NEW LIFE AND HARD TIMES 1850-1906
The Chinatown story would make for a compelling mini-series rife with heartbreak and sacrifice, crime and intrigue, rescue and elation, but not necessarily in that order.
In the 1850s, as many as 30,000 Chinese boarded ships, departing from the poverty-stricken Guangdong province in Southern China hoping to cash in on the California Gold Rush. During these unstable times of drought and war, Chinese men were already traveling to port towns of Peru, Cuba, and Africa, to scour for work. But San Francisco was special; it was the gateway to America known as Gum San, literally Gold Mountain, where Chinese believed their hopes and dreams would come true. Once they landed, they made a beeline to the mines. Thousands later heeded the treacherous call to work on the new Central Pacific Railroad, the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
But swinging pick axes and lighting sticks of dynamite was not for everyone. Enterprising merchants settled in San Francisco to erect businesses: restaurants, grocery stores, herb shops, and laundry services. Those with little means took on the most menial of jobs no one else wanted. These men humbly performed what was considered women’s chores for meager pay in order to survive. They washed clothes, stitched slippers, and sorted vegetables. They had expected to return to their homeland as heroes, so wealthy that gold would be spilling out of their pockets. America, indeed, was a rude awakening.
In those earliest of days, Chinese were not geographically restricted (although that would change), but they chose to work and live close together in an enclave surrounded by what are now the Financial District, Nob Hill, and North Beach neighborhoods.
This quarter became known as Tong Yun Fow, Cantonese for the “town of the Tang people” after the ancient Tang Dynasty of China that flourished with prosperity and culture. Chinese immigrants would come to Tong Yun Fow and load up on supplies en route to the mining and railroad worksites of northern California.