While American culture is often described as a melting pot, immigrants who bring traditions from their home countries means the U.S. might be more accurately be compared to a buffet where distinct and diverse dishes are found. Chinese immigrants and San Francisco’s Chinatown comprise one of these distinct communities with a history marked by big dreams and hard times, creativity, invention and reinvention.
In the 1840s, China was facing defeat against the British in the first Opium War, it endured a series of natural catastrophes and famine as well as a number of peasant uprisings. In the U.S., the historical context was considerably more optimistic with the discovery of gold in San Francisco’s Sutter’s Mill in 1849. According to records, the first Chinese immigrants—two men and one woman—had just recently arrived in the city. As news of the gold strike spread around the world, however, many Chinese set out for Gum San—the Chinese name for America, which translates to Golden Mountain.
While Chinese immigrants quickly established themselves as contributors to the still-frontier country of the U.S., the ugly face of racism soon showed itself when the economy hit a rough patch. The discrimination served to fortify the cultural bonds between the Chinese immigrants and acted as the impetus in the initial development of the 12-block area known as Chinatown.
The racism note is particularly extreme considering the Chinese are the only ethnic group to whom U.S. government officials specifically denied entrance into the country. Along the same lines, it was illegal for Chinese immigrants to testify in court, to own property, to vote, to have families join them or to work in institutional agencies. Chinese could only marry other Chinese
Chinatown as a community was critical in offering support to immigrants who were simply disregarded by the larger society. As Chinatown grew as a community, it became a stronger force in the struggle against discrimination.
It was the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that served as the force to break more barriers to mainstream integration for Chinese immigrants in the area. Because the destruction of the disaster destroyed records, immigrants used the opportunity to claim citizenship. As the law stated a U.S. parent entitled children to citizenship regardless of place of birth, the earthquake also served to reunite Chinese families.
Wealthy Chinese businessman Look Tin Eli developed the plan to rebuild Chinatown with an eye toward making the area more distinctly “oriental” and boosting its draw as a tourist attraction. “The old Italianate buildings were replaced by Edwardian architecture embellished with theatrical chinoiserie,” reads one description of the rebuilt community. “Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.”