Last Updated: June 2, 2020

San Francisco Chinatown History

San Francisco’s Chinatown was the number one entryway for Chinese immigrants from the southern portion of China between 1850 and 1900. The area that they inhibited was a piece of land that was held by the government and private owners of the area. This allowed the Chinese immigrants to inherit, and rent out the space from the city. The majority of the Chinese immigrants were male, and they came over for labor. They mainly found labor at large industries that paid for cheap labor in bad conditions for long hours at a time. Some of them found work with the Transcontinental Railroad, and others working in mines. This was also due to the Gold Rush of 1849, many of them hoped to find gold.

One of the most noted people in the past of Chinatown was Ah Toy. She was a Cantonese prostitute in San Francisco during the times of the Gold Rush, and possibly the first ever Chinese prostitute in Chinatown. She arrived in 1849 from Hong Kong, and become of the best known women throughout Chinatown in the Old Western times. During her originally voyage to the United States, she traveled with her husband who became sick during the voyage and passed. She then became the captain’s mistress, and came into money do to this. In 1850, she opened a chain of brothels and houses on Waverly Place right in Chinatown. She imported new girls from China to work in these establishments, sometimes as young as 11. This brought a whole new wave of females into Chinatown.

National unemployment records went off the charts. This started a racial riot between people who claimed that the Chinese were taking their jobs. The Chinese Six Companies evolved allowing a voice for the Chinese people to be heard. The leaders of this group spoke in front of the city and government leaders as a whole. This allowed Chinatown to have a unified voice. The government then passed an anti immigration act, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to stop the immigration of Chinese over to the United States. There were still exceptions for the families of the wealthy Chinese merchants.

The population went on the lowest it had in years in 1920 due to the Act. During the times of World War II, the act was adjusted. This meant that they had tight quotas, but could begin to immigrate again in smaller numbers. There were numbers of reported violence acts in Chinatown. Most of the violence was due to smuggling, gambling, and prostitution within the town. This was referred to as the Tong War in the 1880’s. The violence had become so bad that the Police Department in San Francisco had to enforce a special Chinatown Squad team for the job.

In 1906, the neighborhood of Chinatown was completely destroyed in an earthquake that left most of the entire city in rubble. During the rebuilding and planning process of the city, Chinatown was going to be moved to a new area of the city. With efforts from the Chinese Six Companies, they boycotted this move, and stayed in their original area. During the negotiations about keeping their original piece of land, part of the deal was to rebuild the city for a western friendly tourist attraction that can be sought after when visiting San Francisco.

The Chinese had to go through extensive analysis to cross over into the United States. Sometimes they were held for months on Angel Island. This facility has since been upgraded and more efficient for the times than before. Their papers had to be validated, and for this purpose, they were held for months without word. A large part of the population boom in the 1950’s was due to the War Brides Act that was passed. This allowed males to bring their wives and family members over from China without having to go through the extensive search.

During the 1960’s, the quotas brought a large wave of immigrants into San Francisco. Most of these immigrants came from Hong Kong. During the ending of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese refugees of Chinese descent immigrated over to Chinatown to claim their parts of the town. There were deeds that enabled the Chinese to live in their limits, but could not expand further on than that. However, this was ruled out because the original area the Chinese were living in was too small to house the rest of the immigrants and refugees that were now entering. This allowed an enlargement of Chinatown.

Communities that were once dominated by the white population, now found themselves being the center of new Chinese immigrant communities. This made way to the new look of suburbanization. With these new moves, the fighting and violence of the Chinese decreased. This is because the immigrants came from outside of the Tongs and Triads, and the grip over the amount of people each could control was becoming weaker. This means fewer fights for Chinatown. The presence of the Triads was not welcome however. This became a problem that led to bloodshed. A shooting spree was held at the Golden Dragon Restaurant killing 5 people, and wounding 11 in 1977. This restaurant is still run today, and continues to take tourists throughout the year.

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.