United States

San Francisco’s Chinatown: Exclusion and Resilience

With a Chinese population of roughly 15,000 within its confines, the San Francisco neighborhood now known as Chinatown is said to be the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. In total San Francisco has roughly 150,000 people of Chinese heritage making Chinatown about 10% of the total population. The narrow steep streets of the neighborhood are lined with ornate street lights reminiscent of Chinese motifs while red lanterns hang along the avenues of Grant Avenue with the Lion Gate welcoming in guests into an area of plenty of restaurants, ornament and clothes stores as well as affordable residences. It has become a tourist attraction in itself with more visitors arriving to peruse stores and photograph the street art than annual visitors to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

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The Lion Gate welcomes visitors into Chinatown

Founded in 1848 at the end of the War against Mexico, Chinatown quickly began to grow fueled in part by the California Gold Rush that began in 1849 and later by the constructions of transnational railroads that would link the East to the West. Most immigrants did not strike it rich and in desperation many turned to illegal ways of making money with prostitution being fairly common. In part due to crime, financial panic, unemployment and  xenophobia towards Asians in general the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred further immigration from China and Japan. Racial tension often boiled to the point of violence with Chinese-owned businesses vandalized and occasionally people were killed. Another blow to the area came when in 1906 an earthquake destroyed a large part of San Francisco and completely obliterated Chinatown; San Francisco would never again regain its status as the most important city in California and eventually Los Angeles, fueled by Hollywood and oil, would grow to take its spot.

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Of course San Francisco would rebuild and so would Chinatown which was greatly helped by the end of Chinese exclusion during the Second World War. With the subsequent Chinese Civil War there was an influx of immigrants especially from Hong Kong and southern China. Due to lack of English skills many highly-educated professionals had to take on low-skill jobs with little pay such as the garment industry.

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With many people originating from southern China, Chinatown looks and feels much like Hong Kong due to the high buildings, fruit and fish shops, and decorative motifs. To walk around the neighborhood’s mostly Chinese population allows one to engross themselves and feel, for a time, as if you were in a different place. Since older people often doing taichi in the park and many musicians playing the two-string ehru it can be easy to engross oneself in the sights and smells of Chinatown.

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California: Chinatown San Francisco. Roast duck at Yee's Restaurant.
Peking Roast duck is one of many common sights around town

As a whole Chinatown embodies the spirit of immigrants to the U.S. an the sacrifices they endure despite often being excluded; Chinatown is testament to resilience and willingness to go forward if not for themselves then for their children. Yet due in part to its central location in the city and the rise of the tech industry, many businesses have set up shop in or around the historic neighborhood. Many attempts to resist the gentrification of the city have been made and as it seems, Chinatown is safe for now but gentrification has not been halted it has only been delayed. What will occur to Chinatown in the future and how this will affect the deeply rooted Chinese community remains to be seen. But if history teaches anything is that they will continue moving forward as they always have.

To find out more and know about some of the best sights in Chinatown I recommend going here or if you’re so inclined, see it for yourself while it is still around.

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