New Century and Restoration: 2000 to present
By the 2000s, Chinatown witnessed political advances its forefathers would have deemed utterly paradoxical. In 1859, Chinese children were denied education in the public schools and forced to attend the segregated Oriental School in Chinatown, but in 2006, Gwen Chan became the first Chinese American superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.
In the 19th century, police guides kicked down doors of Chinese families so tourists could see the living conditions of these “celestials” (Chinese were often referred to as celestials as China was then known as the Celestial Kingdom). But in 2004, Chinese American Heather Fong was named San Francisco’s first female chief of police.
In 1901, San Francisco mayor James Phelan penned an essay calling Chinese “vastly inferior” and a “danger to California.” The ultimate irony came in 2011 when Ed Lee won the public vote to become the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco advocating civil rights for all.
In this new era, justice and redress for Chinese Americans has gained momentum. After more than a century, the United States would right the wrong, and the country would finally apologize. On October 6, 2011, the United States Senate issued a “resolution of regret” for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Chinese laws which the resolution said that were “adversely affecting the Chinese in the United States.” On June 18, 2012, the House of Representatives followed suit. House Representative Judy Chu of California, the first Chinese American woman to be elected to Congress, sponsored the resolution recalling the years her grandfather had to carry a certificate of residence. Before the House, she said, "This is a very significant day in the Chinese American community. It is an expression that discrimination has no place in our society and that the promise of equality is available to all."
For years, Chinese railroad workers had gained only a footnote in the annals of railroad history. However, all that changed in 2014, when the U.S. Department of Labor inducted these unsung heroes in its Hall of Honor, a prestigious title given to those who contribute to the quality of life for all Americans.
And in 2019, at the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad held at Promontory Summit, Utah, the accomplishment of the Chinese railroad workers was officially recognized. Up until then, the annual celebration barely mentioned the 12,000 to 15,000 Chinese laborers that made up as much as 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce. But at this exact location where they laid the Golden Spike, historian Connie Young Yu, whose great grandfather worked as a Central Pacific Railroad foreman, gave the opening speech. Remarks honoring the Chinese contribution were echoed by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. Ms. Chao, in 2019, was the first Chinese American to hold the nation’s highest position of authority in transportation. Much can happen in 160 years.