By the late 1800s, anti-Chinese sentiment was fomenting. States and cities began imposing restrictions and taxes on this unwanted race, hoping all Chinese would return to China permanently. Discriminatory laws stifled the Chinatown community. Facing mockery and jeering on a routine basis, such marginalization steadily chipped away at immigrant’s identities, making them feel ashamed of their heritage, practices, and language. Some would later hire tutors to strip them of their Chinese accents when they spoke English.
Anglo-American workers blamed the Chinese for taking away jobs in the mines, railroads, and factories. (Ironically, these non-Chinese laborers originally didn’t want such base employment). They lobbied political heavyweights in Washington D.C. and succeeded in launching the country’s first laws singling out a specific minority group. Enter the landmark Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and forbade citizenship through naturalization. The act was extended repeatedly under different names. The only Chinese allowed to enter included merchants, students, teachers, diplomats, and travelers.
The pioneering efforts of Presbyterian missionary Margaret Culbertson and, later, Donaldina Cameron, brought rescue to over 3,000 young women and girls. They were given shelter and life skills to integrate into society at Chinatown’s Occidental Mission Home, renamed Donaldina Cameron House in 1942. Also helping to set Chinatown on a better footing were other like-minded mission homes and churches formed in the late 1800s. The Old St. Mary’s Church and Chinese Mission served the poor with food and clothing. The Chinese Methodist Episcopal Mission offered shelter for homeless girls and trafficked women.
Discrimination grew uglier, however, when the 1892 Geary Act forced Chinese to carry residency papers with them at all times or face arrest. The consequences were either deportation or a year of hard labor. Some Chinese leaders were so incensed they charged that this requirement was equivalent to wearing a dog tag. The new law also barred Chinese from testifying in court even if someone were to be murdered in front of their very eyes.
Not all Chinese Americans would swallow their bitterness. Activist groups rose. In 1895, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance was created to protest the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and every anti-Chinese law. It was the first organization started by American-born Chinese who were articulate and educated, debunking the myth that the race was illiterate and weak.
Chinese newspaper editors in Chinatown stood up to embolden their people. Chinese civil rights activist and minister Dr. Ng Poon Chew embarked upon a nationwide lecture circuit to rally for immigration reform and wrote essays pointing out the inhumanity of the current laws in Chung Sai Yat Po. This was the most influential newspaper of the time where he was publisher. Another powerful advocate was Walter U. Lum, the founder of the Chinese Times. He campaigned fastidiously for Chinese rights and supported the boycott of American goods in China.
As the United States and China became allies during WWII, China’s officials were fuming over their countrymen’s treatment. To appease the Chinese government and maintain a positive relationship between the United States and China, by 1943, federal legislators finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, signaling the end to institutionalized racism lasting more than sixty years. However, this was more of a token gesture. The repeal invoked a quota system that permitted only 105 Chinese to enter per year from anywhere in the world.
As intended, life for Chinatown inhabitants was depressing and joyless. As the majority of immigrants were men, they were barred from marrying outside the race, yet were not allowed to bring their Chinese wives from China to America. The Page Act of 1875 limited the number of Chinese women who could enter, for it was assumed they were coming to the United States for prostitution. Immigration officials battered applicants with series of interrogation questions. Inconsistent or incomplete answers were grounds for rejection.
In these “bachelor societies,” the males become isolated and psychologically trapped. And marrying a white woman was out of the question. California’s anti-miscegenation laws forbade interracial marriage until 1948. If they dared to venture outside the boundaries, they risked lynching. If they sailed back to China, returning to America was not guaranteed. The men turned to gambling and smoking opium to assuage their loneliness.
They also turned to brothels. This was perfectly normal in San Francisco at the time. These houses of ill repute, white and Chinese brothels, were legal until 1917.
In fact, the flesh trade was a booming business and demand was high. Human traffickers, smuggled in young Chinese women, either by hiding them in crates or having them pretend to be merchants’ wives or daughters. Among the most notorious was Little Pete, who was born in China, and quickly learned enough English to work the network between China and San Francisco. Known as yellow slave traders, cunning criminals such as Little Pete ordered girls to be kidnapped or purchased from China for domestic slavery. However, lifting the darkness for these women and children were Christian churches and missions rooted in Chinatown. Churches had been planted during Chinatown’s formative stages, offering support with English language classes for men and women and church services in mother tongues. And now, their mission would expand to embrace social justice.