Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

A Country within a Country: Understanding San Francisco's Chinatown

In this activity, students use a range of primary and secondary sources about San Francisco's Chinatown (1880s-1920) to explore what the community meant to residents and to outsiders.


  • Students will analyze the importance of different locations within San Francisco's Chinatown.  

  • Students will be able to describe the different perspectives on Chinatown from an "insider" versus an "outsider" perspective.  

  • Students will write an essay in defense of Chinatown, using information gathered from document analysis and a gallery walk.

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

  • RHSS.6-8.6. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose.

  • WHSS.6-8.2. Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.


Step 1: Have students read San Francisco's Chinatown background essay OR view a clip from the film Becoming American (Disc 2, first 9 minutes of Chapter 1).  After reading/viewing, lead a discussion about what kind of community was San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1890s.  Points to bring out in discussion include: 

  • like "a country within a country"; an immigrant community; "bachelor" society as a result of exclusion laws; refuge from violence; residents from diverse regions, speaking different dialects; opera and other familiar culture available; stores served as gathering places, hiring halls

Step 2: Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one Chinatown place: grocery store, restaurant, theater, school, Six Companies self-help association.  There is one photograph and one text document for each place.  Hand these out to the groups, along with the worksheet. (Optional: Divide the class into four groups and use one of the photographs as a model.) 

Step 3:  Allow students to examine the photograph first, and use Part I of the worksheet to make a list of observations about what people, objects and activities they see. Groups should then decide on three inferences that they can make based on these observations, as well as any questions about the photograph they have. 

Then, ask students to read the text documents and use Part II of the worksheet to compare "insider" and "outsider" perspectives.

While groups are working, pass out five pieces of chart paper around the classroom, each with one of the five photographs already attached.

Step 4: Groups should review the information gathered on both sides of their worksheets. Then, on the chart paper, each group will:

  • Write down the inference(s) substantiated by the insider or outsider text and the phrases from the text that support the inference(s)

  • Circle the part(s) of the photo that support(s) the inference(s)

  • List a question that is still unanswered that the photo raised

Post the five pieces of chart paper around the classroom.

Step 5: Divide the students into pairs and have them do a gallery walk of all five photographs. Give them a list of the following historical understandings about Chinatown and ask them to circle which photograph/text supports each photograph:

Historical Understandings:

San Francisco's Chinatown included residents from different classes and regions of China.

Restaurant  Grocery  Theater  Six Companies  School

San Francisco's Chinatown provided familiar cultural traditions to its residents, including foods, goods, and entertainment.

Restaurant  Grocery  Theater  Six Companies  School

In response to exclusion and violence against them, Chinese residents of Chinatown created self-help organizations and educated their children.

Restaurant  Grocery  Theater  Six Companies  School

Outside visitors to Chinatown viewed it as exotic and interesting, as well as foreign and threatening.

Restaurant  Grocery  Theater  Six Companies  School

Share out responses with the group. Discuss the questions written on the chart paper that were left unanswered.

Step 6: Have students complete a written assessment of the activity using the following writing prompt:

  • After the 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco, city leaders debated whether or not Chinatown should be rebuilt. Chinatown occupied valuable real estate in the center of town, and some wanted to use the land for other purposes. Imagine you are a resident of Chinatown. Write a letter to a city official in which you argue why your neighborhood should be rebuilt. Use evidence and details you have gathered from the gallery of photographs and accompanying text. 


Historical Context

The Chinatown envisioned by tourists in the late 19th century promised exoticism and adventure. They were not there to see the everyday life of the Chinese. For its residents, however, Chinatown was a home base, a safe place, a living community. The streets were full of familiar people, sounds, colors, and smells. Male workers dominated the streets. Occasionally a wealthy merchant with his family could be seen. Children playing outside were safeguarded by the community. In 1906, a devastating earthquake and fire destroyed old Chinatown.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “A Country within a Country: Understanding San Francisco's Chinatown,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,

Print and Share