San Francisco’s Chinatown: From the Gold Rush to the 21st Century

Beginning in the 1800’s, a massive amount of Chinese immigration took place, leading to the establishment of “Chinatown” neighborhoods in almost every city worldwide. The main driving force in this diaspora from mainland China was the search for greater economic opportunity.

In the 1850’s, over 25,000 Chinese arrived in the United States, with most of them coming through San Francisco as their port of entry. Many of these new immigrants worked in mines scattered throughout the Sierra Foothills during the California Gold Rush. Others took jobs on farms or as laborers for the burgeoning railroad infrastructure expanding throughout the western region of the United States.

Harsh Conditions for New Arrivals

As was typically the case for immigrants coming to America, life could be very challenging. Not only were most of the individuals desperate for work and wages to survive, they also were under tremendous pressure to send money back to their families in China or to repay loans associated with their cost of passage across the Pacific Ocean.

Given this surplus of desperate laborers, many Chinese immigrants were forced to work longer days at reduced wages. The working conditions were harsh, and other ethnic groups discriminated against the new arrivals, feeling that they were taking away jobs and opportunity for others.

Institutionalized discrimination took place, as the state of California worked to create legal barriers to prevent further Chinese immigration and to force Chinese business owners to acquire special licenses not required for other ethic groups. In the late 19th century, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act temporarily blocked additional Chinese immigration and further curtailed the rights of existing Chinese immigrants looking to attain citizenship.

In San Francisco and other Chinatowns, the tight-knit communities offered a safe haven from some of these discriminations and allowed for Chinese cultural traditions to be preserved and maintained.

Rising from the Rubble of the 1906 Earthquake

The devastating earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fires left much of the city of San Francisco in ruins, destroying much of Chinatown and killing many Chinese-Americans and immigrants. However, the natural disaster also destroyed the city’s official birth and immigration records. The loss of those official records however also created an opportunity as many Chinese immigrants were suddenly able to claim American citizenship and subsequently send for their families back in mainland China.

New immigrants from China arriving during the 1st half of the 1900’s had to be processed at Angel Island, a new immigration center located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The conditions were rough, and after months or even years of delay, not all new arrivals were approved for entry. However, those who were largely settled in San Francisco’s growing Chinatown community.

A Gateway to China in 21st Century San Francisco

In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally overturned. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act lightened restrictions of immigration even further and enabled another wave of migrants from China and Asia.

During this time San Francisco’s Chinatown experienced tremendous growth, and became a melting pot for Chinese culture as the influx of arrivals from different regions of China shared their culture, cuisine, and traditions in one community.

Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown occupies roughly thirty city blocks and is home to some of the finest Chinese restaurants, bars, nightclubs, specialty stores, and cultural centers in all of the United States. The neighborhood is one of the popular tourists city’s most popular attractions, right alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the famous cable cars.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.