The first settlers of San Francisco's Tangrenbu, or "Port of the People of Tang" landed in the city as early as 1847. Since then, the area has gone on to become one of North America's oldest, largest and most historic Chinatowns. Located in downtown San Francisco, Old Chinatown was roughly six blocks long, from California to Broadway, and two blocks wide, from Kearny to Stockton. China at this time was undergoing a period of tremendous upheaval, and during the late 1840s and early 1850s, many Chinese eagerly seized the opportunity to seek their fortunes in California, which was generally referred to as "Gum San, or "Land of the Golden Mountain". By the end of 1851, there were an estimated 4,000 Chinese in San Francisco; by the following year their numbers had increased to 25,000.
Early Chinatown was notable for its lack of women. Between 1848 and 1854, only 16 out of 45,000 Chinese immigrants were women. The main reason for this was that the Chinese were not immigrants in the classic sense: they did not come to San Francisco with the intention of settling permanently, but only to work and save enough money to return to China. Because respectable wives were expected to tend the home fires, and also because few men could afford the additional money to bring their wives with them, the great majority of San Francisco's female population in the nineteenth century were prostitutes. Some came expressly to ply their trade, while others were kidnapped, tricked into signing false marriage contracts, or lured by promises of rich husbands in the new country. Bought for $100 to $300 in China, slave girls (some as young as 6 or 7), were sold for $300 to $600 in the United States.
The structure of this early Chinatown depended upon groupings by kinship, geographical region, and by other self-defining institutions. Such arrangements allowed the Chinese to tend their own house, gave them comfort during the long exile from home, and helped keep the majority of the poor dependent on those "companies" who had early on assumed control. Gradually, the Six Companies became the governing body of Chinatown, with complete authority over all Chinese activities. The infamous "tongs" were originally merely associations of groups with common interests, but soon they were taken over by the formal criminal element in the community. Their sordid history revolved around gangsters, hatchet men and extortionists.
During the seventies when the Chinese made up between 70 and 80 percent of the work force, they were a constant source of controversy. As they established a reputation for industry and hard work, a rural anti-Chinese movement formed and quickly gained strength. In July 1877, crowds of mainly unemployed white laborers gathered in sandlot rallies throughout San Francisco. White Protestant "manifest destiny" arrogance translated into a nativist attack on the Chinese, who not only worked harder and longer hours than many of their white counterparts, they frequently comanded less pay. "The Chinese Must Go!" cried by Dennis Kearney, the fiery orator of the Workingmen's Party, was quoted by local newspapers saying, "Judge Lynch is the only judge we want." Violence against the Chinese mounted throughout the 1870s and 1880s, with bands of angry young men sweeping through Chinatown commiting random murders and setting fires to Chinese businesses and makeshift dwellings.
Whereas San Francisco's Tamgrembi was originally a refueling station for Chinese scattered about the region, it became more and more a segregated ghetto that kept the Chinese in one area, and whites out. Despite this segregation, by the turn of the century Chinese made up practically the entire labor force working the canneries amd constituted a large part of the manpower in the laundries, the garment industry, cigar, match, boot, and broom factories, as well as the fishing and fish-packing industries.
Although many San Franciscans continued their harassment, they observed the Orientals' qualities of loyalty, obedience, and tireless endeavor, as well as their capacity to persevere in the face of the most overwhelimg obstacles. Also, the Chinese love of gambling and games proved equally appealing to their Caucasian neighbors. Chinatown gambling dens became a major nineteenth-century tourist attractions. As the Westerm community gradually responded to Chinese ways, the Chinese slowly began to settle in, to view their stay no longer entirely as sojourners, but with the possibility of permanence.
Early on the morning of April 17, 1906, one of the most devastating earthquakes in American history rattled and shook the City by the Bay. What little remained of San Francisco's Old Chinatown was inevitably claimed by a fire which raged through the city for four days and nights. Before midnight of that terror-filled first day 10,000 Chinese had fled the Quarter. On the second day, anything that had escaped the earlier flames was destroyed as the fire fanned back over the skeleton of Chinatown yet again. Two white Americans, Aitken and Hilton, wrote: "By the fourth day the Quarter was a blackened ruin. The bright lanterns, the little grated windows, the balconies that whispered of romance, the flaring dragons, were gone. Gone, too, the ill-smelling fish markets and cellar shops, the bazaars, the gambling dens, the places where opium was smoked in guarded secrecy. Everything that had made the little foreign section a tradition throught the world had disappeared."
Slowly, however, the Chinese drifted back to Dupont Gai and its smoking rubble. They stubbornly shrugged off the demands that they move to the periphery of the city. Fine, handsome buildings of Oriental design, many with pagodalike roofs, were designed and built along what was coming to be called Grant Avenue. Apartments and hotels sprang up as the Chinese crowded back into the Quarter, and the population began to curve upward again until it would reach over 36,000 in 1960.
For all its dark alleys, there is nothing very sinister about modern Chinatown. Only on foggy nights when veils of sea mist obscure Spofford Alley and Wavery Place does the Chinese Quarter assume something of an air of its former mystery and an evocation of its turbulent past.
Coming in NOVEMBER: San Francisco's Emperor Norton, one of the city's most colorful and beloved figures.
Sources: "The Hatchet Men" by Richard H. Dillon, "The Chinese in San Francisco" by Laverne Mau Dicker, "San Francisco's Old Chinatown" text by John Kuo Wei Tchen, and “Old San Francisco, the Biography of a City, by Doris Muscatine.