Little Bit of History Repeating: Chinatown

In 2014, a tour guide berated San Francisco’s Chinatown streets: “Here in America we don’t eat turtles and frogs … when you come to America you’ve got to assimilate a little bit.” The irony is palpable, considering that Chinatowns were created precisely because racist legislation made assimilation impossible for Asian Americans.

Before 1906, San Francisco’s legally segregated Chinese community looked much like other areas of the city: rows of Victorian Italianate facades. Blamed for job shortages across America since the late 1800s and relegated to outsider status by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, their confined neighborhood was a refuge from physical violence.

Then, on April 18, 1906, a terrible earthquake shook San Francisco. The resulting fires lasted for three days

In 1885, a municipal report of the area had detailed prostitution houses, as well as gambling and opium dens. A slum tourism business had even sprung up, where “thrill-seeking” visitors could watch supposed depravity in shadowy buildings. As Chinese residents fled their blazing homes, San Franciscans yelled at them to never come back. 

San Francisco officials were delighted at the opportunity to move Chinese families to the edges of town, where the slaughterhouses were, in exchange for “well-educated,” “productive” and “beautiful” (i.e., white) citizens. 

Chinese business people knew that San Francisco was a key trading hub with China. They appealed to Empress Dowager Cixi, who sent her cultural general from Washington to meet with San Francisco officials. After business owners declared they would leave San Francisco and go to Tacoma or Portland, the mayor dissolved plans to relocate Chinatown in an unprecedented political victory for Chinese Americans.

Chinese families were sick of Chinatown’s reputation for vice.

Look Tin Eli, an American born Chinese businessman, figured that if tourists would always look for an imaginary “Orient,” perhaps it was best to give them what they wanted. People harassed Chinese immigrants for their foreignness. If Chinatown emphasized their ethnicity in a way that visitors considered pleasant rather than repulsive, people would leave them alone. 

Eli hired white designers to rebuild Chinatown using pictures of old-fashioned designs from the Song dynasty. Religious pagodas became roof decor for department stores. Dragon statues, which traditionally guarded royal palaces, flanked banks instead. Grand painted gates and red lanterns formed the iconic Chinatown look we know today.

Chinatown became a monument to consumerism. Its amusement park riot of color fed middle-class white America’s fantasies perfectly.

Anti-Chinese sentiment decreased. Newspapers praised Chinatown: In 1909, The Bulletin wrote, “Chinatown is one of the most noted places on the American continent. We have held up to the public gaze for too long the racial grief that separates … people of the earth.” 

Chinese Americans still faced plenty of legal discrimination, but they were more accepted. They embellished their foreignness in order to survive. What else can you do when the law treats you like an outsider? How else do you live in a country which forces you to strike a tenuous balance between model minority assimilation and pleasing cultural presentation, and neither is ever enough?


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