Chinatown, San Francisco
Chinatown, San Francisco a century ago
Chinatown, San Francisco as it looked like in 1912.
The Chinatown, centered around Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in San Francisco, California, (Chinese: 唐人街; Mandarin Pinyin: tángrénjiē; Jyutping: tong4 jan4 gaai1) is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinesecommunity outside Asia and is the oldest of the four notable Chinatowns in the city. Since its establishment in 1848, it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, numerous parks and squares, a post office, and other infrastructure. Visitors can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. While recent immigrants and the elderly choose to live in here because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture, the place is also a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Chinatown has been traditionally defined by the neighborhoods of North Beach, and Telegraph Hill areas as bound by Bush Street, Taylor Street, Bay Street, and the water. Officially, Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, covers 24 square blocks, and overlaps five postal ZIP codes. It is within an area of roughly 1 mile long by 1.34 miles wide. The current boundary is roughly Montgomery Street, Columbus Avenue and The City’s Financial District in the east, Union Street and North Beach in the north all the way to its Northernmost point from the intersection of Jones Street and Lombard Street in Russian Hill toLombard Street and Grant Avenue (都板街) in Telegraph Hill. The southeast is bounded by Bush Street with Union Square.
Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue (都板街), with the Dragon Gate (aka “Chinatown Gate” on some maps; in Bush St & Grant Ave, San Francisco, California 94108) on the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue; St. Mary’s Square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Benjamin Bufano; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and stores, restaurants and mini-malls that cater mainly to tourists. The other, Stockton Street (市德頓街), is frequented less often by tourists, and it presents an authentic Chinese look and feel, reminiscent of Hong Kong, with its produce and fish markets, stores, and restaurants. Chinatown has smaller side streets and alleyways providing character.
A major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Due to its being one of the few open spaces in Chinatown and sitting on top of a large underground parking lot, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as T’ai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy used in the Tiananmen Square protest was built in 1999 by Thomas Marsh, and stands in the square. It is made of bronze and weighs approximately 600 lb (270 kg).
Demographics – Background
According to the San Francisco Planning Department, Chinatown is “the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan,” with 15,000 residents living in 20 square blocks. In the 1970’s, the population density in Chinatown was seven times the San Francisco average.
The estimated total population in the 2000 Census was at 100,574 residents. It is also one of the more working-class sections of the city, with neighborhood median household incomes averaging out at $42,153, though higher than the national average, is still lower than the citywide average income of $73,798.
Grant Avenue during Chinese New Year.
Many working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s and despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, had to find low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English fluency. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement of the Hoisanese/Taishanese dialect with the standard Cantonese dialect.
Due to such overcrowding and poverty, other Chinese areas have been established within the city of San Francisco proper, including one in its Richmond and three more in its Sunset districts, as well as a recently established one in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These outer neighborhoods have been settled largely by Chinese from Southeast Asia. There are also many suburban Chinese communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, such as Cupertino, Fremont, and Milpitas, where Taiwanese Americans are dominant. Despite these developments, many continue to commute in from these outer neighborhoods and cities to shop in Chinatown, causing gridlock on roads and delays in public transit, especially on weekends. To address this problem, the local public transit agency, Muni, is planning to extend the city’s subway network to the neighborhood via the new Central Subway.
Unlike in most Chinatowns in the United States, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam have not established businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, due to high property values and rents. Instead, many Chinese-Vietnamese – as opposed to ethnic Vietnamese who tended to congregate in larger numbers in San Jose – have established a separate Vietnamese enclave on Larkin Street in the heavily working-class Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where it is now known as the city’s “Little Saigon” and not as a “Chinatown” per se. As with historic Chinatown, Little Saigon plans to construct an arch signifying its entrance, as well as directional street signs leading to the community.
History – Early history
The headquarters of the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s Chinatown was the port of entry for early Hoisanese and Zhongshanese Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China from the 1850s to the 1900’s. The area was the one geographical region deeded by the city government and private property owners which allowed Chinese persons to inherit and inhabit dwellings within the city. The majority of these Chinese shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and hired workers in San Francisco Chinatown were predominantly Hoisanese and male. Many Chinese found jobs working for large companies seeking a source of labor, most famously as part of the Central Pacific on the Transcontinental Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush.
Ah Toy (c.1828 – 1928) was a Cantonese prostitute and madam in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, and purportedly the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco. Arriving from Hong Kong in 1849, she quickly became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West. She reportedly was a tall, attractive woman with bound feet. When Ah Toy left China for the United States, she originally traveled with her husband, who died during the voyage. Toy became the mistress of the ship’s captain, who showered gold upon her, so much so that by the time she arrived in San Francisco in the 1840’s, Toy had a fair bit of money. Noticing the looks she drew from the men in her new town, she figured they would pay for a closer look. Her peep shows became quite successful, and she eventually became a high-priced prostitute. In 1850, Toy opened a chain of brothels at 34 and 36 Waverly Place in Chinatown, importing girls from China as young as eleven years old to work in them. Towards the end of her life she supposedly returned to China a wealthy woman to live the rest of her days in comfort, but returned to California not long afterward. From 1868 until her death in 1928, she lived a quiet life in Santa Clara County, returning to public attention only upon dying three months short of her hundredth birthday in San Jose.
With national unemployment in the wake of the Panic of 1873, racial tensions in the city boiled over into full blown race riots. In response to the violence, the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong, was created as a means of providing the community with a unified voice. The heads of these companies were the leaders of the Chinese merchants, who represented the Chinese community in front of the business community as a whole and the city government. The anti-immigrant sentiment became law as the United States Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – the first immigration restriction law aimed at a single ethnic group. This law, along with other immigration restriction laws such as the Geary Act, greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese allowed into the country and the city, and in theory limited Chinese immigration to single males only. Exceptions were in fact granted to the families of wealthy merchants, but the law was still effective enough to reduce the population of the neighborhood to an all time low in the 1920’s. The exclusion act was repealed during World War II under the Magnuson Act in recognition of the important role of China as an ally in the war, although tight quotas still applied. Not unlike much of San Francisco, a period of criminality ensued in some tongs on the produce of smuggling, gambling and prostitution, and by the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods of violence in Chinatown, the San Francisco Police Department had established its so-called Chinatown Squad. One of the more successful sergeants, Jack Manion, was appointed in 1921 and served for two decades. The squad was finally disbanded in August 1955 by Police Chief George Healey, upon the request of the influential Chinese World newspaper, which had editorialized that the squad was an “affront to Americans of Chinese descent.” The neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city.
From the mid-1870’s, Tong wars sprang up over turf battles concerning criminal enterprises. At the height of the criminal tongs during the 1880’s and 1890’s, roughly 20 to 30 tongs ran highly profitable gambling houses, brothels, opium dens, and slave trade enterprises in Chinatown. Overcrowding, segregation, graft, and the lack of governmental control contributed to conditions that sustained the criminal tongs from the 1870s to the early 1920’s. Chinatown’s isolation and compact geography intensified the criminal behavior that terrorized the community for decades despite efforts by the Six Companies and police to stem the tide. When the 1906 earthquake destroyed Chinatown’s wooden tenements, it also dealt a death blow to the powerful tongs. Criminal tongs continued on until the 1920s, but after the earthquake legitimate Chinese merchants and a more capable police force under Capt. Jack Manion gained the upper hand. Stiffer legislation against prostitution and drugs ended the tongs. The famous Sam Wo restaurant opened during this period.
Bubonic plague – San Francisco plague of 1900–1904
In March 1900, a Chinese-born man who was a long-time resident of Chinatown was found dead of bubonic plague. The next morning, all of Chinatown was quarantined, with policemen stopping “Asiatics” (people of Asian heritage) from leaving or entering. The San Francisco Board of Health began looking for more cases and they started to burn personal property and sanitize buildings, streets and sewers inside Chinatown. Chinese Americans protested and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association threatened lawsuits. The quarantine was lifted but the burning and fumigating continued. A federal lawsuit was decided against the right of public health officials to close off Chinatown without any proof that Chinese Americans were more susceptible to plague than Anglo Americans. However, the delays caused by San Francisco’s political infighting probably allowed the plague germs to spread farther, giving the plague its first foothold in North America. The four-year death toll of the plague was 113 people, almost all from a ten-block area of Chinatown.
During the city’s rebuilding process, certain city planners and real-estate developers had hatched plans to move Chinatown to the Hunters Point neighborhood at the southern edge of the city, even further south in Daly City. Their plans failed as the Chinese, particularly with the efforts of Consolidated Chinese Six companies, the Chinese government, and American commercial interests reclaimed would then be absorbed into the financial district the neighborhood and convinced the city government to relent. Part of their efforts in doing so was to plan and rebuild the neighborhood as a western friendly tourist attraction. The rebuilt area that is seen today, resembles such plans.
Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, now a state park, in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Ellis Island in the East where prospective European immigrants might be held for up to a week, Angel Island typically detained Chinese immigrants for months while they were interrogated closely to validate their papers. The detention facility has been renovated in 2005 and 2006 under a federal grant. The repeal of the Exclusion act and the other immigration restriction laws, in conjunction passage of the War Brides Act, allowed Chinese-American veterans to bring their families outside of national quotas, led to a major population boom in the area during the 1950’s.
In the 1960’s, the shifting of underutilized national immigration quotas brought in another huge wave of immigrants mostly from Hong Kong, which changed San Francisco Chinatown from predominantly Say Yip Wah(Cantonese sub-dialect of Hoisan and 3 other towns)-speaking to Sam Yip Wah(major Cantonese)-speaking. The end of the Vietnam War brought a wave of Vietnamese refugees of Chinese descent, who put their own stamp on San Francisco Chinatown. There were areas where many Chinese in Northern California living outside of San Francisco Chinatown, could maintain small communities or even individual business, but except for Oakland, they did not set up any special town with shopping and restaurants. Nonetheless, the historic rights of property owners to deed or sell their property to whom was exercised in sufficient numbers to keep the Chinese community from spreading outside of its early development. However, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for property owners to deed their rights so that certain groups were excluded. These rulings allowed the enlargement of Chinatown and an increase of the Chinese population of the city. At the same time, the declining white population of the city as a result of White Flight combined to change the demographics of the city. Neighborhoods that were once predominately white, such as Richmond District and Sunset District and in other suburbs across the San Francisco Bay Area became centers of new Chinese immigrant communities. This included new immigrant groups such as Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan who have tended to settled in suburban Millbrae, Cupertino, Milpitas, and Mountain View – avoiding San Francisco as well as Oakland entirely. This suburbanization continues today. With these changes came a weakening of the Tongs traditional grip on Chinese life. The newer Chinese groups often came from areas outside of the Tongs’ control. As a result, the influence of the Tongs and criminal groups associated with them, such as the Triads, grew weaker in Chinatown and the Chinese community in general. However, the presence of the Triads remained significant in the immigrant community, and in the summer of 1977, an ongoing rivalry between two Triads erupted in violence and bloodshed, culminating in a shooting spree at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Washington Street (華盛頓街). Five people were killed and eleven wounded. The incident has become infamously known as the Golden Dragon massacre. The Golden Dragon closed in January 2006 because of health violations, and later reopened as the Imperial Palace Restaurant. Other notorious acts of violence have taken place in Chinatown. In May 1990, San Francisco residents who had just left the Purple Onion nightclub at the edge of Chinatown at 2 a.m., were fired upon as they entered their cars. 35-year-old Michael Bit Chen Wu was killed, and six other people were injured, one of them a pregnant woman who was critically injured. In June 1998, when shots were fired at Chinese Playground, wounding six teenagers, three of them critically. A 16-year-old boy was arrested for the shooting, which was believed to be gang-related.
Culture – Cultural institutions
San Francisco’s Chinatown is home to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the Chinese Six Companies), which is the umbrella organization for local Chinese family and regional associations in Chinatown. It has spawned lodges in other Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Chinatown, Los Angeles and Chinatown, Portland.
The Chinese Culture Center is a community based non-profit organization located on the third floor of a Holiday Inn. The Center promotes exhibitions about Chinese life in the United States and organizes tours of the area. The Chinese Historical Society of America is located on Clay.
Autumn Moon Festival
San Francisco Chinatown’s annual Autumn Moon Festival celebrates seasonal change and the opportunity to give thanks to a bountiful summer harvest. The Moon Festival is popularly celebrated throughout China and surrounding countries each year, with local bazaars, entertainment, and mooncakes, the pastry filled with sweet bean paste and egg. The festival is held each year during mid-September, and is free to the public.
Fame of Chinatown
Chinatown restaurants are considered to be the birthplace of Westernized Chinese cuisine such as food items like Chop Suey while introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to Western and American tastes, as its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attraction. Johnny Kan was the proprietor of one of the first modern style Chinese restaurants, which opened in 1953. Many of the district’s restaurants have been featured in food television programs on Chinese cuisine such as Martin Yan‘s Martin Yan – Quick & Easy.
The Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including such hits asThe Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song and The Dead Pool.
Notable 1940s basketball player, Willie “Woo Woo” Wong, who excelled in local schools, college and professional teams, was born and grew up playing basketball in Chinatown. A local playground bears his name.
Actor Bruce Lee was born at San Francisco Chinese Hospital, before moving back to Hong Kong at three months of age. He returned to the United States at the age of eighteen, residing in San Francisco’s Chinatown for the first few months before moving to Seattle.