A Photojournal | English Column Editor Janet Kim
Note: All color photographs were taken by Janet Kim and Christine Jay lee, and edited by Janet Kim.
The 21st century San Francisco portrays a vibrantly modern landscape with large, shiny towers accompanied by the droning buzzes of its millennial residents’ smartphones. However, within San Francisco lies a district that appears to have remained relatively untouched in comparison to its more industrialized neighbors. This is San Francisco’s Chinatown.
To retrace the beginnings of San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is no better place to start than the first mass migration of Chinese immigrants to America. After experiencing a costly defeat by the British in the first Opium War of 1840s, regions of China were left in a severe state of famine along with the sudden burst of countless peasant uprisings. This forced many Chinese workers to flee to supposed better conditions in the United States, also known as “Gum San”. The Chinese workers shortly began their transition to America by working in railroads, where they were paid less than half of their white counterparts’ wages and were forced to work under unethical conditions in the hopes of one day returning to their families with a substantial fortune.
Following the sudden influx of Chinese immigrant workers in the railroads came the extremely negative reactions of the white workers. Because Chinese workers could be paid less for the same, if not higher, level of productivity, the white workers saw this as a threat to their economic livelihood and fought to strip the Chinese of their rights as workers and as people. This reaction was not purely an economic one, as soon enough “the Chinese were prohibited by law to testify in court, to own property, to vote, to have families join them, to marry non-Chinese, and to work in institutional agencies.” (Joe) The best example of this is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, in which Chinese immigrants were banned from coming to and from America all together unless they had the proper certificates identifying their statuses as laborers, scholars, diplomats, or merchants. These harsh restrictions made it severely difficult for more Chinese to immigrate to America but also put a strain on the Chinese already present in the United States who wanted to visit their families in the motherland. Thereafter, Chinese workers began to migrate out of the railroad labor force and retreated into small cultural enclaves where they began to build their own micro-economies and work alongside each other. The Chinese workers began operating laundry rooms, restaurants, and small specialty skill shops. And these very cultural enclaves evolved into what is known today as San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I recently took a trip down to Chinatown with a close friend of mine, as both of us are avid sightseers and wanted to reconnect with our Asian-American roots. Today’s Chinatown is still surprisingly reflective of its rich and dark history, conveying all of the emotions that came with the struggles and successes of its residents throughout the past 200 years. Entering Chinatown’s grand gate adorned with dragons and red lanterns, there was an immediate contrast between the architecture of the buildings surrounding the area and the ones inside of it. The first thing that caught my eye was the vibrant colors of the signs decorating the streets, along with the bright smiles of the shopkeepers insisting we make a pit stop in their store.
We made a stop into several of those shops, admiring the vast amount of little Chinese trinkets scattered throughout. The shopkeepers all wore the same proud expression, admiring their own goods and shouting in various dialects of Chinese.Throughout the entire day, I heard little to no English being spoken by either the shopkeepers or the visitors of the town. This drew a heavy parallel to the beginnings of Chinatown, as many of the immigrants who were alienated from the white-dominated workforce had poor English skills and found sanctuary in the borders of this Chinese community. The first Chinese immigrants suffered bouts of heavy racial discrimination, being shunned by American society and as a result, were hindered from furthering their English skills. What was necessary two centuries ago is now what I believe to be a choice. The people of Chinatown today are preserving the foundation of the Chinatown district of 200 years ago-a place of acceptance and cultural familiarity- by continuing to associate it with the language of their motherland and refusing to accommodate to the language of its outsiders.
And so, despite the heavy presence of gift shops and magnet stores scattered throughout, it felt as though the people themselves hadn’t changed over time, and I was able to catch a glimpse of the daily lives of those who built the town.
In terms of infrastructure, many of the buildings also seemed old and weathered down, which is not a complete surprise due to the geographical conditions of San Francisco along with the many earthquakes that have occured since the area’s inception. There also seemed to be very limited capacity in terms of space, as for many of these buildings, the bottom floor was some sort of a shop or restaurant and the floors above were small apartments/dwellings people live in. These impurities gave the town a rustic charm and added to the feeling of it being stuck in time. It is also important to note that this sort of architecture is extremely common in Asia, with commercial businesses being located on the street level and housing units being located right above.
These dwellings were also largely visible from the streets and walking from block to block, clothes lines hanging unapologetically from the apartments above could be seen as well as glimpses of the elderly enjoying their supper by the windows. This could signify none other than the poor economic conditions of the town, but could also be larger a statement about tradition and the importance the people place on keeping that very tradition intact. Because the residents of Chinatown rightfully feel a strong sense of ownership and entitlement to the land and its uses, it is clear that the people do not want to give up their culture. The first immigrants who built and established Chinatown created it into a space wherein the people could live almost the same lives as they did in China. The blood, sweat, and tears of the immigrants who came before them can be appreciated through this very preservation of tradition and culture and the refusal to accept Western standards, such as the refusal to adopt various forms of technology. Many of the restaurants along the streets were also found to date back to nearly a hundred years ago, indicating that they had been passed down from generation to generation, still occupying the same corners they did centuries go. These little candid glimpses of Chinatown showcased not only how connected the people still are to their motherland, but to the very people who had built this town for them. And it was evident that these little corner shops that mean little more than an opportunity for a quick bite to the passerby, is the very thing that continues to connect the current occupants of Chinatown to those who first built it.
That is not to say that Chinatown was not to any degree modern. Little alleyways along the road shone brightly with hues of bright greens, blues, and reds splattered on creative mural pieces such as the staircase shown in the picture above. The juxtaposition of modern and pre-modern was extremely captivating and I firmly believe this coexistence of two time periods is one of the greatest charms of Chinatown. Much of the architecture scattered within the perimeters dated back to the very beginnings of Chinatown and to be able to see these structures remain standing untouched was amazing. Also, because the history of Chinatown is relatively recent compared to that of many other historical regions, the experience was all the more powerful.
As the day came to a close, it was time to say goodbye to these streets and make our way back to the boom and bustle of Union Square. Stepping into one century from another is not something one can experience anywhere. I highly encourage the readers, especially my fellow Asian Americans, to take a journey through this living artifact and experience for themselves the emotions and sentiments the town has to offer. These streets capture the discrimination and alienation that the first Chinese immigrants experienced after coming to this land of opportunity with nothing but hope and a handful of coins in their withered satchels. But it was out of this alienation that these hopefuls were able to create a land of their own, one filled with the unforgettable scents and sounds of their motherland. It is in the honor of these very people that we continue to thrive in present American society and walk the streets of our ancestors’ towns even when we are thousands of miles away.