History of the Chinese Americans in San Francisco

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As of 2012, 21.4% of the population in San Francisco was of Chinese descent. The Chinese are the largest Asian American subgroup in San Francisco.[1] San Francisco has the highest percentage of residents of Chinese descent of any major U.S. city, and the second largest Chinese American population, after New York City.


The Gateway Arch (Dragon Gate) on Grant Avenue at Bush Street in Chinatown.

San Francisco's Chinatown was the port of entry for early Hoisanese and Zhongshanese[citation needed] Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong Province of southern China from the 1850s to the 1900s.[2] The area was the one geographical region deeded by the city government and private property owners which allowed Chinese persons to inherit and inhabit dwellings within the city. The majority of these Chinese shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and hired workers in San Francisco Chinatown were predominantly Hoisanese and male. Many Chinese found jobs working for large companies seeking a source of labor, most famously as part of the Central Pacific[3] on the Transcontinental Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush.

With national unemployment in the wake of the Panic of 1873, racial tensions in the city boiled over into full blown race riots. In response to the violence, the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong province, was created as a means of providing the community with a unified voice. The heads of these companies were the leaders of the Chinese merchants, who represented the Chinese community in front of the business community as a whole and the city government. The anti-immigrant sentiment became law as the United States Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – the first immigration restriction law aimed at a single ethnic group. This law, along with other immigration restriction laws such as the Geary Act, greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese people allowed into the country and the city, and in theory limited Chinese immigration to single males only. Exceptions were in fact granted to the families of wealthy merchants, but the law was still effective enough to reduce the population of the neighborhood to an all time low in the 1920s. The exclusion act was repealed during World War II under the Magnuson Act in recognition of the important role of China as an ally in the war, although tight quotas still applied. Not unlike much of San Francisco, a period of criminality ensued in some Chinese gangs known as tongs, which were on the produce of smuggling, gambling and prostitution, and by the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods of violence in Chinatown, the San Francisco Police Department had established its so-called Chinatown Squad. One of the more successful sergeants, Jack Manion, was appointed in 1921 and served for two decades. The squad was finally disbanded in August 1955 by Police Chief George Healey, upon the request of the influential Chinese World newspaper, which had editorialized that the squad was an "affront to Americans of Chinese descent".[4] The neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city.

Many working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving to Chinatown in large numbers in the 1960s and despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, had to find low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English fluency. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement of the Hoisanese/Taishanese dialect with the standard Cantonese dialect.

In the Sunset District in western San Francisco, a demographic shift began in the late 1960s and accelerated from the 1980s as Asian immigration to San Francisco increased dramatically. Much of the original, largely Irish American population of the Sunset moved to other neighborhoods and outlying suburban areas, although there is still a significant Irish American and Irish minority in the neighborhood. Informal Chinatowns have emerged on Irving Street between 19th Avenue and 24th Avenue as well as on the commercial sections of Taraval Street and Noriega Street west of 19th Avenue. About half of the Sunset District's residents are Asian American, mostly of Chinese birth and descent.[5]

As of 2012 many immigrants from China moved to the San Francisco Bay Area due to jobs in the technological industry. Many of them reside in the South Bay Area cities of Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose.[1]


Chinatowns in San Francisco:

Chinatowns around San Francisco:

Cultural institutions[edit]

The Chinese Culture Center, a community-based, non-profit organization, is located between Chinatown and the Financial District in San Francisco.

Notable people[edit]

This includes ethnic Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area


  1. ^ a b c Fagan, Kevin. "Asian population swells in Bay Area, state, nation." San Francisco Chronicle. Thursday March 22, 2012. Retrieved on February 6, 2014.
  2. ^ Documentary film about the early history of San Francisco's Chinatown, KPIX-TV, 1963.
  3. ^ Lee Foster (1 October 2001). Northern California History Weekends. Globe Pequot. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-7627-1076-8. Retrieved 26 December 2011. 
  4. ^ Davies, Lawerence E. (August 7, 1955). "Coast Chinatown loses tie to past; San Francisco Police Detail, Started in Days of Tong, Passes Tomorrow". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-30. 
  5. ^ Worth, Katie (2011-03-20). "San Francisco neighborhoods have changed faces over two decades". San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved 2013-02-21. 

Further reading[edit]

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