As cable cars rumble up California Street and Chinese grandmothers haggle with shopkeepers, two stone lions at the base of the Dragon Gate guard the oldest Chinatown in North America. For the uninitiated, strains of high-pitched music, odd smells, and the myriad of Asian dialects can be overwhelming. For others, the cacophony is thrilling. There’s no doubt that entering San Francisco’s Chinatown is like visiting a foreign country, except that this one is less than a fifth of a square mile.
This book is the third in a series of neighborhood-themed, documentary photography books by San Francisco resident and photographer Dick Evans. Previous works include Haight Ashbury (2014) and his award-winning The Mission (2017). The approach in each case has been to develop an in-depth understanding of each neighborhood through close collaboration with leading nonprofits, community organizations, artists, and local businesses. As you browse this visual time capsule, you’ll observe a tension of opposites, Chinatown’s yin and yang. Tourists amid locals. Hip restaurants opposite basement cafés. Stuff that’s chic versus the things quite cheap. The following three sections of this book seek to unleash the essence of the Chinatown story, highlighting tourism, daily life, and Chinese celebrations.
According to the San Francisco Planning Department, Chinatown is bordered by Bush, Powell, Broadway, and Kearny Streets. Ever-vigilant advocates want to keep it this way, for the community has battled for territorial and immigration rights since the beginning.
Before you visit, it helps to know a little backstory and to get some context related to how Chinatown came to be. The birth of Chinatown harkens back to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. As many as thirty thousand men from southern China’s poverty-stricken Guangdong province sailed to America, known as Gum San, or Gold Mountain. Upon landing, they made a beeline to the mines; later, they heeded the treacherous call to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Others settled in San Francisco to set up practical businesses, such as restaurants, produce stands, and herb stores. Chinese with few resources took on the most menial of jobs, such as washing clothes and sorting vegetables.
This original Chinatown was called Tong Yun Fow, Cantonese for the “town of the Tang people,” after the highly respected Tang Dynasty. Chinese leaders quickly established family associations, organized by language and village, to give fellow kinsmen assistance with jobs and lodging.
When the Civil War erupted, the quarter morphed into a light industrial sector. Chinese laborers rolled cigars and stitched shoes for piecemeal wages. By American standards, these foreigners were dirt poor, but Guangdong peers considered them wealthy. The immigrants routinely sent portions of their paycheck back home to support their families overseas.
Meanwhile, Anglo workers blamed the Chinese for stealing jobs. Fomenting anger culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only immigration law created to target a specific race. It banned immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. It forbade citizenship through naturalization. Hoping to eliminate all Chinese from America, the public pressured the federal government to squeeze harder. Legislators extended the exclusion act indefinitely under different names with additional restrictions. The 1892 Geary Act forced Chinese to carry residency papers with them or face arrest and deportation. Chinese American leaders were so outraged that they said this law was equivalent to being required to wear a dog tag.
In the Chinatown “bachelor society,” it was illegal to bring wives from China unless the women could prove they were not prostitutes. Few Chinese wives had the courage to endure the interrogations. Worse still, California miscegenation laws forbid Chinese from marrying Caucasians. Some (of these bachelors) turned to gambling and smoking opium to assuage their loneliness. Others turned to brothels. At the time, houses of ill repute were legal and prolific.
In fact, the San Francisco port served as the entry point for the flesh trade, as gangsters tricked and kidnapped thousands of Chinese women and girls for sex trafficking and domestic servitude. This did not go unnoticed, however. Christian churches and missionary societies in Chinatown stepped up to rescue the enslaved. The most successful of these was the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, later renamed Donaldina Cameron House, which saved close to three thousand women and girls from fates that often led to beatings and eventually death.
Even as deliverance efforts were under way, the neighborhood garnered a reputation for gambling, drugs, and prostitution. Secret-society Chinese gangs, or tongs, controlled the illicit industries, and the tong wars lasted for decades as disputes over honor and turf resulted in ritualistic murders. Ninteenth-century newspapers published articles about this den of iniquity, and curious tourists around the country had to see for themselves. They hired police guides who kicked down doors of Chinese families and shined flashlights in their faces so that clients could see the living conditions of the inscrutable “celestials.” (Chinese were referred to as celestials because China was poetically called the Celestial Kingdom.)
In San Francisco on April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., all activity screeched to a halt. The city’s most devastating earthquake, sparking fires and explosions, reduced the urban landscape to a heap of smoldering ashes.
A few miles away, fire destroyed all the birth and immigration records from the city’s Hall of Records. This proved to be a boon for Chinese, who now claimed they were rightful American citizens. A whole world opened up for immigrants who purchased fake documentation papers to identify themselves as children of Chinese American citizens. This practice became known as “paper sons,” and an estimated 150,000 Chinese claimed paper names after the exclusion act was invoked and during the post-earthquake era. Today, the majority of Chinese Americans still bear the paper-son surname.
After the 1906 disaster burned down most of Chinatown, San Francisco officials attempted to pressure the Chinese to move to Hunters Point on the outskirts of town, something the city leaders had already been plotting. But Chinatown’s most outspoken merchants and leaders convinced officials that a Chinatown could be rebuilt in the same area, but this time as a profitable tourist attraction that would enrich San Francisco coffers.
The idea took hold, and the rebuilding began. For the first time, Chinatown was festooned with dragon flourishes, swooping pagoda rooftops with upturned corners, and flower motifs in exacting detail. Red, green, and yellow hues, considered lucky colors in Chinese culture, accented newly built association buildings, temples, and souvenir stores.
And although the reinvented Chinatown thrived economically, clouds of discrimination hung heavy. Outside of San Francisco, Angel Island, a former military bunker, was repurposed as an immigration station for anyone entering the West. Angel Island officials singled out the Chinese, separated families, and detained them in barracks for weeks and even years. This continued until 1940, when a fire destroyed its buildings. In all, 175,000 Chinese immigrants landed on Angel Island with hopes of a better future, and each one was blindsided by a hostile reception. Many detainees were so traumatized, they refused to speak of their experience. Upon departing Angel Island, the former detainees built lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown and in pockets of Oakland and Sacramento where Chinese congregated.
On the political front, the US and Chinese became allies during World War II, and officials in China were incensed over their countrymen’s treatment. To appease the Chinese government, the US government reluctantly repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, ending institutionalized racism that had lasted more than sixty years. This boosted the confidence in the community, as its residents could now apply for citizenship.
By the 1950s, space was tighter than ever in Chinatown, but racism was still so rampant that Chinese had nowhere else to go. Families crammed into apartments with relatives or other clans. Soon, laws loosened to allow Chinese to purchase real estate. Some became Chinatown landlords. Others couldn’t wait to leave the quarter to buy houses, even in the face of prejudice. The remaining residents were largely the poor and elderly. Still, Chinatown’s mom-and-pop enterprises held steady, and suburban Chinese frequented the old neighborhood for church services and Chinese produce and dry goods.
In the 1960s, against their parents’ wishes, second- and third-generation Chinese Americans refused to remain the silent minority. They demanded fair representation and an equal voice. Against the backdrop of civil rights, activists insisted that the truth be told about their embattled history. In 1963, five Chinese Americans founded the Chinese Historical Society of America, a museum and historical archive that would set the record straight, once and for all. A rush of advocacy organizations in Chinatown formed, such as the Chinese Newcomers Service Center, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Asian Law Caucus to protect the rights of immigrants and aid in their adjustment to America.
If there was ever a seminal moment when Asian rights were on the line, it occurred on August 4, 1977. Overseas landlords who had purchased the International Hotel apartments called for the eviction of residents. Occupants were predominantly elderly Filipino and Chinese. Despite a two-thousand-strong human barricade, police forced tenants out of homes they had known for decades. Although activists lost the battle, they redoubled efforts to defend Chinatown’s low-income residents. Organizations such as the Chinatown Community Development Center still operate today to ensure that the single-room-occupancy (SRO) apartments are protected from skyrocketing rent hikes. Called the “housing of last resort,” these tiny units often have no elevators; communal restrooms and kitchens are the norm.
In the 1970s, neighborhood demographics began shifting as a breakthrough immigration law allowed twenty thousand Chinese to enter the country annually. Chinatown’s pioneers were originally from southern China. Now immigrants were flooding in from Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan, with different languages, cultures, and mindsets. Frustrated by unfamiliar surroundings and unable to speak English, recently arrived teens and young adults formed gangs, terrorizing shopkeepers and shooting at rivals in broad daylight. Thugs forced store owners to pay protection money. Chinatown was no longer a safe tourist destination but a war zone. The infamous Golden Dragon Restaurant shooting on September 4, 1977, killed five innocent people and injured eleven in a bloodbath that would haunt Chinatown for decades. Although police apprehended the assailants, people feared walking the streets, and, for a season, Chinatown became a ghost town.
Meanwhile, pristine and modern Asian shopping centers suddenly popped up around the Bay Area, giving local Chinese little reason to visit the aging Chinatown. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 collapsed the main freeway artery leading to the enclave, and customers and tourists went elsewhere. In addition, the Internet shopping craze meant that anything offered in a Chinatown souvenir store could be purchased online.
In the twenty-first century, the Chinatown of fifteen to twenty thousand residents and more than 950 small businesses soldiers on. Family associations, nonprofits, churches, and charities collectively add up to more than 250 entities—each one passionate about Chinatown’s future. Older residents willingly picket to protect their rights. Philanthropists donate tens of thousands of dollars to support community infrastructure. Thanks to elected officials and advocates, Chinatown has not become an extension of its surrounding neighborhoods.
Progress is visible. City departments and nonprofits are transforming neglected alleys into attractive streets with plantings and murals. Also adding to the beautification are artfully designed public benches and decorative crosswalks. Community pride is on the upswing. The photographs that follow underscore Chinatown’s vibrancy, its authenticity, and, most of all, its humanity.