Chinese Question

The Chinese Question

The Struggles of Chinese Immigrants in early San Francisco

In 1906, following the devastating San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, the Board of Supervisors found something to be happy about: Chinatown had been totally destroyed. For years, the San Francisco city government, and indeed, the citizens of California, had been pondering the so-called Chinese Question. Parties and committees had been formed, speeches and raids made against the neighborhood of opium dens, prostitution, and strange foreign people, most of whom could not even speak English. The inferiority of the “yellow” people had been discussed at length.[i] Yet somehow Chinatown, the densely packed community with a large immigrant population, survived, rebuilt itself, and became today’s famous tourist attraction. Though it is regarded today as an important part of our city’s bright cultural fabric, anti-Chinese sentiments in early San Francisco were as strong as the politicians were corrupt. As late as 1912, A. M. Robertson published an account of a walk he had taken through Chinatown, escorted by a knowledgeable policeman past the gambling houses and brothels, in which he described himself as being “curiously regarded by slant-eyed pagans who bear us no good-will.”[ii] Robertson’s depiction of the Chinese actually sounds pretty nice compared to the San Francisco Annals’ description of “hordes of long pig-tailed, blear-eyed, rank-smelling Chinese.”[iii] As more and more Chinese immigrants poured into “Golden Hills,” the Chinese name for San Francisco, the Chinese Question loomed larger, even as the city’s economy depended more and more on the cheap labor force provided by the Chinese.

Gold Mountain: Paradise or Hostile World?

How did the Chinese get to San Francisco, and why? While there are the obvious reasons—extreme poverty under an incompetent Chinese government, the Gold Rush, and American demand for cheap labor—historian Min Zhou explains that the true incentive for immigration was often something spiritual; Cantonese people, living under extreme poverty, would often hear tales of a “Gold Mountain” across the ocean, and dream of a heavenly land of prosperity.[iv] What they found when they came, however, was quite different. Chinese workers were often subject to hard physical labor, and bound by contract to families or companies that had paid for their voyage across the Pacific. Many women were imported as prostitutes.[v] The Chinese in San Francisco began to settle in buildings on Sacramento Street. Though seen as inferior, they were originally welcomed as necessary labor for a booming Gold Rush economy. Soon enough, Chinatown grew to become a defined area, with six blocks at its core, an expansion that papers like the Sunday Chronicle described as the “Mongolian octopus…fasten[ing] its tentacles” on an area of the city’s downtown.[vi]

While the new immigrants had always been viewed as vile and lowly, conditions for the Chinese worsened with the economic slowdown of the 1860s. With gold becoming less easily accessible in the Sierras, many white immigrants found themselves jobless, and the Chinese, willing to work for meager wages in unsafe conditions, became their favorite targets.[vii] As the Historical and Architectural Guide to Chinatown points out, “The grievances of California’s Labor Class were against the railroad monopolies, corporations, and the glut of eastern goods, but the target of their violence became the Chinese….Caught between the white laboring class struggling for better working conditions and capitalist exploitation of labor, the Chinese became the scapegoats of the American labor movement in the west.”[viii] While capitalism needed cheap Chinese labor to function—indeed, the transcontinental railroad, an economic lifeline, was built by Chinese immigrants—white workers were unwilling to endure the conditions and low pay of the Chinese, and resented the immigrants, whom they lovingly nicknamed “coolies,” for stealing white jobs.[ix] The Chinese of San Francisco were caught in a class struggle, with nowhere to run.

Quite literally, the Chinese had nowhere to run when a mob assembled in front of City Hall on July 23, 1877 to protest wage cuts for Eastern railroad workers. Originally meant to be a peaceful strike, the gathering evolved into a mass raid on Chinatown. As more than 500 people marched from Civic Center to the Chinese quarter, all 150 members of the Police Department awaited them at the main entrances to the neighborhood. The shabby police force was hardly enough to keep bands of hoodlums out of the neighborhood, and Chinese families quite literally had to flee for their lives. Two days later, the City of Tokio, a ship carrying a full load of Chinese immigrants, was set to arrive in San Francisco. A Committee of Safety was formed by the city’s prominent citizens, and the Navy was called in, to prevent riots from occurring. As the ship neared the dock, rioters attempted to distract the police by lighting a fire on an adjacent pier. Shooting ensued, with twenty-two casualties. Meanwhile, several hundred people went through Chinatown with a battering ram, destroying every Chinese business they passed.[x] Apart from proving that the city needed a larger police force, the three days of mayhem in the summer of 1877 demonstrated that the Chinese Question had divided and incited Californians to the point of violence. Though the riots were brought under control and the police department would soon undergo major restructuring, San Franciscans were growing desperate to do anything to make the Chinese go away.

In the 1870s, anti-coolie groups’, and in many instances, the city’s policies regarding Chinese immigrants became clear: in the words of journalist Joshua Yang, new legislation aimed to “create an environment so hostile as to persuade Chinese immigrants to return to China.”[xi] To that end, the city prohibited the Chinese from carrying food or laundry on traditional shoulder poles, and taxed laundries without horse-drawn vehicles (meaning all the Chinese laundries, whose owners were too poor to afford horse-powered delivery) fifteen times more than White-owned facilities. The bail was generally so large that most Chinese stayed in prison even for minor offenses, and a new law forced Chinese men to cut off their queues, or long pigtails, symbols of loyalty to the Chinese Government (in China, men without queues were labeled traitors and killed), when they were in prison, an enormous insult to their culture.[xii] As if that wasn’t enough, the Anti-Coolie Association responded to a report that accused the Chinese of living like filthy pigs in small, crammed rooms, by proposing a new ordinance that would require 500 cubic feet of space for every person residing in a building. Knowing the Anti-Coolie Associations to be "the horrible demagogues who are stirring up the bad passions of men,” the Board of Supervisors feared widespread rioting and disobedience (remember, the police force was barely 100 officers) if the demands of the organization were not met. In 1870, the Cubic Air Ordinance became law, and in the ensuing years, thousands of immigrants were jailed for living in rooms without adequate cubic footage.[xiii] The crackdown on Chinese immigration became national with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigration and exempted existing Chinese immigrants from citizenship.[xiv] An offensive against the very people who worked to extract the gold and build the railroads that powered the American economy was in full blast.

The Committee’s Report: Racism Made Official

In 1885, the Board of Supervisors put together a special committee to investigate the living conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The final product was a handsome volume entitled Report of Special Committee on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter, and the Chinese in San Francisco. The report, which includes a highly detailed map listing locations of brothels, opium dens, and markets, is accompanied by a lengthy treatise titled The Chinese at Home and Abroad. This racist description of Chinese people starts quite boldly, explaining that if it can be proved that the Chinese race can never assimilate due to its inherent inferiority, and if it can be proved that the only thing their immigration to America brings is “immorality, vice, and disease,” as well as poverty for White laborers and little gain for everyone but rich capitalists, and if it can be shown that they are incapable of being Christian, then their immigration should not be tolerated. And guess what the rest of the book is supposed to prove? All the “if it can be proven…” statements, of course! We are barely past the first page and already we know the exact intention of the entire report—to show that the Chinese are an evil presence.[xv]

Yet, quite hypocritically, the book turns around and asserts that Californians demand that “the American people … lay aside all prejudice and pre-conceived views about the Chinese Question and examine the whole subject matter in the light of incontrovertible testimony, such as they are now enabled to present, without passion and without bias.”[xvi] How exactly can readers of this treatise approach the subject without bias when the very first page of the book is startlingly anti-Chinese? Yet the authors make a very big point of being unbiased and “unprejudiced,” part of their clever argument.[xvii] The book goes on to propose numerous arguments against keeping the Chinese in the country, from fears that Chinese factory workers might steal manufacturing technologies and set up a manufacturing empire in China (the warning that the policy will make the Chinese Empire “the busiest line of manufacturing industry the world has ever known” seems ominously prophetic 150 years later) to assertions that wars between Chinese and Americans are inevitable, backed up by examples of Spanish-Chinese warfare in the Philippines, feuds between Dutch and Chinese in Batavia, and most importantly, recent massacres of Chinese laborers in Washington and Wyoming.[xviii] The treatise actually defends the “hard-laboring classes” in those states who seek “insane methods of remedy” for the wrongs done to them by the Chinese, and argues that such massacres will continue until Americans have the “common sense” to quit the “unnatural effort” of mixing two inherently “antagonistic” races

The Committee’s report on the conditions in Chinatown, which immediately follows the lengthy Chinese at Home and Abroad, is no less biased. The Committee, which claims to have visited “every floor and every room in Chinatown,” starts by describing the incredible filth of the neighborhood.[xix] Chinatown is labeled “the rankest outgrowth of human degradation that can be found upon this continent,” in which people live in conditions “one degree above those under which the rats of our waterfront and other vermin live.”[xx] The authors go on to make the assertion that “this order of things seems inseparable from the very nature of the race, and probably must be accepted and borne with.” In other words, the neighborhood has little hope for improvement, because the Chinese are inherently filthy. Instead, inasmuch as it is possible, San Franciscans must try, with “unceasing vigilance,” to look after “the great, overshadowing evil which Chinese immigration had inflicted upon this people.”[xxi] The report then describes gambling, opium dens, prostitution, and family life in detail, always with the same anti-Chinese slant, and recommends that new laws, some of them modified versions of the Cubic Air Ordinance, and more stringent enforcement, be put in place to “shake off this Mongolian vampire that is now sapping [San Francisco’s] vitals.”[xxii] The final argument is perhaps the most astounding in its relevance to the politics of the era. The authors of the report recall the Civil War, during which immense sacrifices were made to ensure an end to slave labor. The authors assert that there is little difference between slave labor and Chinese labor, nay, that it is “far worse than negro slavery in its effects upon free labor,” and that importation of Asiatic “coolies” must be stopped at any cost—much like slavery had to be stopped at any cost, and was.[xxiii] The report ends with an appeal to Congress to enact anti-immigration legislation and proposes to drive the Chinese away into other states, so that other Americans can experience and understand the horrors of having the Chinese in their midst and join Californians in fighting against the “yellow” people.

The report and accompanying treatise on the Chinese People are very cunningly written and perfectly fulfill their purpose. The Board of Supervisors asked for a report on living conditions in Chinatown with the obvious intent of justifying ill treatment of the immigrants and appeasing anti-coolie factions like the Workingmen’s Party, and the product makes the “answer” to the Chinese question seem like a no-brainer. The authors start out by posing a hypothesis and eventually prove it (appealing to more scientific and academic readers). They appeal to readers’ emotions by using powerful language, calling Chinatown a “vampire,” among other things. They use the physical conditions in Chinatown, caused, no doubt, in no small part by horrible treatment and constant economic and social degradation on the part of the white population, to support racist claims, citing pseudo-anthropological logic to make racist social statements. They appeal to strong patriotic feelings with references to the Civil War. And finally, they call on a democratic government to fix the issue. And politicians did indeed act. As Madeline Hsu points out in her essay “Gold Mountain Dreams and Paper Son Schemes”, “in postbellum America, with political parties enjoying fairly equal and flat levels of support, anti-Chinese legislation was an issue that neither party could afford to oppose.”[xxiv] By the 1880s, the votes of white laborers had become increasingly important, and the strength of organizations such as the Anti-Chinese Union, whose aim was to “unite, centralize, and direct the anti-Chinese strength of [the] country,” was growing.[xxv] The Report of the Special Committee is only one example of a government swayed by anti-coolie groups and more worried by potentially violent anti-Chinese White Americans than by the dangers of Chinese immigrants themselves.

The Opposition: Bee and his Defense of the Chinese

Not everyone was so convinced of the evils of the Chinese as The Chinese at Home and Abroad asserts. In 1886, a year after the Board of Supervisors circulated their report, Frederick Bee, a New York lawyer who had moved to the West Coast to defend immigrants’ rights, published a small book entitled The Other Side of the Chinese Question. A total repudiation of the city’s report, its title page claims the document to be “testimony of California’s Leading Citizens,” and asks the addressees, the House and Senate, to “Read and Judge.”[xxvi] Bee begins quite cleverly; he announces the “true motives” behind the original document: “The individual who is the author and father of this report,” he reveals, “expects that it will give him the nomination of mayor of this city.” Immediately, Bee takes apart the entire report, showing evidence of the Chinese as honest people and instead asserts that “it is the whites, not the Chinese, who suffer from the filth diseases,” proving that “the reporters only show their ignorance in stating that the Chinese are badly fed and clothed.”[xxvii] He refutes the censuses and statistics in the report, showing (correctly) that the Chinese, through their work on the railroad, are responsible for American economic progress, and ends by citing his American rights to freedom of speech (another appeal to patriotism). And his final point also compares Chinese labor to slavery, only unlike the Committee, he hopes for a resolution, rather than an “at any cost” war.[xxviii] Bee presents a clever, and, by today’s standards, quite accurate counterargument to the San Francisco report that had been circulated, along with plenty of bribes, among the House and Senate.

From today’s perspective, allegations against Chinese laborers in the 19th century seem inordinately cruel. The open publication of such racist documents can be directly blamed on the growing political power of lower-class laborers. The elites of the United States prospered and grew richer with the availability of cheap Chinese labor; had they been in total control of government and society, perhaps the Board of Supervisors’ report would never have been published. Instead, in the Wild, developing West, the working classes needed to be appeased, not only to get votes, but also to prevent violent riots. Furthering racist views and anti-Chinese legislation was a way to mollify the masses clamoring for better wages and job opportunities. When put in the hands of politicians, these racist ideologies became powerful weapons to strip an immigrant population of its rights. It is perhaps ironic that the same Board of Supervisors that published the report of the Committee is today regarded as one of the most liberal governing bodies in the world, and whose President is now an Asian American.

Exclusion from America: Changes in National Policy Towards Chinese Immigration

As the United States neared the 20th century, the Chinese who remained in the country found themselves under tougher restrictions and surveillance. In 1892, with the old Exclusion Act set to expire, the Senate and House produced twelve different renewal bills calling for more stringent monitoring of the Chinese population. The second Exclusion Act, the final version of which came to be known as the Geary Act, was pushed through the national government, in large part by representatives from California, one of whom was Geary himself. Finally, Democrats had made a comeback in California, and, they were eager, at state and national levels, to appease the unions and anti-coolie groups they had made promises to.[xxix] In its Report of Senate Committee on Chinese Immigration and Chinese, the State Senate called the current anti-Chinese legislation “a mere farce” and threatened to pass its own tougher exclusion legislation, citing California’s constitutional powers as a sovereign state.[xxx] As the date for renewal neared, more of the report’s ideas, such as numbering the Chinese in the state by giving them certificates of residency and investigating their living and working conditions, became part of renewed national discussion of the Chinese Question.

The California Senate’s report was followed by the US Congress’ Causes of a General Depression in Labor and Business. Chinese Immigration. Investigation by a Select Committee of the House of Representatives. The 400-page report carefully investigated the causes of the economic downturn of the late 1880s, and found that the Chinese were much to blame. An interview conducted with bankrupt cigar maker Samuel Lewis brought home the point; Lewis complained that “within the last sixty days we have not been manufacturing; we have stopped work and are going out of business. The competition is so great in that line of business that it fails to pay. Chinamen will work for one another cheaper than they will work for white men, and therefore Chinese manufacturers can undersell the white manufacturers.”[xxxi] Lewis’ was one of those sentimental “American Stories” that must have really affected members of Congress. Here were aliens coming to this country and outcompeting the local working white men! Still, quite importantly, Lewis himself claimed that of his former workers “90 percent were Chinamen.”[xxxii]

Why did Chinese workers work for even less money when they were employed by other Chinese immigrants? Partially because it made them feel safer and let them exist in a supportive community; white laws, restrictions, and violence had made the Chinese wary and suspicious of caucasians, and, ironically, laws like the Geary Act only helped strengthen that divide. Still, Lewis’ compelling argument was not lost on Congress. This was not the only condemnation of Chinese cigar manufacturing; The Workingman’s Advocate warned, “with ulcerated hands they wrap the fallen leper scales with the tobacco, and the smoker sucks it into his system, which may break out in one year… and children may inherit the disease from the careless father.”[xxxiii] In its final pages, the report makes sure to target Easterners, too: “When we have a million Chinamen on this coast working at 12 ½ cents a day, manufacturing boots and shoes and clothes,” the committee warns, “and when we have thus destroyed the woolen and cotton and shoe-factories of the East, then the people of the East will realize that this Chinese question is a great question.”[xxxiv]

In the end, these emotional and political appeals won out in 1892, and the Geary Act passed, requiring all Chinese immigrants to carry certificates of residence, without which they were liable to be deported. The Chinese community was outraged at this infringement of their rights, and the heads of the Six Companies that ran Chinatown immediately initiated legal processes to challenge the constitutionality of the new law. A year later, the case went to the Supreme Court, which declared that the nation had the power to exclude or expel foreigners. Chinese-American morale was at its lowest; the economic depression of the late 1800s had only made things worse for immigrant laborers.

By the time the Act was due for renewal again in 1902, things had slowly begun to change. The economy had improved, and with it, a new demand for labor arose on the west coast. In that year, a significant amount of literature appeared to protest exclusion. To counteract the Congressional Committee’s statement from 1892 that the Chinese undercut the honest labor of the “hundreds of girls who would be glad to get employment in factories,” Joaquin Miller, an Oakland, CA author, argued in an article in The Arena that “there is not a small farmer, nor a big farmer, as to that, in all California who is not suffering for Chinese help. He not only wants to rent land, but he wants to lift his daughters out of the drudgery of the kitchen and keep them at school. The Chinaman is a natural domestic… but the white girl, the daughter of a land-owner, does not belong in the kitchen all the time.”[xxxv] Proposing a system that sounds oddly like slavery, Miller insisted that the Chinese can form their own “class of labor,” allowing for civilized white men and women to seek better opportunities while “kitchen” and factory jobs can be fulfilled by people naturally more servile and domestic. It is perhaps ironic that an argument for a cause that benefitted the Chinese was written with such a racially tinged undertone.[xxxvi]

Miller adds some irony into the mix himself by leveling an accusation against the very Irish working classes that were the greatest opponents of Chinese immigration. “I well remember,” he recalls, “how we were often amused to see the ‘Irish washer-women’ take to themselves a houseful of the hated Chinese the day they married the rich miners.”[xxxvii] In total, however, Miller makes clear that in his opinion, the Exclusion Act was a rash action of the “people of the east,” “politicians,” and “labor unions,” who completely forgot to ask the opinions of normal Californians. In a letter to Reverend Johnston of Oakland, Miller claimed that California “would be the ideal home land if we could only have these clean, honest, patient, silent and loyal little brains for help.”[xxxviii]

Added to Miller’s protests was a new voice; finally, Chinese Americans themselves were having their say. Ng Poon Chew, a Chinese newspaper publisher, printed a small book entitled The Treatment of the Exempt Classes of Chinese in the United States. A Statement from the Chinese in America, which approached the issue from the perspective of the so-called exempt classes—those to whom the Exclusion Act did not apply. These included merchants, officials, teachers, students, and travelers.[xxxix] Chew cited incidents such as the detention of the Kings, a rich Chinese family passing through Boston on its way to Canada. The three brothers and sister arrived in the US with passports and identification papers, yet immigration officials arrested them anyway on the basis of their race, asking for a bail of $500 per person.[xl] Chew asserted that previously, Chinese elites educated in the US had come back with news of the friendliness and honor of Americans. Now, Chew explained, “those who have received indignities in America have also returned home full of resentment, and urge their countrymen to resist the violation of the treaty.”[xli] Chew went on to claim that the Exclusion Law “has almost become an extermination law,” asking Congress to reconsider the treatment of Chinese in America. Meanwhile, the Chinese consul, another opponent of exclusion, debated the Act with the mayor of San Francisco through city newspapers. Finally, pro-Chinese forces were growing. Nevertheless, the Exclusion Act was indeed renewed in 1902, thanks to intense propaganda on the part of labor unions and the politicians they supported, such as Henry Palmer of Pennsylvania, who in a speech to the Senate declared: “we have no room [for the Chinese].”[xlii]

The San Francisco Story: Chinatown and San Francisco Politics

The anti-coolie groups’ plan was working well in San Francisco, where the Chinese population dropped by about half between 1890 and 1900, and continued to decline into the 1920s.[xliii] San Francisco’s government was especially hostile towards its Chinese population, due in part to the activity of the Workingmen’s Party, which, in its short existence, had managed to inject a great deal of anti-coolie sentiment into the major parties. The party had been formed by Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant. (It is truly interesting that Irish immigrant laborers were one of the loudest voices against immigrants from a different country.) According to Issel and Cherny, authors of San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development, “Kearney… tied anti-Chinese rhetoric to attacks on the city’s business elite and gathered huge crowds who seemed eager to do his bidding. The police repeatedly arrested him for inciting to riot, and martyrdom increased his fame.”[xliv] The huge crowds were seen as a big danger by the city’s elite, so even when Kearney’s party died, politicians sought to placate those crowds by enacting tough legislation against the Chinese.

The Workingmen’s Party of California did not give up without a fight, however. After sweeping municipal and state elections in 1878 (the WPC was a huge force in writing the new California constitution of 1879, which restricted corporations from hiring Chinese workers) the WPC put forth a candidate for mayor of San Francisco in fall of 1879: Isaac Kalloch, a Baptist pastor. The Chronicle, a paper then run by Charles de Young, attacked Kalloch as an “unclean leper.” In return, Kalloch delivered a sermon in which he labeled the de Young brothers “moral lepers [and] hyenas of society.” Furious at the candidate, Charles de Young shot Kalloch in the chest, yet the pastor somehow survived and even won the election. When de Young continued to publish anti-Kalloch literature, Kalloch’s son shot and killed him. Though Kalloch ended up surviving the whole ordeal, support for the WPC plummeted, and he quickly realized he was going to have a hard time accomplishing anything with a Republican Board of Supervisors. A year later, his party fell apart.[xlv] Much like many third parties in American Politics, however, the ideas of the WPC stayed alive and were eventually claimed by the Democratic Party, which was quickly regaining its footing in San Francisco in the 1880s. The man behind the party was also of Irish heritage, Christopher Buckley, more commonly known as “The Boss.” Though he never ran for any office, Buckley hand-picked his favorite candidates. One of the criteria for this Irish, pro-labor Boss was anti-Chinese agitation.[xlvi] Edward B. Pond, part of the Chinatown Committee that the Board of Supervisors had organized in 1885, and a chief author of its lengthy report on the deplorable conditions in the Chinese quarter, certainly had a lengthy history of that. With the Boss’ support, Pond won the mayoral race in 1887, in a rapidly expanding city where the population of lower-class laborers held great sway.

Ten years later, a fervent anti-Chinese politician, Democrat James Phelan, became mayor. During his time, the city government started to become especially interested in getting rid of Chinatown, a sore thumb in the middle of what was becoming a major American city. On the side of the mayor and Board of Supervisors was Doctor Williamson, the President of the City’s Board of Health. Dr. Williamson claimed that he had found evidence that the Bubonic Plague was present in Chinatown. In May of 1900, the anti-Chinese Board of Supervisors took action by quarantining the neighborhood, roping off and guarding all entrances to the quarter. This “quarantine,” however, was simply an official-sounding excuse for discrimination against the remaining Chinese community. In reality, all whites were allowed to enter and leave Chinatown, making the quarantine useless, and the Board of Health conveniently refused to allow physicians to examine or perform autopsies on patients “infected” with the disease.[xlvii] Though it was all a big hoax, the plague scare of 1900 made it all the clearer to many San Franciscans that Chinatown had to go.

At the same time, however, the Chinese community started to become more and more unified and connected to their homeland. In 1904, the US renewed a treaty with China, in which America pressed to continue enforcing Chinese Exclusion and denying Chinese immigrants citizenship. In response, a mass movement began in China to express solidarity with Chinese Americans and protest the new treaty. A mass boycott began on imported American goods, with activists even displaying imports in Chinese temples to show what to boycott. Articles and plays illustrated the racist treatment Chinese people received in America.[xlviii] In 1903, a Chinese diplomat in San Francisco was beaten by police, tied by his queue to a light pole, and then put on trial. Humiliated, he committed suicide.[xlix] Along with the suicide of Fend, an immigrant laborer who had been mistreated in America, committed in front of the American Consulate in Shanghai, the sacrificial acts of these Chinese who had suffered great injustices inspired many Chinese in China.[l] For the first time, the plight of the Chinese in America had gained great attention abroad.

A product of a nationalist revival taking place in China, the boycott created a true sense of solidarity between Chinese communities across the Pacific. A pamphlet distributed during the boycott said that Chinese Americans “are like our brothers,” and an article in the New York Times suggested (regarding the Chinese) that “the extent and depth of the feeling manifested astonish foreigners and are regarded as an evidence of the growth of a national sentiment and public spirit.”[li] Despite these powerful social statements, the boycott failed politically, as trade between the United States and China reached unprecedented heights in 1905. What mattered most was that the Chinese American community was no longer alone—a country of 400 million was more strongly connected to it than ever.

The Earthquake: Rebirth and Americanization in Chinatown

This strong bond proved to be important when the Chinese community in San Francisco went through the disastrous Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Since 1905, San Francisco businessmen had planned to buy up the land under Chinatown, raze it, and build a new district of stores, fashionable hotels, and fine residences. The Chinese would be moved to a new “Oriental City” at Hunter’s Point. The Earthquake of 1906, which completely destroyed Chinatown, provided city planners with a perfect excuse to kick out the coolies. Refusing to let the Chinese stay amid the ruins of the district, the Citizens’ Committee, which held great power in the aftermath, relocated them to a relief location at the foot of Van Ness Avenue. Suddenly realizing that this location was too close to the city center, the Committee decided to place the Chinese on government property to prevent them from settling down. First housed at the Army-owned Presidio Golf Course, they were kicked off onto the parade grounds when nearby residents complained about noxious Oriental odors. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Chinese community began to fight to get their neighborhood back, and they had quite a few arguments on their side: The owners of land in Chinatown, who had been receiving high rents from the Chinese thanks to overcrowding, wanted the Chinese tenants back; Chinatown was a major tourist attraction; and the Chinese refused to settle anywhere else in San Francisco but their original home.

But there was one big argument that the “Chinatown Movers” had overlooked: The Chinese helped secure San Francisco as the biggest center for American trade with China. Many leaders began to realize that if the Chinese were kicked out to other American cities, the Oriental trade might go with them.[lii] Furthermore, the Chinese now had a growing political entity on their side: China itself. Fueled by the sentiments left over from the boycott of the previous year, Chinese compatriots sent thousands of dollars to America to contribute to the relief effort, and the Chinese government commissioned numerous officials to provide food and housing to the quake’s victims.[liii] More than that, however, these officials helped to influence political decisions such as the relocation of Chinatown. As Yong Chen, author of Chinese in San Francisco, explains, “Chinese diplomats’ intervention served as a reminder that the removal of Chinatown could become an international incident.”[liv] In a time when San Francisco most needed the world’s aid, leaders could not risk that, not to mention that moving the Chinese against their will and depriving them of their property would be considered unconstitutional.[lv]

As San Francisco entered the 1910s, the Chinese community was finally rising from the ashes and discrimination of the 19th century. As its power increased, so did its wealth. Chinese immigrants founded several large-scale shipping and manufacturing corporations, and as the population of American-born Chinese expanded, more and more of the community became able to vote and actively participate in American life.[lvi] Indeed, many neighborhood organizations encouraged Chinese to vote so that Americans would accept them. As more Chinese became educated in the American system (albeit in segregated schools), more and more of them could be successful businessmen rather than manual laborers like their immigrant parents and grandparents, and with increased opportunity came openness towards American culture. Within Chinatown, in the decades following the Earthquake, a great process of assimilation into American culture began. Mainstream clothing outlets, shoe stores, and movie theaters began to print advertisements in Chinese. As they wore American fashions and ate American food, Chinese families emphasized to their American-born children the importance of English proficiency as a key to success.[lvii] Meanwhile, in what historian Yong Chen calls the “two way street” of acculturation, Chinese food and culture, once regarded as noxious, now became increasingly popular among Americans.

Chinatown was no longer an isolated community within a larger city—it became part of San Francisco. It is indeed astonishing that the Chinese community in San Francisco managed to survive unfair laws, discrimination, injustice, and threats of relocation to become one of the most famous ethnic neighborhoods in the country. Close ties with China saved the community; American culture and values were injected into it. Chinatown as it is today is a hybrid of sorts, a truly Chinese American community. The Chinese make up the largest single ethnic group in San Francisco, and San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of China itself. As they did a century ago, Chinese immigrants still come to Gold Mountain to accomplish their dreams. But perceptions have changed: China is now an economic powerhouse, with ties to America closer than ever before, and Chinese Americans have attained considerable economic success in the United States. Yet despite the obvious progress, a study done by the University of Maryland in 2008 revealed that “on average, Chinese American professionals in the legal and medical fields earn as much as 44 percent less than their White counterparts,” and proved that many Chinese immigrant communities are still very poor. The director of the study, Larry Shinagawa, said recently that "contrary to popular beliefs, Chinese Americans often face extra barriers to economic success, despite their educational achievements.”[lviii] In other words, despite this country’s progress on racial issues, it is still much more difficult for Chinese Americans to succeed here. Though we have come far from the injustice of the 19th century, it must not be forgotten that there is still work to be done.

[i] Philip Choy, A historical and architectural guide to San Francisco's Chinatown, (San Francisco: Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resource Center, 1981), 9.

[ii] Charles Stoddard, A Bit of Old China (San Francisco : A.M. Robertson, 1912), 2.

[iii] John Gihon, James Nisbet, and Frank Soulé, The Annals of San Francisco, (New York: D. Appleton and Company: 1855) (full text accessed online at

[iv] Min Zhou, Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 18-19.

[v] Zhou, 24.

[vi] Philip Choy and Christopher Yip, San Francisco Chinatown historic survey, (San Francisco: [s.n.], 1979.

[vii] Joshua Yang. “The Anti-Chinese Cubic Air Ordinance.” American Journal of Public Health 99 (March 2009): 440.

[viii] Choy, guide, 7-8.

[ix] Choy, guide, 7.

[x] Kevin Mullen, Chinatown squad: policing the dragon: from the Gold Rush to the 21st

century, (Novato, CA: Noir Publications, 2008), 42-47.

[xi] Yang, 440.

[xii] Choy, guide, 8.

[xiii] Yang, 440.

[xiv] Choy, guide, 9.

[xv] Willard Farwell and San Francisco Board of Supervisors, The Chinese At Home and

Abroad, Together With The Report of The Special Committee Of The Board of Supervisors of San Francisco on The Condition of The Chinese Quarter of that City, (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft, 1885) (reprint: San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1970), 4.

[xvi] Farwell, 9.

[xvii] Farwell, 4.

[xviii] Farwell, 90.

[xix] San Francisco Board of Supervisors, The Chinese in San Francisco, (San Francisco:

Published by order of the Board of Supervisors, 1885), 165.

[xx] Board of Supervisors, 166.

[xxi] Board of Supervisors, 166.

[xxii] Board of Supervisors, 213.

[xxiii] Board of Supervisors, 213.

[xxiv] Hsu, Madeline, “Gold Mountain Dreams and Paper Son Schemes: Chinese Immigration

Under Exclusion,” In Chinese America: History and Perspectives: 1997, (Brisbane, California: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1997), 47.

[xxv] Elmer Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Chicago: University of

Illinois Press, 1991), 57.

[xxvi] Frederick Bee, The Other Side of the Chinese Question, (San Francisco: Woodward & Co., 1886.) (reprinted San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1971), 1.

[xxvii] Bee, 7.

[xxviii] Bee, 72.

[xxix] Elmer Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 103.

[xxx] California Senate, Report of Senate Committee on Chinese and Chinese Immigration, (Sacramento, CA: printed by order of California Senate, 1887), 7.

[xxxi] Forty-Sixth Congress of the United States, Causes of a General Depression in Labor and Business. Chinese Immigration. Investigation by a Select Committee of the House of Representatives (Washington, DC: printed by order of House of Representatives, 1879), 318.

[xxxii] Congress, 318.

[xxxiii] Stuart Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese 1785-1882 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 198.

[xxxiv] Congress, 355.

[xxxv] Joaquin Miller, “The Chinese Exclusion Act.” The Arena (October 1904): 353.

[xxxvi] Miller, 353.

[xxxvii] Miller, 354.

[xxxviii] Joaquin Miller, “Joaquin Miller vs the Chinese Exclusion Act” North American Review (December 1901).

[xxxix] Sandmeyer, 102.

[xl] Ng Poon Chew, The Treatment of the Exempt Classes of Chinese in the United States. A Statement from the Chinese in America (San Francisco: Chung Sai Yat Po, 1908), 9.

[xli] Chew, 13

[xlii] United States Senate, “Speech of Henry W. Palmer: April 4, 1902” (Washington, DC: printed by order of US Senate, 1902), 7.

[xliii] William Issel and Robert Cherny, San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 73.

[xliv] Issel and Cherny, 127.

[xlv] Issel and Cherny, 128.

[xlvi] Issel and Cherny, 131.

[xlvii] Philip Choy, A historical and architectural guide to San Francisco's Chinatown, (San Francisco: Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resource Center, 1981), 10.

[xlviii] Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 149.

[xlix] Chen, 151.

[l] Chen, 152.

[li] Chen, 157.

[lii] Judd Kahn, Imperial San Francisco: Politics and Planning in an American City, 1897-1906 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 203-4.

[liii] Chen, 163.

[liv] Chen, 166.

[lv] Kahn, 204.

[lvi] Chen, 189.

[lvii] Chen, 196.

[lviii] Neil Tickner, “Major Study of Chinese Americans Debunks 'Model Minority' Myth,” University of Maryland Newsdesk (November 12, 2008)