling economy of San Francisco.

The Burlingame Treaty of 1869 encouraged the Chinese to emigrate to the United States in greater numbers. Reacting to the America's fear of the "yellow peril," in 1877 Denis Kearney organized the Workingman's Party with the rallying cry, "The Chinese Must Go!" which led to the looting and burning of many Chinese businesses.

More than thirty anti-Chinese legislations were enacted during the l870's at both the state and local levels. (See legislation section) The result of this codified racism was to exclude Chinese from many occupations and to deprive them of full participation in a society they had helped to build. Culmination of this discriminatory legislation resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, l882. This act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years.

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BUILDING PORTSMOUTH SQUARE

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The American flag was raised in Portsmouth Square, on July 9, 1846. The small frontier town rapidly grew into a city after the discovery of gold. Portsmouth Square, served as a cow pen, surrounded by tents and adobe huts in 1848, and by brick and stone buildings, hotels, business offices, shops, gambling places and restaurants by the late 1850's. At that time hundreds of Chinese strategically chose to locate their laundries, restaurants and shops close to the center of the city, Portsmouth Square to cater to mining related needs. They were established on or within a block of the square, and gradually branched out to Dupont (present-day Grant) and Kearny Streets. The area referred to as "Little Canton," had thirty-three retail stores, fifteen pharmacies/Chinese herbalists and five restaurants. In 1853 the neighborhood was given the name "Chinatown" by the press. The first Chinese hand laundry was started on the corner of Washington Dupont Streets in 1851. By 1870 some 2,000 Chinese laundries were in the trade growing to 7,500 in 1880. Merchants and peddlers provided fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. As San Francisco became a recreation center, the Chinese seized opportunities to provide festive activities. In addition an entire theater building was imported from China and erected in Chinatown to house the Chinese theatrical troupe.

Chinatown's twelve blocks of crowded wooden and brick houses, businesses, temples, family associations, rooming houses for the bachelor majority, (in 1880 the ratio of men to women was 20 to 1) opium dens, gambling halls was home to 22,000 people. The atmosphere of early Chinatown was bustling and noisy with brightly colored lanterns, three-cornered yellow silk pennants denoting restaurants, calligraphy on sign boards, flowing costumes, hair in queues and the sound of Cantonese dialects. In this familiar neighborhood the immigrants found the security and solidarity to survive the racial and economic oppression of greater San Francisco.

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EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE DESTROY CHINATOWN

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On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was devastated by a huge earthquake. As fires raged, Chinatown was leveled. It seemed that what the city and country wanted for fifty years, nature had accomplished in forty-five seconds. Ironically, because the immigration records and vital statistics at City Hall had been destroyed, many Chinese were able to claim citizenship, then send for their children and families in China. Legally, all children of U.S. citizens were automatically citizens, regardless of their place of birth. Thus began the influx of"paper sons and paper daughters" - instant citizens - which helped balance the demographics of Chinatown's "bachelor society." Finally, Chinatown had what it had been missing for so long - children.

The city fathers had no intention of allowing Chinatown to be rebuilt in its own neighborhood, on valuable land next to the Financial District. While they were deciding where to relocate the Chinese, a wealthy businessman named Look Tin Eli developed a plan to rebuild Chinatown to its original location. He obtained a loan from Hong Kong and designed the new Chinatown to be more emphatically "Oriental" to draw tourists. The old Italianate buildings were replaced by Edwardian architecture embellished with theatrical chinoiserie. Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.

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ANGEL ISLAND:
PORT OF ENTRY

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Picture of Angel Island StationAngel Island, the immigration station on San Francisco Bay, opened in 1910 to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, is where two hundred fifty thousand Chinese immigrants were processed. The average detention was two weeks, the longest was twenty-two months. Conditions on Angel Island were harsh, families were isolated, separated, and the interrogated. Detainees were questioned in great detail about who they were and why they were claiming the right to enter the United States. Those whose answers were unacceptable to the officers were denied admission. To prepare for the questions, immigrants often relied on coaching papers which contained details on the background of individuals who could legally claim American citizenship. Typically such papers were purchased as part of the package of tickets and information about entering the United States.

Angel Island Station was closed in 1940 after a fire destroyed many of the buildings. The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and in 1962 most of Angel Island was converted to state park.

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WORLD WAR II's IMPACT ON CHINATOWN

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As with the Great Quake and fire of 1906, the catastrophic events of World War II and it's aftermath benefited the Chinese in America. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) became a vehicle of opportunity for the Chinese Americans. China became an ally in the war against Japan, and public sentiment in favor of America's Chinese allies surged. For the first time, Chinese aliens entered the mainstream of American society. Chinese Americans wore the same uniform as American soldiers, and fought side by side with them under the American flag. Labor shortages on the homefront opened jobs previously closed to them.

The most important declaration came on December 17, 1943, halfway through the war, when President Roosevelt signed the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, ending more than sixty years of legalized racism and discrimination. This did not guarantee instant acceptance by the dominant society. After the repeal of the Exclusion Act and the enactment of the War Bride Act, acculturation and assimilation began to take place. The once bachelor society began to shift toward a new American Chinese community filled with families and children. Finally Chinese immigrants were legally allowed to become citizens and to own property.

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CHINATOWN TODAY

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Today's Chinatown is a unique neighborhood defined by its people, its institutions and its history - a history of welcome, rejection and acceptance. Chinese-style buildings and the narrow bustling streets give Chinatown its character. Beyond the gilded storefronts you will find tenements crowded with elderly people and new immigrants struggling with problems left by years of exclusion and discrimination - unemployment, health problems and substandard housing. Core Chinatown itself, limited by its capacity to grow, no longer serves as the major residential area for the Chinese of San Francisco. Many have moved out of crowded Chinatown to the Richmond and Sunset districts.

In 1977, the Chinatown Resource Center and the Chinese Community Housing Corporation launched a comprehensive improvement program striving to find solutions for land use changes. Since 1895 the Chinese American Citizens Alliance has fought against disenfranchisement of citizens of Chinese ancestry and sponsored a number of community projects. Picture of Chinatown's Grant Street

Today, San Francisco's Chinatown has developed cultural autonomy which sustains many activities: dance, music groups, a children's orchestra, artists, a Chinese Culture Center, and the Chinese Historical Society of America. A result of the community's commitment to excellence in education is its involvement in the legal debates of affirmative action vs. school desegregation for Asian-American youth.

"Viewed within the context of the City of San Francisco, Chinatown is one of many culturally distinct neighborhoods that together make up the backbone of the City. Viewed within the context of America, Chinatown is an American working class community that has been a partner in building this nation with every other American working class community. Like all other American neighborhoods, Chinatown has been developed by the will and energies of immigrants."*

* Elaine Joe, "American Communities Built on Multiculturalism," Neighborhood Bulletin, A Newsletter of the Chinatown Resource Center and Chinese Community Housing Corporation vol.17, no.4 (Fall 1995).

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