The Chinese diaspora, which began in the 1800s, was so vast that virtually every major city in the world—from New York to London, Montreal and Lima—boasts a neighborhood called “Chinatown.” Chinese immigration to the United States dates back to the middle of the 19th century, but life wasn’t always easy for new immigrants from China—even in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest such district outside of Asia and the oldest Chinese community in North America.
Chinese Immigration to the United States
Most of the early Chinese immigration to the United States can be traced to the mid-1800s. These early immigrants—some 25,000 in the 1850s alone—came seeking economic opportunity in America.
The Chinese arriving in San Francisco, who came primarily from the Taishan and Zhongshan regions as well as Guangdong province of mainland China, did so at the height of the CaliforniaGold Rush, and many worked in the mines scattered throughout the northern part of the state.
Others took jobs as farmhands or in the burgeoning garment industry in the “City by the Bay.” Still more became laborers with the Central Pacific and Transcontinental railroads, and were instrumental in building the transportation infrastructure that helped fuel the westward expansion of the United States before, during and after the Civil War.
Poverty and Prejudice: The Chinese Struggle for Acceptance
As is the case with most immigrants, life in their new home was challenging for the hundreds of thousands of new Americans arriving from Asia, even as San Francisco became a hub of Chinese culture in the United States.
Most of the immigrants coming from China were desperate to work—not only to survive but to send money to their families back home. Some also had to repay loans from Chinese-American merchants who had sponsored their passage to America.
These financial pressures meant that many Chinese immigrants had to accept work at reduced wages, and work longer hours with fewer days off. Many women, particularly young, unmarried women, were forced into prostitution on the streets of San Francisco, either as a result of economic hardship or under threat of violence from Chinese-American criminal gangs called “tongs.”
Their suffering didn’t end there: Because they were willing to work more for less, Chinese immigrants to the United States soon drew the ire of first- and second-generation Americans from other ethnic groups, who believed they were being squeezed out of certain jobs by the new arrivals.
The state of California initially tried to create legal blockades to Chinese immigration—and integration into American society—by requiring special licenses for businesses run by Chinese-Americans.
However, many of these discriminatory laws were overturned by the federal government, as they violated the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, which eased immigration restrictions and limited American influence in the political affairs of mainland China.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
Unfortunately, anti-immigration fervor won out—at least for a time. In 1879, Congress passed its first piece of legislation aimed at limiting the flow Chinese immigration. However, the president at the time, Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, vetoed the bill, as it still violated the Burlingame-Seward Treaty.
With Democrats in the western states vehemently opposed to unfettered immigration, and Republicans in Washington fighting for open borders and trade, a compromise was struck: In 1880, President Hayes appointed diplomat James B. Angell to negotiate a new treaty with China and, as a result, the so-called Angell Treaty was signed between the two countries. The pact enabled the United States to limit—but not eliminate—immigration from China.
With diplomatic restrictions no longer in place, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years and required Chinese people traveling in or out of the United States to carry a certificate identifying his or her status as a laborer, scholar, diplomat or merchant. This legislation was the first in American history to place significant limits on immigration and on the rights of new immigrants.
However, the situation for Chinese immigrants to the American west didn’t reach its nadir until three years later in the Wyoming territory, with the Rock Springs massacre of 1885.
White miners hoping to unionize blamed their Chinese counterparts, who had been brought to the mines as strikebreakers, for their struggles. On September 2nd of that year, 150 of the white miners attacked a group of Chinese laborers, killing at least 28, wounding 15 or more, and driving countless others out of town.
For the rest of the 19th century, the federal government left immigration policy up to the individual states. However, with the opening of the federal immigration station at Ellis Island in 1890, a new influx of immigrants—primarily from Europe but also from Asia—arrived on American shores, settling in cities in the eastern half of the United States.
In the case of new immigrants from China, this wave helped establish the Chinese-American communities in cities such as New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. that are still thriving today—although the Chinese Exclusion Act was still strictly enforced in the western part of the country.
The San Francisco Earthquake and Chinatown
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and the fires that broke out across the city in its aftermath, did more harm to the Chinese community than any legislative action could, destroying thousands of homes and businesses in Chinatown. Many Chinese-Americans were also among the dead.
However, the city’s birth and immigration records were also lost during the disaster, and many of San Francisco’s Chinese immigrants took advantage of the loophole to claim American citizenship. This enabled them to send for their families to come join them in the United States.
As the Chinese Exclusion Act was still on the books, though, Chinese immigrants arriving to San Francisco in the years after the earthquake had to be processed at the immigration center at Angel Island. Many immigrants arriving to the center—now a state park in San Francisco Bay—were detained in harsh conditions for weeks, months or even years before being approved for or denied entry, usually based on their answers to questions about their identities and their reasons for coming to the United States.
The center was closed in 1940 after it was destroyed by fire, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally overturned in 1943, paving the way for a new generation of arrivals from Asia.
San Francisco’s Chinatown Today
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 further loosened restrictions on immigration and fostered yet another wave of immigration that followed the closure of Ellis Island in 1954. For many Chinese and other Asians, this presented a new opportunity to escape political oppression at home, and further bolstered the population of Chinatowns across the United States.
In San Francisco, where Chinatown residents had rebuilt after the earthquake and fires of 1906, the neighborhood experienced new growth, and an influx of people from different regions of China.
From its famous gate at the intersection of Grant and Bush streets, the district occupies some 30 city blocks, and is packed with restaurants, bars, nightclubs and specialty stores selling gifts, fabrics, ceramics and Chinese herbs, among other wares, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.