Social Justice and Evolution 1950 to 1990s
By the 1950s, Americans were purchasing their first black-and-white television sets. Chinatown was now populated with more American-born Chinese than immigrants, and ABC became the insider’s term for American Born Chinese. Space was tight in this neighborhood. Families lived in apartments, sometimes with relatives or another family. Milestone events were celebrated inside the community and with the community. These included wedding banquets, family association dinners, red egg and ginger baby parties, and, of course, Chinese New Year. Teens got caught up in the trends of the day -- girls wore poodle skirts while the guys slicked back their hair á la teen movie idol James Dean. In 1958, Chinatown held its first Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Pageant sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in an effort to promote Chinese culture as well as the talent, beauty, and poise of young Chinese women.
While racial indignities persisted, Chinese residents found ways to adapt and find their own happiness. Merchants focused on their businesses, and shops in Chinatown thrived. Importers sold high-end Chinese furnishings and antiquities by the roomful to international collectors. Chinese jewelry store owners, known for carrying elaborate 18-carat gold necklaces and jade bracelets, were adding well-heeled, repeat customers to their client rosters. For Chinese women, any occasion was reason to purchase another piece of Chinese jewelry to ward off evil spirits, use as money in case of war, or give as wedding dowries for their daughters and future daughter-in-laws.
Anti-Chinese laws loosened further after World War II. Many Chinese Americans, in fact, served in the U.S. military to defend America. By 1952, Chinese were finally allowed to purchase land and real estate. Some became Chinatown landlords and stayed. Others couldn’t wait to leave Chinatown to buy houses. The remaining residents were largely comprised of the poor and elderly. Still, Chinatown’s mom-and-pop enterprises held steady.
Suburban Chinese found many reasons to frequent the old neighborhood. They came back to purchase dry goods and produce found nowhere else. On weekends, many revisited to catch a Chinese movie or frequent a club. Restaurants opened past midnight for “siu yeh” (late night snack), and a few even fed customers until 4 a.m. Chinese who left the community returned on Sundays for church services and filled their stomachs on lunchtime dim sum.
But very soon, social unrest would ignite during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s continuing through the ‘70s. The country was reeling after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The younger generation despised those in authority as young men (including the Chinese) were drafted to the front lines to fight in the Vietnam War.
Chinatown’s college students and young professionals joined forces for a different battle - the fight for Chinese American civil rights. In Chinatown, issues such as affordable housing rose to prominence, followed by improved safety on the streets, and protection for its residents. With fingers wagging, immigrant parents had instructed their children not to get involved, be good, and remain the quiet minority in order to survive. However, the second generation and third generation American-born Chinese refused to stay silent. They picketed and protested. And they wanted the truth to be told.
American textbooks largely omitted the contributions of Chinese to the nation. Teachers did not know about the Chinese Exclusion Act or the sacrifice of Chinese lives in constructing the railroad. In 1963, five passionate Chinese Americans founded the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), a museum and historic archive that would set the record straight, once and for all.
The fuse of injustice was lit, awakening a sleeping dragon. Along came a rush of new organizations such as the Chinese Newcomers Services Center to aid new immigrants in the late 1960s, Chinese for Affirmative Action in 1969 to push for civil rights, the Asian Law Caucus in 1972 to advocate with legal representation, and many more.
If there was ever a seminal moment when Asian rights were on the line, it occurred on August 4, 1977. Newscasters from local and national stations held their cameras steady, focusing on the heart-breaking eviction of predominantly Filipino and Chinese senior residents from apartments at the International Hotel. The I-Hotel, as it was called, had been sold to the Four Seas Corporation in Thailand, and Chinese and Filipino activists had been campaigning for nearly a decade to save the building and its occupants. Approximately 2,000 people formed a human barricade, ready to face off with police on the evening of the eviction, but the San Francisco Fire Department aided the officers by giving them access to the I-Hotel’s roof via a ladder truck. One by one, the tenants were escorted out of homes they had known for decades and relocated to sites peppered throughout the city.
Instead of giving up, volunteers and supporters galvanized their efforts. Affordable housing! was the battle cry. Early activists included Cameron House Presbyterian minister Larry Jack Wong, who protested in the first Chinatown march to get the city to address the neighborhood’s neglected issues of housing, employment, and healthcare. He mentored young social justice activists who would “pay it forward” by cultivating other leaders and so on down the line. Later, Gordon Chin rose to become the first executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center in 1977 and advocated for affordable housing until his retirement in 2011. Many more would live and breathe civil rights for the Chinese community of San Francisco.
Thanks to the earlier 1965 Immigration Act that allowed 20,000 Chinese to come to America annually, the neighborhood dynamic that had been mostly comprised of ABCs was shifting. In came refugees from Vietnam following the Vietnam war. In came college students from Taiwan. The disruption was sharp and acerbic as teens from Hong Kong and Macau formed gun-toting gangs with names like the Wah Ching, Joe Boys, and Hop Sing Boys. They terrorized shopkeepers and shot at rivals in broad daylight. Store owners were forced to pay monthly protection money. Chinatown was no longer a safe tourist destination but a war zone.
During the infamous Golden Dragon Restaurant shooting on September 4, 1977, five innocent people were murdered and 11 injured in a bloodbath that would haunt Chinatown for decades. The Joe Boys had planned a retaliation against the Wah Ching for vandalizing the graves of Joe Boy members. The massacre occurred shortly after 2:40 a.m., and Chinatown nightlife would never be the same again. Although the assailants were soon caught and sent to prison, people feared walking the streets, and restaurant owners no longer had reason to stay open late.
One by one, the Chinese movie theaters dimmed their lights for good. Chinese living elsewhere avoided the enclave, now preferring to stay home and watch Chinese movie rentals on VCRs, the newest and most convenient gadget on the market. ABCs were doing better economically. For the first time, they were hired into mainstream jobs that matched their college degrees and moved to neighborhoods with better schools for their children.