Chinatown: Memorial of the survival of a once alienated community (3 min read)

In 1906, a natural disaster completely changed the lives of many living in the city of San Francisco. Although, it was a disaster that caused many to lose everything, their homes and livelihoods however for one community, despite the huge number of deaths and the loss of everything they owned, there was a silver lining. It was as if Heaven had given them a chance to keep the land they were struggling to retain, that was the Chinese community.

The History behind the Chinese Exclusion Act

In the mid 1840s, due to a series of famines, peasant uprisings, rebellions after the defeat of the British in the Opium War, many Chinese, especially from the southern part of China, came to San Francisco in search for work. Most immigrants found work in railroad construction, mining and agriculture. However, due to the desperation of these new immigrants for money, they were willing to accept lower wages and work for longer hours and with fewer days off. However, as the US economy weakened, they soon drew the ire of first and second generation Americans. In addition to that, the prostitution, opium dens, gambling and the criminal gangs, known as the “Tong” who operated the area that was known as Chinatown, further gave the image that the Chinese community were dirty, immoral and dangerous.

Ross Alley (also known as the Street of Gamblers) in 1898. It was frequently the the scene of Tong warfare and had many opium dens too

This discrimination was reflected in the pattern and layout of Chinatown in the 19th century which stopped the expansion of the Chinese community to other areas. Although some Chinese businesses had initially settled in other residential areas, however as Sinophobia gradually increased in the 1850s and 1860s and slowly, the Chinese associations and businesses who were forced out of the other residential areas moved into Chinatown, while their white counterparts moved out until only the Chinese occupied the blocks bound by Kearny, California, Pacific and the Stockton streets. This was because it was the only geographical region deeded by the city which allowed the Chinese to inherit and inhabit the dwellings.

Shaded area indicates the Chinese Quarter in 1850 Thesis report_©

In the 1870s, economic depression further intensified prejudice against the Chinese. White mine workers who were fighting to get more rights in the workplace spurred by labor organizers like Denis Kearny fought to keep chinese laborers out of California as they blamed them for breaking their strikes. However, the Chinese Community was protected by the Burlingame-Seward Treaty for some time, which prevented them from eliminating Chinese immigration, allowed them to travel without restriction and access to schooling and education in the US. But things changed in 1880, when the Angell Treaty was signed. This limited immigration from China. Now that diplomatic restrictions were no longer in place, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This prohibited Chinese immigration for 10 years and declared that the Chinese were ineligible for neutralization.

The 1906 Earthquake and fire

Just before the San Francisco Earthquake and fire, there were plans to relocate the Chinese community out of their home to an area further from the center of the city due to plans to build a large financial hub in the area. Hence, the land which Chinatown was on, became extremely valuable. However on April 18 1906, the earthquake and the fire completed leveled Chinatown. What the city had wanted to abolish for several decades had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately for the city’s fathers, birth and immigration records were also destroyed during the disaster. Many San Francisco Chinese used this loophole to claim American citizenship and send for their families to join them.

Chinatown after the 1906 fire and Earthquake

Rebuilding Chinatown after the Earthquake and Fire

Now that San Francisco Chinese were able to claim American citizenship, the next problem was to rebuild Chinatown before the community were forced to relocate out of the area that was previously their home. A wealthy businessman named Look Tin Eli and other prominent members of the chinese community developed a plan to rebuild Chinatown so that they could not be forced out so easily. They obtained a loan from Hong Kong and designed the new Chinatown to be more “Oriental” to the Western eye, instead of the Edwardian style building from before.

Chinese store before the 1906 earthquake

To do this, the Chinese merchants hired white architects, who came up with a unique architectural vernacular. Architect T. Patterson Ross and engineer A.W. Bergen were among the two who were employed to combine Eastern elements to western buildings.

For example, for the Sing Chong building, which formed one of the gateways to Chinatown, were decorated with curled up eaves and terracotta motifs to contrast the brick buildings. Pagoda like towers were also placed on top of each corner of the building. Although they contained elements of Chinese architecture, however one would struggle to find anything the same in actual ancient Chinese architecture.

Sing Chong Building, 1980s_©

But nevertheless, it achieved what it’s planners wanted. The colorful and exotic architecture rebranded the community. Instead of a drab slum that represented criminal activity, it’s bright red, yellow, green buildings made it a family-friendly town that attracted visitors, drawn in by their curiosity of this new, wonderland of a village. And the success of this rebranding, caused Chinatowns that sprung up in other parts of the world to follow suit.

The Chinatown of today

Despite the glamorous oriental facade, Chinatown still has it’s issues. For example, criminal gangs still remind people of their presence in a rare fight in Chinatown, or Sinophobia which can still be felt by the Chinese community in times of difficulty. But with the collective efforts of community, who strive to improve the lives of the community members, it has now a fairly self sufficient neighborhood with it’s own schools, residences and businesses. And most of all, it represents the adaptability and creativity of a community who had managed to survive in times of adversity.

A view of a street in Chinatown

References: (2019). Chinatown | The Story of Chinatown. [online] Available at:

‌Choy, P.P. and America, C. of C. (2012). San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture : An Excerpt. [online] HuffPost. Available at:

Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna. (2020). Spirits of the City: Chinatown: San Francisco’s Potemkin Village. [online] Available at: (2019). Chinese Exclusion Act. [online] Available at: History of San Francisco’s Chinatown. [online] Available at:

Northern California Coalition on Immigrant Rights(1997). Chinese Immigration Historical Essay. [online]. Available at:

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