The Evolution and Development of the Largest Chinatown in the World

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San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinatown in the world (outside of Asia). Considering that, you know, China is in Asia, that’s a major accomplishment. Typically on the short list of places to visit in San Francisco, Chinatown is home to over 15,000 Chinese immigrants. From the colorful store fronts and red lanterns hanging over the street, Chinatown truly transforms the feel of San Francisco.

But this neighborhood wasn’t always the colorful epicenter for dim sum and festivals. When I originally started writing this post, I intended to solely write about exploring Chinatown. As I dug deeper into the history of Chinatown, I was shocked at how much the Chinese people have endured.

The Chinese population has vigilantly fought for their place in San Francisco. In honor of Chinese New Year tomorrow, I’m sharing the history and evolution of San Francisco’s Chinatown.  It is my hope that this will help you be a more informed and sympathetic visitor when you visit Chinatown for yourself.

Why San Francisco for these immigrants?

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During the gold rush, immigrants rushed to the California coast in search of opportunity. Due to racial segregation of these immigrants, these people were not allowed to partake in the gold rush. Most of them were forced to work for reduced wages to repay loans used to reach the US in the first place. For this reason, the Chinese population set up camp in a poverty ridden area that we now know as Chinatown.

Struggle with Prejudice:

Even though San Francisco was home to a large Chinese population, immigrants struggled with prejudice. Desperate for work, the Chinese were forced to accept terrible working conditions. Chinese immigrants were forced to work longer hours for less money. For this reason, Californians grew angry, feeling like they were losing job opportunities. This lead to increased regulation to try to limit the Chinese from working and owning businesses.

The Chinese Exclusion Act:

After years of increased hostility from Americans towards Chinese immigrants, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. This limited the influx of Chinese to the US, and restricted labor to 10 years. It was the first time in American history that the rights of immigrants were restricted in such a way.

Growing Hatred Towards Chinese Workers:

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In 1885, miners in Wyoming were on strike and attacked Chinese strikebreakers. Over 28 Chinese miners were killed, and the Chinese were left in fear. The Rock Springs massacre drove Chinese immigrants toward the west coast. This, in combination with the opening of east coast immigration centers, established several large Chinatowns in cities like New York and Boston.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire:

In 1906, the infamous earthquake and fire of San Francisco devastated Chinatown. Homes and businesses were devastated by the damages. However, many immigration and birth records were destroyed in the fire. Chinese immigrants took advantage of this to gain citizenship, allowing their families abroad to join them in the US. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed, allowing a greater influx of immigrants to come to the US.

Chinatown Today:

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Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown is home to some of the most delicious foods and colorful parades in the country. This densely populated neighborhood allows you to eat authentic food and feel truly immersed in Chinese culture.

Explore Buddhist temples, celebrate Chinese New Year, and enjoy charming shops and alleyways. Chinatown will easily become your favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. While you explore, you can appreciate the obstacles that these people encountered to create one of the most iconic places in the world.

Danielle Guy