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  • Writer's pictureJames Huang

The Fighting History of San Francisco Chinatown

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The history of San Francisco Chinatown is in many ways brutal, depressing, and bleak, a microcosm of the Asian immigrant struggles which we artfully forget, marked to containers for painful memories of “the past”. However, the racism and suffering which plagued Chinese American history remains very real today, and teaches immigrant children important lessons on survival and evolution that are more relevant than ever in today’s trying circumstances. In the heavy darkness of Chinatown’s history -- the ugly dust, blood, and grime which cover its forgotten stories -- we uncover the beautiful strength and resilience of capable and determined people too frequently miscategorized by model minority myths, which belie their true strength. Forget the stereotypes of weakness and monoliths. The Chinese of San Francisco’s Chinatown are tough beyond belief, and have struggled through violence, discrimination, famine, disease, and nearly every other force against them to emerge again and again to call this country home.

When uninitiated people ask me about a story demonstrating the resiliency of Chinatown’s people, I think first of the story of Chinatown’s battle to survive in 1906. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, San Francisco’s legislators sought to excavate the Chinese from the heart of their city and found their excuse in the form of an outbreak of bubonic plague blamed on Chinatown. When the elders of Chinatown heard about this, they approached our policymakers how they know best: by rallying Chinatown members to raise suitcases full of money as a gift to our council “representatives”, as a “thank you for letting us stay.” The leaders of the city took this bribe money, but refused to accept the Chinese proposal to keep their homes. Soon thereafter, the elders chose another approach. Inviting the top white architects in the nation, Chinatown elders allowed their city to be decorated with mock lanterns, gates, and hat-like pagodas on top of their worn out buildings to satisfy Western ideals of exoticism and “the Oriental”. The white architects then went to city council on behalf of the elders to testify for Chinatown’s ability to bring tourism, money, and attention to the city. To this day, San Francisco remains unique in this exaggerated, un-Chinesely Chinese adornment of its buildings which aimed to appease hungry tourist eyes. Even with the proposed potential of Chinatown -- San Francisco’s next tourist attraction -- as a source of revenue, council members continued with their plan to move the Chinese to the dingy outskirts of Hunter’s Point. With no other option to turn to, the elders of Chinatown finally decided to mobilize their gangs. Thousands of young men and women, with hot bricks in one hand and machetes, guns, or knives in the other, built settlements all across the land and refused to move. In their last-ditch attempt to survive, Chinatown residents proclaimed that if they were not to stay, they would rather fight to the last breath than leave their homes. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do with a group of people pushed too far with nothing left to lose, it’s to fight a war with them. Thus, with the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake -- fire, broken buildings, and rampant looting considered -- the city council members could scarcely afford a war with the desperate and determined Chinese tongs, slang for the underground organizations which ran much of Chinatown. So with the threat/help of Chinatown tongs and their proposal for all-out war, the city council of San Francisco reconsidered their decision to excavate the Chinese, and finally allowed them to stay. Without the unyielding determination of Chinese Americans, San Francisco’s Chinatown would not exist at all today.

In this short excerpt, you have already learned about the determination and capacity of Chinese Americans to adapt under very difficult circumstances. I hope that this first tale of resiliency and struggle will motivate you to continue reading through Chinatown’s treasure trove of stories, struggles, and lessons.

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