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Background Essay on San Francisco's Chinatown

This short essay describes the origins of San Francisco's Chinatown, as well as some of its major economic, political, and social facets. The essay also describes the challenges San Francisco's Chinese community faced from the city's white politicians and residents.


While there are many Chinatowns across the United States and around the globe, San Francisco's Chinese community is the oldest, largest, and most visually recognizable urban Chinese American enclave.

As more and more Chinese immigrants migrated into northern California in search of fortune and work, San Francisco Chinatown served as their home away from home, a comfortingly familiar place in an alien and oftentimes hostile land.

Chinatown during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a vibrant and resilient community. Everything that a Chinese person needed or wanted was available within its dozen or so square blocks: work, food, benevolent associations, entertainment, newspapers, education, and religious houses were some of the many accessible amenities.

The streets teemed with life as residents went about their daily business and outside visitors came to experience San Francisco's "Little Shanghai."


San Francisco Chinatown grew organically around Portsmouth Plaza, the city's first public square and civic center. Chinatown was centrally located on valuable real estate, a fact that contributed to many efforts to relocate the community or eradicate it all together. However, the community remained at its original site, expanding its borders in all directions.

"Old" Chinatown, the enclave before 1906, was the subject of political debate for city politicians and officials who oftentimes deemed the area an eyesore and a health hazard. After 1906 earthquake and fire reduced Chinatown to smoldering ashes, there was a movement by the Reconstruction Committee to move the Chinese to the outer reaches of the Richmond district.

In an effort to save their community from being uprooted, Chinese leaders convinced municipal leaders and the neighborhood's white landlords that the "New" Chinatown should be rebuilt in a distinctive Oriental style that would attract more tourism and business. The results were the familiar curved eaves, colorful street lanterns, recessed balconies, and gilded facades that we associate with Chinatown.


Chinese San Francisco during the late 19th century was contained within a dozen or so square blocks. A self-sufficient and insulated community, with its own unique government and politics, early Chinatown was almost a separate city within San Francisco.

Chinese who came from the same regions in China formed district benevolent associations when they arrived in the United States. The associations served as social and welfare institutions where immigrants could locate people from their native districts, socialize, receive monetary aid, and express opinions in community affairs.

There were also family benevolent associations for people with the same surnames. A resident of Chinatown oftentimes belonged to benevolent associations for both his district and his extended family.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies, dominated the political landscape. Originally formed during the 1850s by the Ning Yuen, Hop Wo, Kong Chow, Yeung Wo, Sam Yup, and Yan Wo district associations (the Sue Hing Association was added later), the Six Companies was the most powerful organization in Chinatown, authorized to speak on behalf the Chinese throughout the United States.

Its Board of Directors and Board of Presidents consisted overwhelmingly of wealthy merchants who translated their economic good fortune into political power. The Six Companies dealt with city, state, and national governments regarding issues of immigration and persecution, always retaining a Caucasian attorney to be its spokesman and correspondent with the world at large.

Community - A World Apart:

Chinatown was a tight-knit community whose residents were familiar with one another. Parents allowed their children, who were highly cherished, to roam the streets without supervision during the day. Photographer Arnold Genthe, who included Chinese children among his favorite subjects, deftly captures Chinatown as a children's playground.

However, the day was not filled only by play. Chinese culture considers education to be one of life's most important assets, and Chinatown's children were schooled in a wide array of subjects. Their textbooks covered mathematics, grammar, and social studies along with many among other topics.

Separated families and friends kept up correspondence. Chinese-language newspapers provided another means of communication. A number of dailies competed for the Chinese reading public, but the Chung Sai Yat Po was the oldest and most prominent.

The use of print media was not restricted to newspapers. Theatres printed programs of nightly offerings, with photographs accompanying descriptions of plays and actors. The Chinese attended many cultural activities including theatrical performances literary societies, poetry clubs, and art collectives.

Outsiders Looking In:

The exotic sights, smells, and customs of San Francisco Chinatown drew visitors even before its reconstruction after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Personal accounts, pamphlets and books, along with thousands of photographs reveal a fascination with the neighborhood and its people.

Among the greatest attractions for visitors to Chinatown was its "underworld," consisting of highbinders, opium dens, and prostitution. Restaurants and merchant establishments offered visitors more conventional destinations. Those who wanted to experience Chinese culture and religious practices headed to the theatres and the joss houses.

Tourism had always been a key element of Chinatown's economy, but after the rebuilding of the community during the early 1900s, even more sightseers flooded into the area.

Well-known photographers Carleton Watkins, I.W. Taber, and Arnold Genthe were just three of the many who catered to the public's desire to capture glimpses of the Chinese community. Other visitors, however, had ulterior motives for exploring Chinatown.

City leaders, union organizers, journalists, and authors used "first-hand" descriptions of the enclave for their own purposes, whether it be to drum up political support or sell copy. Most of the time, this involved portraying the Chinese quarter in an unflattering, oftentimes derogatory light.

Municipal reports, political pamphlets, and other printed literature reflect the widespread negativity regarding Chinatown that proved so useful in garnering votes or capturing imagination about urban imagination.

Source | "San Fransisco Chinatown," The Regents of the University of California, 2005,
Creator | Bancroft Library
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Bancroft Library, “Background Essay on San Francisco's Chinatown,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

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