California: Chinatown, San Francisco Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

San Francisco’s Chinatown, with a 1990 population of more than eighty thousand, is the largest Chinese community outside Asia and the commercial center for Chinese Americans all over North America. The neighborhood, founded as Chinese immigrated to work in California’s gold fields, includes shops, restaurants, bakeries, teahouses, food stalls, and markets. Stores offer a wide variety of goods from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, with the narrow, congested side streets offering a local flavor different from that on tourist-oriented Grant, which has been nicknamed the “Street of 25,000 Lanterns.”

Site Office

Chinese Cultural Center

750 Kearney Street, 3d floor

San Francisco, CA 94108

ph.: (415) 986-1822

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The Golden Gate to the Gold Mountain, San Francisco is to Chinese immigrants what New York is to those from Europe: the primary entry port to a new nation. Its Chinatown, which began to develop around 1850 to serve an influx of young men seeking their fortunes in the gold fields of California, remains the largest in the United States.

These emigrants were largely from the coastal provinces of Guongdong (Canton) and Fujian in southern China. More than 60 percent of the Chinese in America trace their ancestors to eight districts in Guongdong. Many were transients, so-called sojourners, who were lured to the “Gold Mountain” by the same hopes for riches and adventure that the discovery of gold inspired in immigrants from other countries. These hopes, at a time when natural disasters, population pressures, bureaucratic incompetence, and foreign invasions made life difficult at home, led them to risk the wrath of their government in an effort to improve economic conditions for their families. Those caught returning to the country were eligible for execution under the laws of the Manchu dynasty, which feared possible alliance between opposition forces at home and rebels abroad.

The Journey to America

The first Chinese settlers recorded in California were two men and a woman, probably servants of Charles Gillespies, who arrived in 1848. By 1850, the Chinese population of San Francisco had increased to 787 men and 2 women, and, by 1852, at least 20,000 men had arrived from China to seek their fortunes.

Over the following decades, tens of thousands of Chinese, most of them male peasants and workers between the ages of fifteen and forty, poured into America. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants settled on the West Coast. Unlike individuals from other countries who immigrated with the intention of bringing their families together again in a new land, the Chinese rarely abandoned their homeland. They frequently left behind a wife and children, and almost all hoped that, after a sojourn during which they would accumulate small fortunes of a few hundred dollars, they would return to their native villages to spend their remaining years in honor.

The Pacific crossing took two to three months aboard crowded ships with rationed supplies. After clearing the San Francisco customhouse, the immigrants registered their names with representatives of the Chinese community and were sent to boardinghouses with others from their home province. Each immigrant arranged for part of his wages to be sent to relatives and for his body to be returned to China for burial should he die in America, and then he left to work in the gold mine or on the railway.

Unlike the early nineteenth century “coolies,” who were fraudulently or forcefully taken from China to the New World as virtual slaves, this later immigration was voluntary. The 1868 Supplementary Articles to the Sino-American Treaty of Tianjin ensured that the immigrants were independent and able to look after their arrangements whether paying their passage in cash or entering into credit ticket contracts, which were straightforward business deals with guarantees on both sides. The image of the coolie persisted in the American imagination, however, especially as anti-Chinese sentiment built in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

Initial Reception

In 1850, the Chinese were a welcome addition to the community. San Francisco’s leaders gathered on August 25 of that year to honor, and attempt to convert to Christianity, a group of Chinese merchants. Led by mayor John Geary, speakers invited the “celestial men of commerce” to tell their friends in China “that in coming to this country they will find welcome and protection.” The California Courier proclaimed, “We have never seen a finer-looking body of men collected together in San Francisco, in fact, this portion of our population is a pattern for sobriety, order and obedience to laws, not only to other foreign residents, but to Americans themselves. These Celestials make excellent citizens and we are pleased to notice their daily arrival in large numbers.”

This sentiment would change, but in those days, the Chinese were supplying foodstuffs, tools, uten sils, textiles, and clothing from across the Pacific to the gold miners of California. One miner wrote in his diaries, “Were it not for the Chinese, we might have starved the first year.” Also welcomed were skilled craftsmen and technicians who passed through the city on the way to the gold camps.

Gold Mines and Railroads

The Chinese immigrants were among the first gold prospectors, with three of them arriving only one month after gold was found in Sutter’s Mill. They brought with them knowledge of mining techniques in other lands and a sense of group cohesiveness. Thousands of Chinese dug in the mines over the next decades, many buying claims declared exhausted by former owners and extracting additional return through superior economy and patience.

Beginning in early 1865, Chinese were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad. Despite protests by white workers that these people (who had built the Great Wall of China and invented gunpowder) were too small and frail to take on heavy construction jobs, they proved at least as skilled as their white counterparts. Moreover, they proved more dedicated and less likely to malinger. By the time the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks were joined on May 10, 1869, in ceremonies from which Chinese participation was barred, news of the reliability of these workers had spread. It was a period of labor shortages and increasing wages, so even the most prejudiced employers were glad to use their skills.

Between 1868 and 1882, the peak of Chinese immigration, almost 80 percent of the Chinese resided in California, where they worked in the state’s mining, manufacturing, farming, and fishing industries. As with most immigrant groups, the Chinese gathered together for the comfort of common language and customs. Being among the first to settle San Francisco, they congregated in a choice location at the heart of the city, on the slope facing the bay.

The Development of Chinatown

San Francisco became the unofficial capital of Chinese America. As early as 1854, the area from Washington Street to Sacramento along the east side of DuPont (now Grant) Street was called “Little China.” By the late 1870’s, between one-fifth and one-fourth of all Chinese in the United States, some thirty thousand people, resided in San Francisco, with most in the twelve-block area of Chinatown. Among the first Chinese businessmen in San Francisco were merchants and labor contractors who established stores, offices, and dormitories that became the nucleus of Chinatown and the source of traditional goods and services for Chinese throughout the country. The contractors served as the agents of the workers, who generally did not speak English. They would provide employers with relatives or fellow villagers and receive in return a lump-sum payment which they themselves distributed to their crews. They also provisioned the men, sometimes shipping supplies hundreds of miles to railroad construction or swamp reclamation sites.

Blood ties and common language and region of origin are the basis of Chinese society. Chinatown came to be governed by a group of organizations, called huiguan, which formed along these lines. A huiguan is a traditional and lawful association of fellow provincials away from home. Representatives of these associations, or of the labor contractors, were the agents who greeted newly arrived immigrants, got them settled, and found them jobs.

The first huiguan in San Francisco was formed in 1851. By 1862, after splintering and realignment, there had formed an umbrella group known in English as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, or the Six Companies. The Zhonghua Gongsuo, Congress of the Six Companies, was housed at 709 Commercial Street, from where it settled disputes, decided strategies for seeking relief from burdensome laws, devised ways to curb crime, and arranged for celebrations. During times of difficulty, such as the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Six Companies provided support so the Chinese people, in general, did not need to turn to federal relief agencies.

These were not the only organizations and associations the Chinese formed. In 1903, a Chinese scholar reported the existence in San Francisco’s Chinatown of ten public Chinese organizations (including the Six Companies), two trade organizations, nine benevolent organizations, twenty-three clan organizations, nine combined clan organizations, twenty-five secret societies, and five cultural societies. Many were based in San Francisco and had operations in Chinatowns around the nation.

These organizations, referred to as tongs, meaning hall or parlor, met the needs and promoted the interests of Chinese residents. According to historian Shih-shan Henry Tsai, however, “their lofty effort to maintain Chinese heritage, language and religion in America retarded the acculturation of the first and second generations in the New World.”

Manufacturing flourished in early San Francisco. In the 1860’s and 1870’s, between sixty and seventy Chinese merchants owned cigar factories, which required little capital investment. They employed 7,500 Chinese in 1876 and purchased two-thirds of the city’s cigar revenue stamps. The Chinese ran more than seventy establishments to make shoes and boots, dominated clothing manufacture in the city, and made up one-quarter of the fishermen in the area.

They identified and provided needed services that elsewhere were the province of women, becoming houseboys, laundrymen, and restaurant owners. By 1876, San Francisco had three hundred Chinese laundries, each employing five men.

They started newspapers. The first Chinese language newspaper in America, the Golden Hills News, appeared in 1854. The first bilingual paper, the Chinese World of San Francisco, was published from 1891 until 1969.

Festivals and seasonal celebrations were important social events in Chinatown. Most important was the New Year, still a major celebration and tourist attraction each winter. The men also celebrated lesser festivals, enjoyed Chinese opera and other forms of Asian music, and played chess. As Chinatown grew, several theaters were built and traveling opera troupes were brought from China.

Crime and Isolation Within the Community

Tongs came to be thought of as illegal by most Americans, but only a small percentage were criminal. The illegal tongs grew from traditional Chinese secret societies but lost their religious and political significance in moving, becoming self-protection organizations that used violence and intimidation to punish enemies and accumulate wealth. Wars developed among the illegal societies in the 1880’s, drawing the attention of officials from China who began jailing relatives in China for the crimes of members in America. Warfare declined after 1900 and, since the 1920’s, tong wars have been practically nonexistent in American Chinese communities.

Chinatown did have a dark side, however. In 1876, there were an estimated two hundred Chinese gambling houses and two hundred opium dens operating in San Francisco. Gambling attracted many white Americans. Opium users were mostly Chinese and numbered more than three thousand. Opium was not illegal, although it was considered “special merchandise,” subject to heavy import duties. Chinese prostitutes came mostly from Hong Kong, often under contracts rife with false promises. A Chinese official who visited California in 1876 reported there were some six thousand Chinese women in the United States and 80 to 90 percent were “daughters of joy.” The Chinese community consistently denounced these high-profile vices that they knew gave Chinatown an unsavory reputation, despite their relatively low incidence.

This stereotype of evil was one of the factors that led to the isolation of the Chinese in Chinatowns. Perhaps the most basic was the sojourner mentality that led to a society composed almost entirely of young men who had no plans to buy property and settle permanently in America.

The process was circular. Isolated by language and custom and with no incentive to learn more about their host country, the Chinese were seen as an oddity. European settlers resented their industry and perceived them as haughty and stand-offish. These perceptions led to negative stereotypes, which led to anti-Chinese rioting, random acts of violence, and discriminatory legislation, all of which drove the Chinese deeper into isolation.

Violence and Prejudice

While the most deadly mob activity was inflicted in other locations, San Francisco was not without hate-motivated violence. In one case, in the summer of 1868, the branded and mutilated body of a Chinese crab fisherman was found under a wharf. The murder was attributed by the San Francisco Times to young ruffians “eager to glut their cruelty on any Chinaman who must pass.” In 1877, rioters burned down dozens of Chinese laundries.

Prejudice grew as the depression of the 1870’s led to growing tension between labor and management. The Chinese workers who accepted wages lower than whites thought necessary for basic survival became the victims of anti-Chinese propaganda initiated by organized labor and political orators. They argued that the Chinese should be excluded from the United States altogether.

California, with the nation’s largest Chinese population, was in the forefront of anti-Chinese activity. State law prohibited nonwhites from appearing in court to confront a white citizen. The state constitution was rewritten in 1879 to forbid anyone of “Chinese or Mongolian” ancestry from being employed by a white man, or from working on any public project except as punishment for a crime. It instructed the legislature to delegate municipalities all necessary power for the removal of Chinese and categorically declared the Chinese people “dangerous to the well being of the State.” The rhetoric was a far cry from the compliments offered by the leaders of San Francisco twenty-nine years earlier.

Exclusion Laws

San Francisco, since 1865 a strong union city, endorsed these sentiments. The recently opened transcontinental railroad brought an influx of workers from the East, as well as the fifteen thousand to twenty thousand Chinese laborers who had returned from laying its track. By the 1870’s, the surplus of labor led to the disintegration of the closed shop. The number of Chinese laborers soon approached that of white workers. While the Chinese accounted for only 10 percent of the city’s population, the great majority were young men, making them far more than 10 percent of the labor force.

In 1876, Denis Kearney, a rabble-rousing San Francisco labor leader, offered the slogan “the Chinese Must Go” as the solution to “the Chinese Problem.” Congress passed the first of a series of measures to prevent the entry of Chinese laborers into the United States in 1882. This exclusion law barred Chinese manual laborers from immigrating and disallowed Chinese residents of the United States from ever becoming citizens. This legislation and modifications that followed it also opened the way for widespread illegal immigration schemes. In the years that followed, the number of immigrants dropped even as resident Chinese who had achieved their financial goals retired to their native villages. The Chinese population of San Francisco dropped from 30,000 in the late 1870’s to 7,744 by 1920. “The Chinese Problem” was no more.

Immigration officials received permission from the Supreme Court to enforce the exclusion laws in 1889. Thereafter, Chinese ship passengers arriving in San Francisco were detained in a two-story shed at a Pacific Steamship Company wharf until immigration officials could examine their papers. As many as five hundred people at a time were confined there, often for weeks. Newspaper reports described the treatment of the Chinese there as “worse than for jailed prisoners.”

In 1910, the immigration department built an immigration station on Angel Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, where questionable Chinese arrivals were detained for anywhere from a few days to years. The station remained in use until 1940, processing more than 175,000 Chinese, of whom about 10 percent were deported. Detainees expressed their suffering in poems written on the walls of the detention building. Some 135 of these survived and have been translated by the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco.


In addition to such restrictions and mistreatments applied to immigrants, the state and city continued to discriminate against the Chinese already residing in San Francisco. The Chinese were barred from city hospitals and subject to a series of head taxes, many of which had been declared unconstitutional. In the 1880’s, California tried to outlaw Chinese shrimp fishing in the bay, and San Francisco sought to ban Chinese laundries and rooming houses. The city passed a cubic air law requiring lodging houses to provide at least five hundred cubic feet of clear atmosphere for each adult. When Chinese landlords and lodgers resisted, they were imprisoned en masse. San Francisco adopted an ordinance requiring every male prisoner to have his hair cut to a uniform length of one inch. This was aimed at the long braid, or queue, of the Chinese. In 1879, the Circuit Court of California ruled this unconstitutional and awarded a complainant ten thousand dollars in compensation. The city excluded Chinese children from its schools for nearly fifteen years and, when the courts ruled the practice unconstitutional, it established a segregated public school for them.

Barred from mining, railroading, fishing, and manufacturing, the Chinese concentrated in the fields of gardening, cooking, laundries, restaurants, and domestic work. The ratio of urban to rural Chinese increased substantially during the 1880’s and 1890’s. Lacking large amounts of capital, facing oppressive laws, and fearing racial violence, more and more people congregated in Chinatown.

Thus, for refuge, the Chinese withdrew behind the barriers white society erected around them. Once again, the larger society complained they were aloof. At the same time, society held tighter to its stereotypes of the mysteries and danger of Chinatown. The effect was both to cut the Chinese off from the opportunities of the larger society and to protect them from its blind excesses.


Chinatown received a new face in 1906 when earthquake and fire ravaged San Francisco, allowing construction of what has been called the most charming Chinatown in the country. The Chinese turned to their history for inspiration, and their buildings began to resemble those of their homeland, though exaggerated and more ornate. They held onto their ties with their ancestral country and were often more involved with the massive changes taking place in China than with events in America.

Even with this involvement, however, Chinatown began picking up pieces of American culture. Western dress replaced traditional garb. A Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was established in 1912, a boy scout troop in 1914, and a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1916.

At the forefront of the Americanization movement was the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), founded before World War I in San Francisco. It grew with the numbers of Chinese Americans born in the United States; they were only 10 percent of the Chinese American population in 1900 but a 52 percent majority by 1940. CACA built an elegant headquarters in San Francisco, started branches throughout the nation, established a life insurance fund, promulgated a constitution, and published a newspaper.

Gradually, America’s perception of the Chinese changed. In the 1930’s, with news of China’s heroic resistance to Japan, and in the 1940’s, as China became America’s ally after Pearl Harbor, the Chinese were viewed more positively. Rather than a site of potential evil, Chinatown, with its exotic facade, became attractive. The Chinese population in the city expanded again; by 1940, it had rebounded to 17,782.

San Francisco hosted such wartime leaders as General Tsai Tingkai, who held off the Japanese for thirty-four days at Shanghai, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Following Madame Chiang’s tour in 1943, the exclusion laws were lifted, making some 40,000 Chinese in America eligible for citizenship and increasing the number of Chinese immigrants permitted into the country. The repeal of the exclusion laws also increased immigration to the city: The number of Chinese living in San Francisco and Oakland had jumped to 50,000 by 1960, to 88,402 by 1970, and to 169,016 by 1980. Another effect of the exclusion laws’ repeal was an increase in female Chinese immigrants entering the city. In 1910, 93.5 percent of the Chinese in San Francisco were male. This had fallen to only 74.1 percent in 1940, and it was not until 1970 that parity was approached, with 51.4 percent male.

The pace of acculturation increased markedly, including a significant movement of Chinese into previously restricted areas of employment. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the entry of more Chinese women into the United States, many people moved out of Chinatown, and the Chinatown itself changed flavor as Western furnishings, products, activities, and shops displaced more traditional elements. This led to predictions that all American Chinatowns would disappear.

In San Francisco, at least, these predictions have been countered by an influx of new immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan who do not speak English and start their lives as Americans in Chinatown, close to the moral and material support of relatives and friends. The previous few decades have also witnessed renewed interest among Chinese Americans in their ethnic heritage. The Chinese Historical Society of America was founded in 1963 and the Chinese Culture Foundation in 1967 to keep traditions alive.

Chinatown Today

Chinatown is today a major tourist attraction for visitors to San Francisco. Points of interest include St. Mary’s Square and nearby Old St. Mary’s Church, at Grant and California. The gothic church, dating from 1853, was built largely by Chinese laborers with granite from China and brick brought around Cape Horn from New England. The square features Beniamino Bufano’s marble and stainless steel statue of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China and short-term resident of Chinatown when he was building his revolution. On Waverly Place are some of Chinatown’s colorful old buildings and remaining temples, including the Tien Hou Temple, dedicated to the protectress of travelers, on the third floor at 125 Waverly. The building at 743 Washington, now a branch of the Bank of Canton, housed the Chinese Telephone Exchange from 1909 to 1949. Portsmouth Square, east of Grant between Washington and Clay, is a center of community activity, including early morning tai chi chuan exercises and afternoon chess matches.

More important than its attraction to tourists, however, Chinatown remains, in the words of writer Calvin Lee,

a place where Chinese live, work and play, a place which has a “lived-in” feel, adding to its culture and beauty. [It] feels the pulse of the metropolis. But, being on the Western shores and the largest port for newcomers to the New World from the Orient, it is always replenished with new immigrants and thus never completely loses the charm of the way of the Old Country.

For Further Information
  • Fong-Torres, Shirley. San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, 1991. This guidebook includes a description of the history and social life of Chinese Americans in San Francisco.
  • Lee, Calvin. Chinatown, U.S.A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Provides some history and a vivid description of San Francisco’s Chinatown as it existed when the book was written.
  • Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960. Provides a more academic perspective on the development of the Chinese community in the United States and its interaction with American society at large.
  • Steiner, Stan. Fusang: The Chinese Who Built America. New York: Harper, 1979. Presents an interesting array of material and anecdotes supporting the premises that Chinese exploration of the Americas predated Europe’s and that the Chinese played an integral role in winning the American West.
  • Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A solid and readable look at the history of the Chinese people in the United States.
Categories: History