By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004

  1. San Francisco Chinatown before the great earthquake
  2. San Francisco Chinatown after the earthquake
  3. Chinatown today: the "golden ghetto"
  4. history of Cameron House

1. San Francisco Chinatown before the great earthquake

a. birth of San Francisco Chinatown

San Francisco Chinatown began during the gold rush of 1849. The Chinese called it "Gum Saan Dai Fau" (Gold Mountain Big City). It grew around Portsmouth Square, the city's first public square and civic center. Located downtown, next to the financial district, Chinatown occupies very valuable ground, which is one reason the city officials tried many times to move Chinatown somewhere else, or get rid of it completely. But the community has always remained at its original site, and has grown in all directions.

In the 1870s, when the gold rush had ended and the railroads were completed, California's Chinese population began moving increasingly to cities. They were forced to live separately from the white population by state laws and discrimination. They could not attend public schools with whites, buy houses in white neighborhoods, become American citizens, vote in elections, work for the government, or be hired for most professions. They were not allowed to be witnesses at trials, so they had no legal rights that a white person had to respect. As late as the 1940s, if a Chinese person stepped outside the boundaries of Chinatown, which was considered to be Broadway on the north and Powell on the west, he might be attacked and beaten up.

b. importance of Chinatown

San Francisco Chinatown quickly became the largest Chinese settlement in the world outside of Asia. It was like a separate village in the middle of the city. The first theater for Chinese entertainment was built in 1852. The first Chinese newspaper in America, the Golden Hills News, was published in 1854. There were Chinese shops, restaurants, gambling houses, burial services, Chinese herb shops, and temples with places of worship for Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

Chinese medicine played an important role in the 1800s for both Chinese and non-Chinese clients. Western medicine had not yet developed the extensive drugs, anesthetics, vaccinations, or sophisticated surgical techniques to which we have become accustomed. Thus, the Chinese understanding of plants used for medicinal purposes was an important component of how injury and disease was handled in the American West.

Many other Chinatowns sprang up throughout the United States in the 1800s, from San Diego, California to El Paso, Texas, to Boston, Massachusetts. Nearly all of them spoke the Cantonese dialects of the Pearl River Delta. But San Francisco Chinatown has always been considered the capital city of Chinese in America.

San Francisco Chinatown was a lively, well-organized community from the beginning. Everything that a Chinese person could possibly need or want was available within its area of about 12 square blocks -- work, food, benevolent associations, entertainment, newspapers, education, religion, and funeral services. The streets teemed with life as residents went about their daily business and outside visitors came to experience San Francisco's "Little Shanghai."

Even though there were few women in Chinatown, family relationships were still essential to Chinese American society, as were all things associated with family such as food, education, marriage and funeral customs.

An "official map of Chinatown" commissioned by the city's board of supervisors in 1886 shows a community with hundreds of dry goods merchants, factories, grocery businesses, restaurants, schools, temples, and entertainment establishments. Chinese stores specialized in products ranging from perfume to souvenirs. This buying and selling formed the backbone of early Chinatown's economy.

c. Chinese society and politics

Chinatowns served as safe havens and second homes for Chinese immigrants -- places to shop for familiar food, to worship in a traditional temple, or to catch up on the news from the old country. They were also good places to do business: the shops and factories in a Chinatown were almost exclusively Chinese-owned, and would hire Chinese workers when many non-Chinese businesses would not.

Chinatowns provided Chinese immigrants with the social support networks that were not available to them anywhere else. Some stores served as community meeting places and sites where new immigrants could seek help. Much of this aid came in the form of money lending or employment. Chinese did not have access to the capital from white-owned banks

Chinese who came from the same regions in China formed district benevolent associations that served as social and welfare institutions where immigrants could locate people from their native districts, socialize, get financial aid, and take part in community affairs. The associations were dominated by merchants who ran Chinatown's internal politics.

There were also family benevolent associations for people with the same last names. In China, whole villages sometimes had the same last name, and the ties of kinship were strong. Residents of Chinatown often belonged to both types of associations: one for their district, the other for their extended family.

District associations performed many of the roles that government agencies or charities would otherwise have fulfilled: they found jobs for new arrivals, cared for the sick and poor, and arranged for the bones of the dead to be sent back to their homeland. These associations soon became like a secondary system of government, and their leaders served as representatives to the non-Chinese population, sometimes becoming well-known public figures.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies, dominated politics in San Francisco Chinatown. Originally formed during the 1850s by the Ning Yuen, Hop Wo, Kong Chow, Yeung Wo, Sam Yup, and Yan Wo district associations (the Sue Hing Association was added at the turn of the century), the Six Companies was the most powerful organization in Chinatown, authorized to speak on behalf of not only Chinese in San Francisco, but everywhere in the U.S. Its board of directors and board of presidents consisted overwhelmingly of wealthy merchants who translated their economic good fortune into political power.

It was the Six Companies that dealt with city, state, and national governments regarding issues of immigration and persecution. The organization always retained a white attorney to be its spokesman and its correspondent with the world at large.

d. Chinatown for tourists

Chinatowns soon became a source of fascination to many non-Chinese Americans. As far back as the gold rush, miners who were tired of the same crude American diet of beans and beef were pleasantly surprised to find that Chinese restaurant food was palatable, delicious, healthful and inexpensive. America's love affair with Chinese food began with the first bite and has never faded, even though Chinese cooks had to adapt their recipes to American tastes at first. Chop suey, fried rice and fortune cookies were all invented in America.

Looking at the menus of early Chinatown, one gets a sense of how Chinese meals were given an American flavor. Even Coca-Cola was added to the menu as soon as it became popular.

Businesses stocked with imported goods attracted customers with elaborate window displays. Those who wanted to experience Chinese culture and religious practices firsthand headed for the theaters and the joss houses.

The sights, smells, and customs of San Francisco Chinatown drew visitors to its streets and establishments. Personal accounts, published pamphlets, photographs and printed pictures from the 1800s reveal an extensive fascination with the neighborhood and its people. Tourists -- with their interest excited by anti-Chinese political speeches, warnings from the church leaders, or sensational newspaper stories -- clamored for guided tours of the narrow alleys and mysterious lairs of Chinatown.

No visit to San Francisco was complete without a pictorial souvenir of Chinatown. Prominent photographers such as Arnold Genthe catered to the public's desire to view the Chinese community. Without Genthe's photos, we might have no record of what Chinatown looked like in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Chinatowns became popular destinations for adventurous tourists, and were often portrayed in the media as either mysterious and romantic places of colorful Asian life, or dangerous pits of vice. Among the greatest attractions to visitors to Chinatown was its "underworld," consisting of highbinders (professional killers), opium dens and prostitution (slave girls).

Tour guides, both Chinese and white, catered to the public fascination for criminal activity. Tours of Chinatowns sometimes included staged arrests of supposed gangsters and assassins. They were simply actors who were released as soon as the tourists and cameras had passed by. But they helped the tour business by injecting a dose of danger. Guides led tour groups through alleyways where Chinese were trained to vanish mysteriously when tourists neared.

Organized crime did exist in Chinatowns, sometimes associated with organizations called tongs. Occasionally the gang rivalries exploded into tong wars. But the district associations usually succeeded in keeping the neighborhoods free of serious gang activity.

The record of this "underworld" can be seen in the documentation produced by police officers whose beat included Chinatown, or whose job it was to prosecute alleged offenders.

Some visitors to Chinatown had more selfish motives for going there. City leaders, union organizers, journalists, and authors used "first-hand" descriptions of the neighborhood for their own purposes, whether it was to drum up political support or to sell more newspapers. Most of the time, achieving those goals involved portraying Chinatown in an unflattering light. This negative attitude extended from sources as diverse as the San Francisco Board of Health to independent sensationalist writers. Municipal reports, political pamphlets, and other printed literature reflect the widespread negativity regarding Chinatown that proved so useful in gaining anti-Chinese votes in elections.


2. San Francisco Chinatown after the earthquake

a. how Chinatown was saved

The fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 reduced Chinatown to ashes. In the words of Donaldina Cameron: "The strange mysterious old Chinatown of San Francisco is gone and never more will be."

There was a movement by San Francisco's Reconstruction Committee to move the Chinese to the outer reaches of the Richmond district, far away from its prime location at the heart of the city.

One of the best-known stores in Chinatown, and one of the structures destroyed by the fire, was the Sing Chong Co. & Chinese Bazaar at the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue. The owner, Look Tin Eli, headed a campaign to persuade the city's leaders and the neighborhood's white landlords that the "new" Chinatown should be rebuilt in a distinctive "oriental" style that would attract more tourism and business, thereby boosting San Francisco's economy as whole. His plan succeeded.

The results were the familiar curved eaves, colorful street lanterns, recessed balconies, and gilded facades that we instantly associate with Chinatown today.

Tourism had been an important element of Chinatown's economy even before the earthquake and fire. But after the rebuilding of the community, even more sightseers flooded in. Its new architectural aesthetic made "Cathay by the Bay" seem a world apart from the rest of San Francisco, even though it was located just blocks away from Nob Hill's austere mansions and the early skyscrapers of the Financial District.

Chinatown continued to thrive, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act and even the effects of a "bachelor society" created by a shortage of Chinese women. However, the Chinese population of California steadily declined from the 1880s to the 1920s, before starting to rise again very slowly.

b. restrictive covenants

One reason why so many Chinese lived in Chinatowns was because of restrictive covenants that prevented them from living in white neighborhoods. In some parts of San Francisco and many other cities nationwide, blacks and Asians could not buy or rent houses. White owners banded together in given areas and signed an agreement called a restrictive covenant that stated they wouldn't sell to anyone who wasn't white. It was challenged in the courts, but in 1919 the California Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were legal.

Blacks and Asians who were servants of the owners could live on the premises. But if they owned the house, it meant that they had money enough to have servants themselves, and might be equal to the people who signed these covenants. Class-conscious upper-class whites didn't want any neighbors who were people of color, no matter how talented or financially successful those people happened to be.

If a nonwhite person wanted to buy a home in a white neighborhood, he could get a white person to buy the property for him with the nonwhite person's money, then transfer the deed, after paying a fee to the white person. That was fairly common among well-to-do black people. Chinese Americans did it too.

c. public services in Chinatown

Besides the district associations and family associations, other civic organizations provided needed services in America's Chinatowns. These included cultural groups, churches, temples, and the YMCA and YWCA.

In 1925, for example, 15 service groups in San Francisco Chinatown combined their efforts to raise funds to build the city's Chinese Hospital. It became the only hospital in the city where patients could always find doctors and nurses who spoke Chinese, and it specialized in treating ailments that are most common in the Chinese population. Also it became a popular place for Chinese visitors to the U.S. to come, so that they could birth to babies there, and the babies would be American citizens and would later be eligible to live in the U.S. and bring their entire families.

Social service organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, Cameron House, cultural groups, churches, and temples all played an important role in the social life of Chinatowns.

d. YMCA and YWCA

The Y had a national reputation for welcoming all races as members and residents. Both black people and Asian Americans who needed to travel to an unfamiliar city could escape the embarrassment of being refused a hotel room by going directly to the YMCA, or to the YWCA for women. They had good, clean rooms, and didn't deny service to anyone because of race or religion. There were YMCAs in black neighborhoods all over the country and in many Chinatowns. Although the national ownership of the Y was white, they usually hired a black or Asian American person to run the branches in those neighborhoods.

e. social life in Chinatown

Despite Chinatown's shady reputation in the outside world, it was a tightly-knit community whose residents how one another. Parents allowed their children, who were highly cherished (especially since there were so few of them due to the early lack of women and families), to roam the streets without supervision during the day. The sense of all of Chinatown as being a children's playground was deftly captured by the photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942), who considered Chinese children to be some of his favorite subjects.

The Chinese community put a high value on education, and Chinatown's children were schooled in a wide array of subjects. Their textbooks covered not only the traditional areas of mathematics, grammar, and social studies, but subjects as diverse as Russian literature and Confucian philosophy. Instructors included Chinese scholars and teachers as well as Protestant missionaries who sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity through educational assimilation.

f. connections with China

Being segregated from the rest of San Francisco did not mean that Chinatown was isolated from the rest of the world. There was a constant stream of communication to Mainland China and other parts of the U.S. San Francisco Chinatown had its own telephone exchange building, where operators spoke as many as five Chinese dialects plus English. Separated families and friends wrote to each other on a consistent basis, and their letters relate the difficulty of loved ones spending a great deal of time apart.

Chinese-language newspapers kept people informed of happenings in California and around the globe. Several dailies competed for the Chinese reading public, but the Chung Sai Yat Po was the oldest and most prominent of them all. One of its editors, Ng Poon Chew, who ran the paper during the early 1900s, was known as "The Chinese Mark Twain." Ng was a celebrated public speaker who gave speeches in many cities.

g. entertainment and cultural activities

The Chinese of San Francisco had a passion for live entertainment. Theaters printed daily programs of their nightly offerings, with photographs accompanying descriptions of plays and actors. Local players as well as stars from China performed for packed houses whose audiences consisted of both Chinese and adventurous whites. Other cultural doings included literary societies, poetry clubs, and art collectives, many of which published or exhibited their collective works.

Traditional Chinese festivals provided other occasions where the community gathered together to celebrate. The Chinese in America continued to observe Chinese New Year in the traditional manner. This important festival was celebrated with elaborate displays and plenty of exuberance.

The Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco Chinatown began in 1953, and quickly became the biggest annual parade in the city.


3. Chinatown today: the "golden ghetto"

a. what hasn't changed

About 50,000 Chinese live in and around San Francisco Chinatown. To the casual observer, the neighborhood has not changed very much since it was frozen in time by C.Y. Lee's novel "Flower Drum Song" in 1957. The book became a hit Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein and a Hollywood movie in 1961.

Most of the buildings in Chinatown were built in the few years after the earthquake of 1906. Few new buildings have been built in the last 40 years. It is still one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the U.S. Thousands are crammed into tiny rooms in residential hotels with communal bathrooms and kitchens. It is still marked by low wages and a large proportion of elderly. Cantonese remains the most important language, although Mandarin is catching up and may eventually replace it. Restaurants, tourist shops and sewing factories remain the biggest industries. To this day, Chinatown remains one of the treasures of San Francisco.

b. changes from the past

A few changes are obvious. The neighborhood has expanded far beyond its original boundaries; storefronts have been greatly modernized; and many fast-food outlets and non-Chinese-owned camera shops and other tourist shops can be seen along Grant Avenue, the main street. But behind the facade of calmness, as a result of immigration reforms and a new generation of aggressive community leaders, the "golden ghetto" is going through some big changes.

Due to its historical role as the capital city of all overseas Chinese, it became a magnet for the flood of new immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan that began in 1965, when the quota for China-born immigrants was raised from 105 to 20,000. The flood rose to new levels in 1979, when Vietnam allowed ethnic Chinese to leave as refugees, and in 1982, when Taiwan-born were given a separate quota of 20,000. In 1990, the quota of Hong Kong-born was raised from 600 to 5,000 annually.

Until the 1960s, Chinatown had been in decline; the downtown was expanding and there wasn't a heavy influx of immigrants. Chinatown started losing ground to tourism and hotel and office development. Then with the new influx of immigrants starting in 1965, there was a move to revert back to, and strengthen, Chinatown's original purpose, which was to serve the Chinese population who lived there.

Starting in the late 1960s, many community-based organizations sprang up to help immigrants join the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. Among them was the Chinese Newcomers Service Center, founded in 1969, which provides free assistance in everything from translation services to job training. The center discovered that many ethnic Chinese immigrants who could not find housing in Chinatown still managed to make use of the neighborhood by opening shops and restaurants there. With the new rush of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco, the businesses in Chinatown began to flourish more than ever.

c. foreign investment

While most of Chinatown continues to be owned by American-born Chinese, an increasing number of businesses are backed by foreign capital. Because many of the businesses are owned by partnerships or are part of larger corporations, it is very hard to determine the amount of foreign investment in Chinatown.

The line between foreign and non-foreign investment becomes blurred when, as frequently happens, the children of a Hong Kong or Taiwan-based family attend college in the U.S., become permanent residents, then take over a family-owned business in Chinatown. One example is San Francisco's largest Chinese restaurant, the 1,200-seat Ocean City, which was built in 1985 by a family that owned the largest restaurant in Asia.

The overseas investors brought the Hong Kong way of making a business work -- high risk, high gain, and innovation. Businesses became bigger and more attractive with the greater access to capital.

d. changes in business practices

While most ethnic Chinese immigrants still arrive in the U.S. with little or no wealth, a considerable number of them today are affluent, and can start their own businesses immediately.

In the old days, people opened little "Mom and Pop" stores, restaurants and other small businesses so that they could earn enough open to raise a family. The owners knew every Chinese family in town. Today, customer relationships are very different. Chinatown adopted the Hong Kong pattern of shopping malls, in which merchants rent a tiny space with a counter, rather than an entire store. Today, the 18 square blocks of central Chinatown contain about 1,200 businesses.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates Chinatown's new prosperity than the skyrocketing rent increases of storefronts. A store on Grant Avenue that rented for $25 a month in 1909 might cost over $2500 today. Many stores that were local landmarks for 30 or 40 years have been forced out of business, to be replaced by souvenir shops. Yet the essential services for the community, such as groceries, herb shops, hairdressers, bookstores and pharmacies, have managed to survive.

e. Chinatown Plan of 1990

Under San Francisco's Chinatown Plan, passed in 1990, the area's zoning laws were changed for the first time in 16 years. In most of the neighborhood, only the first floor may contain businesses; the rest must be given to housing. The plan also imposes a strict height limit to maximize sunlight and prevent traffic congestion. Despite these restrictions, real estate prices have continued to escalate.

The Chinatown Plan was written so that the area could retain its triple role as a residential neighborhood, a thriving commercial center, and a leading tourist attraction. Since the Plan went into effect, Chinatown has gotten numerous new buildings where seniors can live affordably. The neighborhood even got a new park at Powell Street and Pacific Avenue, the first one in 25 years.

f. historic buildings

Most buildings in central Chinatown are protected from demolition because of their historic value. It is very hard to get permission from the city's Landmarks Board to demolish any of them and replace them with more modern buildings. Chinatown is considered a historic district, which means that its architecture must be preserved, except in cases in which buildings are judged to have no historic or esthetic value.

The city government cannot control which types of businesses occupy the buildings. But the government recognizes the long-term advantage of having a neighborhood that retains its old, historic image. When visitors come to Chinatown, they see that the neighborhood has been preserved -- not necessarily as a museum, because businesses change, but in the architecture that is a part of old San Francisco.

g. beyond Chinatown

China has stretched far beyond its original boundaries, especially on the west, going toward Van Ness Avenue. To the south, it runs comes up against the expensive Union Square area of tourist shops, hotels and theaters, and in the north, it has expanded slightly into the Italian neighborhood of North Beach. In the east, it can't expand into the skyscraper-dominated section of downtown. But in the west, a mainly residential neighborhood, it has expanded many blocks below its original boundary of Powell Street.

Chinese now form a majority in the Richmond District, one of San Francisco's choicest residential areas for families. It is sometimes called "New Chinatown."

The 10-county San Francisco Bay Area, with a population of more than 6 million, draws about one-fourth of the nation's Asian immigrants. It is the area of greatest secondary migration -- where immigrants come to live and work after they have entered the U.S. and want to live somewhere else.

h. other Chinatowns

Today, the public image of Chinese American culture is much less sensationalistic than in the past, but tourism continues to be an important part of life in many Chinatowns. The perception of a Chinatown as a foreign colony within an American city remains even today.

Though most Chinese Americans now live outside of Chinatowns, many still participate in Chinatown organizations as a means of strengthening the fabric of community life.

According to some sources, New York City's Chinatown is now bigger than the one in San Francisco, but there is disagreement about this. These two Chinatowns are still the largest ones in the world outside of Asia.

But Chinese are a much larger percentage of the population in San Francisco than New York, and their political and cultural influence on the city is much stronger here. Almost one-third of San Francisco's 800,000 people are Asian or Asian American, and most of them are Chinese.

Chinese Americans have become an important force in San Francisco politics, being elected to every office except for mayor. San Francisco was the first major city in the U.S. mainland to have a Chinese American police chief (Fred Lau, under former Mayor Willie Brown) and now has the nation's first female police chief (Heather Fong), who is also Chinese American.


4. history of Cameron House

a. beginning

Cameron House was founded in 1874 by the Presbyterian Church, and has always remained a faith-based organization.

Its purpose in the beginning was to provide support to Asian women and their families. At first it was called the Occidental Mission Home for Girls; it didn't get the name Cameron House until much later. It intervened on behalf of young, Asian, immigrant females (some younger than 10 years old) who had been smuggled into the U.S. to get around the immigration laws that excluded them. Some of them had been sold by their own impoverished families in China due to necessity, so that the rest of the family could survive.

These women and girls were forced to live as slaves. They were bought and sold as property in a system that became known as the "yellow slave trade." Fake "contracts" were created to enforce this system of slavery. The contracts required the women to pay impossibly large amounts of money to buy their own freedom. Thousands of Asian immigrant women died in enslaved conditions in San Francisco.

b. Donaldina Cameron

In 1895, when the Occidental Mission Home for Girls was run by Maggie Culbertson, a young California woman named Donaldina Cameron came there as a sewing teacher. Shortly after Donaldina's arrival, Miss Culbertson died. Donaldina became the new director at the age of 25. She kept the position for 47 years, until retiring in 1942.

Donaldina Cameron never married, but dedicated her life to being a missionary, assisting Asian women who were victimized by violence and racial discrimination. She is credited with saving more than 3,000 women and children during her time at the mission. To those she rescued, she was known as White Angel and "Lo Mo," which means "old mother." The slave dealers called her "White Devil."

Her rescues often consisted of Donaldina and a companion walking right past Chinese guards and escorting the girls back to the mission. The guards were sometimes so surprised at the sight of a white woman in the Chinese ghetto that they turned and ran. She was never attacked or injured during a rescue. Once back at the mission, Donaldina and the other missionaries helped to give the girls a better life. They were given an education and eventually helped to find appropriate marriages.

Donaldina Cameron lived to be almost 100 years old. She died in 1968. In honor of her long service, the organization was renamed for her.

c. changes at Cameron House

In 1947, five years after Donaldina retired, Cameron House responded to the increase in Chinatown' young people by starting a youth program. That same year, Cameron House purchased property in Muir Woods in Marin County, which became a popular place for its youth to go in the summer. The National Park Service took over the property by eminent domain in 1977, but Cameron House still has permission to use the property. It is called Lo Mo Lodge in memory of Donaldina Cameron.

The current Cameron House building opened in 1907, rising from the rubble of the 1906 earthquake. The building was damaged by the 1989 earthquake, and was closed from 1999 to 2002 so that it could be reinforced to withstand another quake. The renovation cost almost $3 million, which was raised from the community.

Cameron House's services have evolved over the years. Today it is a comprehensive family service organization serving primarily low-income Asian American families. One of its main missions is curbing domestic violence by helping victims with services ranging from shelter to legal assistance. The historic building has been home to dozens of community programs, with an emphasis on youth, elderly, and immigrants. It continues to change as Chinatown changes, but has never abandoned its mission of helping Chinese Americans make the most of their talents and enter the American mainstream.