Last Updated: December 21, 2020

Oakland Chinatown History

During the 1850’s, a large number of Chinese migrated to Oakland. This was because of the gold that was discovered near Sacramento in 1848. Many of them migrated from the southeastern part of China, very close to Hong Kong. They started moving around San Francisco and Oakland after being driven away from the gold mining fields due to many disputes of violence and bigotry within them. Some of the first settlements in Oakland of Chinese were in the First and Castro Streets, 16th and 17th Streets, Telegraph Avenue, and between 19th and 20th streets on Pablo Avenue.

Many of the settlements were frequently under hold. One of the settlements burned down without warning or apparently cause. Two Chinese settlements were forced to relocate by the city leaders. By the time the 1870’s rolled around, the Chinese began to settle down roots at 8th and Webster Streets which is the center of Chinatown in Oakland today. Many more Chinese began to settle in San Francisco, but Oakland was another alternative for the Chinese due to the jobs, fertile land, good climate, and easy commute to San Francisco.

The Chinese in the Oakland area took on low paying jobs with high risks. They also built the Temescal Dam and Lake Chabot Dam. Not only did they work on the Dams but they also worked in cotton mills, explosive factories, and canneries. They became cooks, gardeners, houseboys, and laundrymen. They could make cigars, and help to develop the fisheries and shrimp industries of the area. One of their biggest accomplishments was the jobs they secured with the thriving railroad building industry. They devised new farming techniques, and developed new crops throughout the seasons.

When they went traveling through the East Bay region, the Chinese would peddle their fresh fruits and vegetables using baskets that hung from a long pole. Later on, they would sell them from trucks. The Chinese in Oakland normally faced hostility. The local politicians would be keep passing anti Chinese laws and violent anti Chinese sentiments took place throughout the state of California during the early 1870’s. The anti Chinese movement was moved to Washington, D.C. where the congress decided to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act during the year of 1882. This barred Chinese laborers. The Chinese population soon dropped there after due to the lack of work. Some of the Chinese were still left behind on 8th and Webster Streets.

In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire put an unexpected boost to Oakland’s Chinatown’s population. Thousands of San Francisco Chinese were flown in to stay with the Oakland Chinese during this time of turmoil. Some of the white folks nearby in Oakland protested against the growing Chinese population however. Chinatown continued to grow, even with the protests, and moved all the way up the Webster corridor to the Waterfront. Chinatown became more isolated, even as it grew in numbers and they started to become a complex society of their own.

They organized their own sports teams for both men and women. The first baseball team was organized in the 1920’s, and it was named The Wa Sung Service Club. There were a number of Chinese organizations that evolved family and district associations and business ones as well, Tongs, and civil rights groups were becoming more popular in their community. Some of the Tongs in the community partook in criminal activity, as well as the Chinese lottery. The Oakland Lodge at the Harrison Streets was where the Chinese American Citizens (CACA) branch first founded and formed.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese remained mostly segregated from the rest of the Oakland community. Family life continued to develop, and this brought way to the process of Americanization, and Lincoln Elementary School. By the early 1930’s there was already as many as a dozen schools for the Chinese children within Chinatown. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during World War II due to the Chinese fighting with America as allies. This meant more Chinese were brought over after the war, and remained in Oakland to work in the businesses and factories throughout the city. The population of Oakland’s Chinatown grew over 37% in the 1940’s. Some of the Chinese raised funds for the war while others went off to the war.

There was also a smaller number of Japanese in the area. They were shipped out to internment camps in remote areas of the west. This is because of the harsh conditions, and little respect given to the Japanese at that time. The presence of Japanese in the area has never been the same due to this. After the war, younger generations of Chinese started purchasing homes and getting the work they needed throughout other parts of Oakland. These were parts that once forbade the entry of Chinese.

Chinatown suffered around this time due to the younger generation moving out and shipyards being shut down. There were many projects that took up Chinatown’s space and diminished a portion of their housing. This meant Chinatown became muted during the 1950’s after a long strive before for the war. This dormant stage of Chinatown lasted until the 1960’s, and the Congress then liberated laws allowed more immigration from Asia. The Oakland Chinatown experienced a renaissance beginning in the 1970’s. This renaissance accelerated when they Vietnam War ended, and with it brought thousands of refugees from the Southeastern part of Asia. Many of these refugees were Chinese.

This brought new life to once dead Oakland’s Chinatown. There were a number of new shops and restaurants opened. Property values soared, and more banks opened branches for Chinatown. This growth brought more population, as well as ethnic diversity to Chinatown. The traditional Chinatown’s repopulation and the creation of a new Asian self ran district that lies east of Lake Merritt are very attributable in part to a Southeast Asian Influx in the area. Since there are multiple generations of Chinese and other Asian groups living all around the city of Oakland this puts Chinatown’s population up around the 60,000’s. Their presence in the area is now deeply rooted to Oakland and the Chinatown they call home.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia

About the Author Anna Timbrook

Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.