While Baltimore was the first destination for Chinese immigrants in the United States in 1785, opportunity and proximity were compelling lures for those seeking their fortune in Gum San — Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for California, and more specifically, Dai Fao — the Big City of San Francisco. They came as early as 1848 and by the early 1850s the first Chinese theater and first Chinese newspaper were established.
Built near the historic heart of San Francisco, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan. It is also the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in the U.S. It is the home of the earliest Chinese Christian church and the oldest standing Chinese temple in the U.S. — Tin How at 125 Waverly.
The original Chinatown was reduced to ashes in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire. City officials, seizing the opportunity to oust residents from land located near the city’s financial district, proposed relocation to Hunters Point. It was only through the tenacity of Chinese business leaders and intervention by Chinese diplomats that Chinatown was rebuilt along Grant Avenue. What visitors see today, however, is largely the creation of non-Chinese architects who copied certain features of classical Chinese design.
Many early Chinese Americans were employed in the building of the first transcontinental railroad in 1865. With the completion of the railroad, they sought employment in other industries and were soon perceived as a threat. When economic woes beset America’s economy, several Chinese Exclusion Acts and a general anti-Asian immigration law were enacted. The discriminatory laws were not repealed until 1943.
In 1910 the Immigration Station opened on Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West.” More than 175,000 Chinese passed through here, many of them posing as “paper sons and daughters,” because records had been destroyed during the 1906 earthquake and fire. Grilled by immigration officials, they were detained for weeks if not months. Their desperation is reflected in poems on the walls of the detention center that are still visible today. In 2010, the Immigration Station at Angel Island celebrated its centennial with a major restoration campaign and a living archive initiative called Immigrant Voices, which is scheduled to launch during Summer 2015. To visit the island, there are ferry services leaving from Fisherman's Wharf and Tiburon. To learn more visit www.angelisland.com, www.blueandgoldfleet.com, www.angelislandferry.com or www.aiisf.org.
In addition to the railroad, agriculture, mining and fishing owe much to early Chinese labor. (The Bing cherry, for example, was nurtured by a Chinese worker named Ah Bing.) By 1870 the Chinese made up 28 percent of all miners in California.
China Camp State Park in Marin County was one of 20 or 30 fishing villages on the shores of San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Several historic structures have been preserved and in 2003 volunteers working with San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park staff built a replica of a Chinese shrimp fishing junk, the Grace Quan. During the summer, it can be viewed at China Camp; in the winter at Hyde Street Pier.
In the late '70s a “second Chinatown” gained much attention as Chinese restaurants and grocers opened in the outer Richmond District, especially along Clement Street. Today, San Francisco’s Asian population is estimated at 247,000, more than 30 percent of the total population. The highest number of Chinese is located in the Sunset District and many of the restaurants and markets along Noriega Street reflect this.
Three local museums focus on the Chinese American experience. Housed in a building designed by Julia Morgan, the same architect who designed Hearst Castle, the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (www.chsa.org) has rotating historical and cultural exhibits and counts more than 50,000 artifacts in its collection. The Chinese Cultural Center, a primary sponsor of the annual In Search of Roots program which takes young adults to China to learn more about their ancestry, also hosts cultural events and art exhibits. The Pacific Heritage Museum is housed in one of the original U.S. sub-treasury building dating back to 1875.
Highlights on the annual community calendar include the Autumn Moon Festival every September (check website for this year’s dates: www.moonfestival.org), featuring multicultural entertainment, traditional lion and dragon dances, arts and crafts, lantern village and children’s activities along Grant Avenue. The San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival will draw nearly 100 dragon boat teams and 2,500 paddlers from across North America to race the 500-meter course off Treasure Island (also in September, view website for dates: www.sfdragonboat.com).
Every winter the Chinese New Year Parade and Celebration galvanizes the entire city for several weeks, climaxing with a parade featuring beautiful floats, elaborate costumes, firecrackers, a newly crowned Miss Chinatown and a spectacular 268 foot Golden Dragon. Twenty-five years ago the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival debuted with Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing,” filmed largely in Chinatown and most recently featured “Hollywood Chinese” by Arthur Dong, a survey of the rich history of Chinese Americans on screen.