Old Chinatown

By Maya Chin

“In the first few years the Chinese were welcomed, praised, and considered almost indispensable. There were no race antipathy in those days. It was subordinated to industrial necessity and the Chinaman could find room something more than toleration.” (McLeod 55).

The Chinese congregated in towns and cities all over California during and after the Gold Rush. The largest Chinese community was in San Francisco. By the late 1800s, it took up about six blocks of San Francisco and consisted of general stores, drug stores, restaurants, herb shops, boarding houses, butcher shops, and tailor shops. Most of the Chinese were from southern China, specifically the Guangdong Province, and spoke the Cantonese dialect. They came from the districts known as Sam Yup, Sze Yup, and Chungshan. Chinatown was a tightly knit community. Everybody knew each other and especially at the beginning, they were like one big family.

The Community

In Chinatown, Chinese could shop and eat familiar foods and catch up on news from their home villages. Chinatown also offered Chinese safety from attacks by white men who hated the Chinese. Attacks against the Chinese were common throughout the West. The attackers tended to be Caucasion laborers saw Chinese laborers as competition for jobs. The Chinese worked harder for less pay. Companies wanted to hire Chinese more than Caucasions because of this. A majority of the Chinese laborers were coolies. Coolies were indentured servants who were brought over to the United States by companies and then had to work for them for a few years in order to pay off their passage. Caucasians chased Chinese miners off rich gold mines. Mobs chased Chinese out of company labor camps and even killed many innocent Chinese. For example the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles left twenty Chinese dead and the 1885 massacre in Wyoming a mob killed twenty-eight Chinese.

Newspapers and politicians stirred the public’s anti-Chinese sentiment. With nationwide high unemployment and an economic panic in 1873, race riots erupted in the city. A new Chinese organization formed to speak for the community. It was called the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies. The heads of these six companies were the leaders of the Chinese business and family associations. This group would become the unofficial government of Chinatown.  In the late 1800s, a host of discriminatory laws excluded the Chinese from having the same rights as anyone else. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented made it difficult for Chinese to enter the country. They couldn’t become citizens and sometimes had to pay taxes just for being Chinese.

Bachelor Society (1820s-1960s)

Reading the news

Reading the news

During the Gold Rush, about 1500 Chinese men came to California to “strike-it-rich.” Very few women came because the conditions were hard. Early Chinatown was described as a “bachelor society.” It was full of men of all ages. Some were miners, but others found jobs in restaurants, laundries, and other domestic services. They had to work at these kinds of jobs because they were the jobs nobody else wanted and there were few women around to do these services. In the mining areas, the Chinese had to settle for working in the abandoned mines that nobody else wanted.

The men wore pajama-like clothing and had long braids down their backs called queues in the Manchu tradition. From 1644 to 1912 the Manchus were in power in China (one reason some Chinese left China). The government forced the Chinese to wear this hair style in order to show loyalty to the government. The Americans found their foreign looks odd and ridiculed them about it.

The Chinese men had various forms of entertainment. They went to theaters to watch Chinese operas, played different gambling games including mah-jong, fan-tan, keno, and poker, and also went to the neighborhood brothels who made a lot of money off of the bachelors. A common sight in old Chinatown would be men smoking opium, a type of drug contained from poppy seeds. At first it was legal but as time passed it became banned.

Growing Up
Children in Chinatown
The first children didn’t appear in Chinatown until around the 1850s. They were allowed to roam the streets as long as they did not venture out of Chinatown. Since Chinese highly value education, children spent much of the their time studying. They had to go to an all Chinese school since they were not permitted into American schools until the later 1800s.