America’s Chinatowns are often thought of as tourist destinations, whether it’s to shop for good deals or to enjoy traditional Asian cuisine. But, while these communities were forged from a shared culture, their origins trace back to a dark time when Chinese immigrants were seeking protection in numbers as outsiders in the United States.
In Search of 'Gold Mountain'
When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the Chinese—particularly from the Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta—started to immigrate en masse, lured by the image of a gam saan, or gold mountain, waiting for them in America. But instead of finding quick fortunes, the immigrants, who were mostly married men who had left their spouses behind, faced a tough reality.
Life in the gold mines was harsh, made harsher by white Americans’ attempts to edge the Chinese out. “We know from the historical records that there was tremendous anti-Chinese hostility,” says Vivian Louie, director of Hunter College’s Asian American Studies Program and Center.
For example, in 1850, the California legislature passed a Foreign Miners' Tax targeting Chinese immigrants that required workers who were not U.S. citizens to pay tax every month for the right to mine. Louie adds that guide books of the era included advice to Chinese men on how to deal with violence.
As gold supplies waned, the immigrants moved on to other businesses, like working on the transcontinental railroad, but they were often tasked with more dangerous jobs and lower wages. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, halting Chinese immigration for 10 years and barring those already in the U.S. from becoming citizens. “They had no other place to go in a very hostile country at that time,” says James S. Lai of Santa Clara University’s ethnic studies department.
Chinatowns as Protective Zones
Many of those who decided to stay had been contract workers on the railroad, which was completed by 1869. “They had to figure out where to live to create new livelihood and the only way they could do it was to create mono-ethnic Chinatowns,” Lai says.
One destination was San Francisco, home to the country’s oldest Chinatown dating back to the 1850s, and other California cities, like San Jose and Los Angeles. Chinatowns also started forming in places like New York City, Seattle, Boston and Washington, D.C., often in the inner city areas where land wasn’t ideal.
As they were pushed out of more coveted labor markets, like agriculture, mining, transportation and manufacturing, Chinese immigrants took on jobs in restaurants and laundromats. Some were able to thrive as small business owners, while others focused on finding jobs as workers to send money back home to China. Lai notes that by about 1870, there were about 300 laundromats in San Francisco, employing nearly 3,000 employees.
Violence Peaks During 'Yellow Peril' Era
Despite the protections offered by Chinatowns, immigrants faced intensifying discrimination during the period known as the "Yellow Peril" in the late 1800s. Sometimes this took the form of official policies. In San Francisco, goods coming out of the neighborhood had to be labeled as Chinatown products, and upwards of 30 ordinances were passed just targeting Chinese laundromats. One ordinance in the 1880s required every laundry business to obtain a permit from the board of supervisors, yet Chinese shop owners were regularly refused permits. (Eventually the Supreme Court struck it down, citing the discriminatory effects of the law.)
Beyond policies, violence broke out against Chinatown residents around the country. The violence was largely condoned, Lai says, “to try to get them out of the country because they were seen as a moral and economic threat.”
In Denver, an 1880 anti-Chinese riot led to the erasure of the community. In 1906, firefighters torched the Chinatown in California’s Santa Ana after one man in the community was reported to have leprosy. After banning Chinese from walking on the streets after dark in Antioch, white residents burned down its Chinatown.
San Jose was once home to five Chinatowns. After the first four were burned down, an Irish immigrant, John Heinlen, allowed the community to live on his private land in an area called Heinlenville. But city officials eventually used eminent domain to seize the land and bulldozed it completely.
Changing Laws Allow Chinatown Populations to Diversify
Despite the violence, many Chinatowns survived. And when the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, followed by the War Brides Act in 1945, the communities that had been dominated by men started to shift. “This allowed the wives of Chinese American veterans to come into the United States,” Louie says. “So you see that the gender balance begins to even out, and begin to see the development of families in these Chinatowns, and that's so key.”
By the time the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was enacted, Chinatowns had transformed into multi-generational communities. Poor housing and social services in the Chinatowns eventually spurred Chinese American families to move to the suburbs, most notably to California’s Monterey Park, which became a major suburban Asian enclave. In San Francisco, more Chinatowns sprung up, including ones in the Sunset and Richmond districts.
By the 2020s, following a spate of anti-Asian incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, cities started to reckon with their histories. In 2021, Antioch, California offered an official apology for the destruction of its Chinatown in 1876 and designated the site as a historic district. Later that year, the city of San Jose formally apologized for the burning down of its largest Chinatown in 1872, taking responsibility for playing a role in “systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.” In 2022, Santa Ana apologized for the 1906 torching of its Chinatown, and Denver removed an anti-Chinese plaque that had marked the 1880 destruction of its Chinatown.
“Folks really became protective of the Chinatowns,” Louie says, adding that the neighborhoods continue to serve in their original role—as enclaves where Chinese immigrants can establish themselves, support each other and thrive.